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PROVO — No. 21 BYU continues to move up the polls despite an unconvincing defeat of Houston 33-25 last week and welcomes the last Power 5 opponent it will host.
Virginia comes to town in what will be one of the Cougars’ final opportunities at LaVell Edwards Stadium to showcase their ability for the selection committee that determines the college football playoffs and rotating at-large bowls — Cotton Bowl, Fiesta Bowl and Peach Bowl.
BYU’s looks to add to its 16 wins against Power 5 schools since 2003, the second-highest total only behind Navy among teams not belonging to one of the conferences included in the nomenclature.
Fresh off its first FBS victory since beating BYU in the 2013 opener, Virginia carries momentum into Provo following a 23-21 comeback home win over then-No.21 Louisville.
Setting the tone from the start is crucial to slowing a team competing for the ACC Coastal Division crown. Linebacker Zac Stout’s unhindered safety versus Houston did just that, and the Cougars’ 23-0 advantage made it look like they’d coast past the visitors before a troublesome final eight minutes ended the first half a one-possession game, 23-15.
The Cavaliers are riding high having finally snapped a poor streak against capable competition, and appear to be a Top 25 contender for also hanging with 12th-ranked UCLA in a 28-20 loss. Starting Virginia quarterback Grayson Lambert had to be replaced in the home defeat as his backup, Matt Johns, ignited a rally, but Lambert has shown poise during the Cavaliers’ two-game run of success that snapped a stretch of 10 straight losses.
One of those wins came against FCS school Richmond, and BYU has the privilege of being Virginia’s initial road challenge. Whether or not it’s at the beginning of the game, the Cougars need to dictate the tempo.
Cavaliers coach Mike London subscribes to the idea that the best way to shut down a quarterback is a strong pass rush. Taysom Hill, the three-time FBS Independent Offensive Player of the Week, was sacked four times by Houston. Virginia may bring even more pressure.
London loves his front seven and touts them as the best the school’s had in his five years. He isn’t without reason as his team is tied for third in the nation with 12 sacks.
Bronco Mendenhall said he wants to give Hill more time to look down field after Houston forced Hill and BYU to run much more than they passed. If the offensive line can hold up, the Cougars will likely try to stretch the field.
Virginia has forced an FBS-best 13 turnovers in three games. BYU has to be focused on minimizing mistakes that give the ball away, especially since Houston used three turnovers to score 15 of its points.
Thirteen different players have caught passes from Hill. If the Cougars can continue to spread the wealth in the passing game, it will go a long way in keeping the Cavaliers’ secondary back, setting up additional space for the No. 22 rushing game to thrive.
Though it hasn’t necessarily cost BYU yet, a number of big plays have allowed opponents to quickly get into the red zone and set up scoring opportunities, which was underscored by Houston’s last-second Hail Mary.
Virginia’s offense hasn’t necessarily been explosive, but since BYU gives up the third-fewest amount of rushing yards per game, the Cavaliers may grow impatient and try to pick up big chunks of ground through the air.