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PROVO — Last football season, BYU had three real disappointing games, and the season opener against Virginia was probably the hardest to deal with. The Cougars didn't play well during most of the game, but still had a good chance to win.
A late turnover changed the game to Virginia's favor and the Cavaliers won, 19-16. It was a tough pill to swallow for BYU. Virginia finished the season 2-10.
This year the Cavs come to Provo for their first road game of the season, and most of the players who played in last year's victory return. A total of 17 starters are back, including nine on defense.
I draw attention to the defensive personnel because that's the backbone of this Virginia squad. The secondary is quick and plays mostly man to man coverage. The defense has already recorded five interceptions in just three games.
A good pass rush has helped the secondary. The front seven get after the QB by usually rushing at least five players on every down. They use straight attack rushes and cross two or more players to confuse the blocking of the offense. This allows some players a straight shot at the quarterback or running back.
Virginia has forced 10 fumbles already this year and five of those are by the quarterback, and this is the No. 1 concern I have about this week's game. BYU will need to be good up front and reduce the charge of the defensive front.
BYU's offensive line has improved each week, and this will be a big test for it. I believe BYU will need to run the ball effectively to slow down the push of the Virginia defense. If BYU can run the ball for four or more yards or get a back to pop a big gain, the defense has to play more honest up front. The linebackers won't be able to rush as often and this will help the BYU pass game. It is a high-risk defense, but Virginia leads the nation in forced turnovers and have scored 44 of its 88 points this year after getting a takeaway. BYU has to make Virginia pay for the risks it is taking.
Virginia's first road trip is long one to high altitude. There is a belief by many that high altitude can cause fatigue. BYU wants to run 95 plays in a game. With the defense chasing quarterback Taysom Hill all night, and being forced to play an aggressive defense all night, BYU can wear down Virginia and take advantage of their fatigue.
Vince Lombardi once said, "fatigue makes cowards of us all."
It is important that the Cougars make first downs and keep drives going to make the Virginia defense play itself into being bushed. Watch to see when the defensive linemen start to huff and puff, walk around with their hands on their hips and generally shuffle off the field. It happened to Texas at Texas because of the heat and BYU exploited it. Keep the Cavs on the run and tire them out, then try to put them away on the scoreboard.
Virginia's offensive statistical numbers aren't great. Its rush offense is 93rd in the nation, pass offense is 96th and total offense is 105th. Defense is where it's at for the Cavs, being in the top 50 in total defense and scoring defense.
Turnovers are the story for Virginia. It is eighth in the nation in turnover margin, and the Cavs wins games by stopping teams with turnovers, getting a short field and scoring points off those turnovers.
Here's a news flash: Don't turnover the football.
It is always a major plus in a game for the BYU defense to get turnovers. It is just too easy to say win the turnover game, but BYU needs to be just as hawkish in taking away the ball from Virginia as Virginia is. Fans will see Virginia defenders batting at the ball all game, similar to the Houston defense.
Currently BYU has given up four fumbles and recovered four fumbles. BYU has thrown three interceptions and recorded two interceptions. However, in the Houston game, BYU gave up three turnovers to none gained, and that led to the close finish. If BYU plays cleanly with no turnovers, Virginia doesn't have enough offense to beat the Cougars.
BYU's confidence is climbing, parts of games have been very good for the Cougars. Handle the Virginia rush, give the Cavs long fields to drive and get some breaks with turnovers and BYU will be looking for its fifth win against Utah State.