The 2-0 West Virginia Mountaineers face off against BYU this Saturday at FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland in the first ever meeting between the two schools.
Record: (1-2). BYU split close games with Arizona and Utah to open the year before losing 17-14 to UCLA last weekend. However, with their 2 losses coming by a combined 4 points they could very easily be 3-0.
HC: Kalani Sitake. 1st year head coach but has extensive coaching experience, most recently as a DC at Oregon State after filling the same role at Utah from 2009-2014.
OC: Ty Detmer. 1st year coaching at the college level after serving as HC of St Andrews Episcopal High school from 2011-2015. Runs a pro-style West Coast offense that mixes runs and short passes.
DC: Ilaisa Tuiaki. 1st year as a DC, but previously worked with Sitaki at both Oregon State and Utah. Runs a 4-3 base and favors a man coverage scheme on the outside.
OUR OFFENSE VS THEIR DEFENSE
Players to watch: LB Butch Pau’u, LB Fred Warner, LB Francis Bernard, DB Kai Nacua, DE/LB Harvey Langi
The strength of BYU’s football team is undoubtedly it’s opportunistic defense. The Cougars are somewhat better than average with regards to allowing yards and points, but they are especially great at forcing and taking advantage of mistakes. In general, their game plan is like a less-aggressive version of what we try and do to people: they may not blitz as much as we do, but they make you try to drive on them and are content to play the odds that something will go wrong at some point over the course of an extended possession, and to this point they’ve done a great job of capitalizing when it does, with their 9 turnovers forced, 6 interceptions, and plus-5 turnover margin all Top-10 in the country.
According to their coaching profile, Tuiaki likes to run a base 4-3 with man coverage on the outside, but the personnel carryover from their 3-4 years affords them a ton of versatility across the front 7 and they actually get really creative with their pre-snap looks. I watched the UCLA game and charted plays until about midway through the 3rd quarter, and to that point they had set up in a 3-4 more than they had in a traditional 4-3. They actually lined up in an odd stack more than either, and also had several plays where they only had 1 or 2 down linemen while a whole cast of characters rotated around behind them and tried to create confusion, so Skyler and Co will have to work hard to make sure they’re on the same page with their pre-snap reads this week.
Individually, they seem to have good talent and experience at most positions, but there were 4 or 5 guys that stood out to me as people we need to be especially aware of, starting with those 3 linebackers listed above. The most notable of those was Butch Pau’u, a sophomore who made about 40 tackles against UCLA (it was actually only 19). He has a great nose for the ball, and is the kind of guy who makes it fun to watch defense, so I’m really looking forward to seeing how well our trio of Bosch, Orlosky, and Pankey in the middle is able to handle him. If they’re able to get to the second level and reach him we could end up with some decent running room.
Next is the trio of Langi, Bernard, and Warner. These 3 are all extremely versatile and are capable of filling multiple roles, with Langi working as a stand-up end in most of their packages, Warner operating in a hybrid role similar to our Spur, and Bernard filling in the gaps between those 2 and Pau’u. This versatility is the key to what they do defensively. The ability to do a variety of things without changing personnel not only makes them difficult to game plan for, but also makes it tough for the QB in-game to figure out who might be blitzing and who might be dropping into what coverage. Bernard and Warner in particular have made a habit of popping up in places that QB’s don’t expect them to be this year and already have 3 interceptions between them.
Despite their scheme and versatility though, there are a couple of areas that I feel hold potential as places where we may be able to take advantage of them. One is in the running game. They have a solid, well-coached defense and the aforementioned Pau’u, but both Arizona and Utah were able to find some joy running against them and I don’t think either of them have an offensive line or backfield like ours. I like the match up of our Big 3 in the middle against their best guy in Pau’u, and if they’re able to at least mitigate his impact then it’ll only be a matter of time before the rest of the group wears down and we start gashing, especially as the game moves into the 3rd and 4th quarter.
The more important weakness, though, is in their secondary. They play a higher concentration of freshmen back there than they do anywhere else and they’re not overly athletic, so it’s not surprising that they look susceptible to the odd big play in the passing game. Fortunately for us, generating big plays in the passing game is one of our team’s strengths. Skyler Howard is tied for 3rd nationally with 6 explosive passes per game (same as Lamar Jackson) and I think our ability (or lack thereof) to hit a few is where the game will ultimately be won or lost. As we’ll discuss in a minute, BYU isn’t really a team that’s built to play from behind, so if we’re able to drop a couple of big plays on them, or even better, some quick, early scores, it’ll go a long way towards a favorable outcome for the Old Gold and Blue.
OUR DEFENSE VS THEIR OFFENSE
Players to watch: QB Taysom Hill, RB Jamaal Williams
As I just mentioned, BYU isn’t a team capable of jumping on anybody offensively, and is going through some growing pains under 1st year OC Ty Detmer. The Cougars are averaging just 17 points and 339 yards per game, good for 119th and 105th in the country respectively, and are also way below average when it comes to generating explosive plays, with just 2 explosive pass plays through 3 games (127th nationally) and an overall Big Play % of just 6.4%. Despite all that though, they do have one or two really good players that can hurt us if we let them.
The first and most important of those is QB Taysom Hill. In my Youngstown State recap, I mentioned that the two biggest weaknesses we’ve seen defensively through 2 games are a failure to get after/contain quarterbacks and soft coverage on underneath passing routes. Those are actually 2 things that BYU (and especially Hill) can take advantage of. Though Hill’s legs, already lessened through repeated injuries, have been even further marginalized by Detmer’s new offense, he can still make plays with them if given the opportunity. UCLA used an undersized linebacker as a spy on him, and the guy (#12 if you care to watch) made several great tackles in space to prevent some big gains. I’m not sure if we have that guy on our roster (maybe Preston or Long?), so we need to take extra care to stay disciplined with our pass rush in order to minimize the chances for Hill to break contain and pick up chunks of yards on the ground.
With regards to how we’ll handle Hill’s passing, I’m worried that the soft coverage we’ve shown through 2 games plays right into his hands. The lack of speed at receiver means BYU doesn’t go downfield that often, so I’m sure they’ll be happy to throw it underneath all game if that’s what we’re going to give them. I’m really hoping we see some more press coverage this week to take some of that stuff away, but if we don’t and continue to concede those short throws, we need to stay focused not only with regards to coming up and tackling well, but also with regards to not getting sucked in too far and allowing them to get something over the top. There’s no excuse for letting one of these receivers beat us, so hopefully our secondary comes out and takes care of business.
The other guy they have who might be able to cause us some problems is running back Jamaal Williams. Williams is a big back who runs hard and has a knack for finding space, but it doesn’t seem like he’s always put in the best spots to succeed. He was able to find some decent space when they ran him under center against UCLA, but unfortunately for him that only happened 4 times in the 32 plays I charted. One other thing I noticed is that their line doesn’t consistently get a great push, so hopefully we can get into their backfield and chop Williams down before he gets started and into our second level.
One final wrinkle is that if Hill and BYU are bad enough early they can always pull him and play Tanner Mangum. Mangum is a much better passer than Hill and will pose his own unique set of problems if he ends up playing, but we’ll cross that bridge when we get there.
Overall, I like the test BYU will provide for our defense, especially with regards to discipline. They don’t really do anything or have anyone that will blow us away, but they will force us to stay focused and execute. We can’t get frustrated and lose lane discipline chasing Hill, and we can’t get impatient with those short passes. All it takes is one guy trying to do too much for big plays to happen, but if everybody can just stay in their lane and execute, I think we’ll be fine.
There’s a lot to like about this match up as a West Virginia fan. BYU is coming off of three straight hard-fought games against P5 schools and has to travel West to East across 2 time zones, while WVU is coming off a bye and won’t even have to get on a plane.
Objectively you’d have to give the nod to the Mountaineers on the field, as well. We have more talent at the skill positions, more talent in the trenches, more depth on the bench, and more experience on the sidelines. That doesn’t necessarily mean that this will be an easy W though.
As an Independent, BYU is used to traveling around the country to play teams of all calibers, and they’ve built a reputation for being very competitive in those games. They have a style of play that makes them difficult to run away from and I expect them to come out ready to play, so we can’t afford to sleepwalk into the stadium again like we did against Youngstown.
Ultimately, I think it’ll be close for a quarter or two before we pull away in the 2nd half. BYU has been great at forcing turnovers so far this year, so I could see that possibly keeping it tight for a while longer, but I think our ability to hit big plays will eventually open a gap that the Cougars won’t be able to close. From there, it’s just a matter of leaning on the ground game to wear them out and finish them off. It’s a strategy that’s worked well through 2 games, no reason to change it now.
West Virginia 38 BYU 20