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Pick Six Previews: BYU to capitalize on statistically weak Stanford defense


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PROVO — BYU clinched bowl eligibility on Saturday with a 52-26 win over in-state FCS opponent Utah Tech.

It was the final home game of the 2022 season and served as senior night for 13 seniors and another 20+ fourth- or fifth-year players who will have a choice to make in the offseason.

One of those with an uncertain 2023 future is star quarterback Jaren Hall who thrived in the vertical pass game and ended up posting a career-high 456 passing yards. Hall tossed five touchdowns, ran for another, and helped BYU keep pace with Utah Tech's fast start.

The Trailblazers led at three different times in the first half, including a 20-14 lead with five minutes left in the second quarter, but Hall hit Keanu Hill on a 45-yard deep touchdown, and then again for a 4-yard touchdown in the final seconds.

Hill's three touchdown receptions were the storyline of the first half, and the defense took over in the second half. BYU forced six straight Utah Tech punts — including four three-and-outs series — to ensure the bowl-clinching victory.

The Cougars travel to Palo Alto, California, to close out the 2022 regular season with another Pac-12 test. BYU went 5-0 against the Pac-12 last season but fell to Oregon in September; they're currently just 1-3 against Power Five opponents in 2022. BYU has a chance to build more momentum into bowl season here against a 3-8 Stanford team (9 p.m. MST, FS1).

Game Grader

(Opponent-adjusted statistical dominance via Pick Six Previews)

3-year average 2019-21: BYU 61.0 (16th of 66 Power Five) | Stanford 37.9 (54th)
2021 season: BYU 58.1 (24th) | Stanford 26.8 (60th)
2022 season: BYU 46.1 (47th) | Stanford 28.5 (60th)

BYU reached as high as No. 10 in 2022 Game Grader, but the four-game losing streak sank them down to well below average. BYU's 46.1 grade is currently the program's lowest since 2017.

Stanford was a consistent Top 10 team for most of the 2010 decade and won multiple Pac-12 titles. The program has completely fallen off, is back to its losing pattern pre-Jim Harbaugh, and is just No. 54 (of 66) over the past three seasons. The past two seasons are even worse — both the 2021 and 2022 teams ranked No. 60.

Once a West Coast powerhouse, Stanford is just 3-15 against the Pac-12 over the past two seasons.

Stanford with the ball

(Opponent-adjusted, per-play rankings via Pick Six Previews)

Stanford Offense: 63rd of 66 Power Five
BYU defense: 50th of 66 Power Five

The key element of that Stanford run of dominance was its strength on the lines of scrimmage. Their powerful offensive line paved the way for a physical, ball-control rushing attack, while the defensive front seven was fundamentally sound and swarmed to the ball.

If that 3-15 league record wasn't staggering enough, consider that Stanford's former identity as a "run the ball, stop the run" program is completely wiped away. Comparing rushing offense and rushing defense, Stanford had the worst rushing yard per carry differential in America last year — 130th of 130 FBS teams.

Those struggles have continued into 2022 and Stanford currently has the league's worst rushing defense (5.9 yards per carry) and second-worst rushing offense (3.4 yards per carry). Quarterback Tanner McKee has flashed some good moments over his years as the starter, but from a season-wide scope, Stanford is second-worst in overall passing in the all-encompassing QB rating.

These weaknesses play into BYU's relative weakness on defense: the pass game. BYU enters Saturday's game with the 111th rated pass defense in opponent QB rating. After head coach Kalani Sitake took over control of the defense, there has been a slight statistical improvement.

BYU with the ball

(Opponent-adjusted, per-play rankings via Pick Six Previews)

BYU offense: 19th of 66 Power Five
Stanford defense: 60th of 66 Power Five

This side of the ball is the bigger mismatch.

BYU's best strength is its pass game with Hall ranked in the Top 10 in QB rating. He is throwing to arguably the deepest receiver corps in school history, with a big three of Hill, Chase Roberts, and Puka Nacua. Even the tight ends get involved — Isaac Rex caught four balls Saturday for 60 yards and a score.

Lopini Katoa fumbled on his first carry and was promptly subbed out for Hinckley Ropati, who shined and threw his name into the 2023 running back competition. Christopher Brooks remains the top back and will go against a familiar rival. The former Cal running back had his best game of 2021 against Stanford, rushing for 131 yards.

I expect BYU to be able to establish the run game on the Pac-12's worst rushing defense. After success on the ground, Hall will hit on chunk plays downfield and wide-open play-action balls.

Stanford's defensive stats look bad in total, but even when accounting for opponent strength they are far below average. They currently rank 60th of 66 teams in Pick Six Previews' opponent-adjusted percentiles; and nine of 10 FBS opponents posted offensive performances above their season averages.

Game prediction

Look for BYU to capitalize on a statistically weak Stanford defense. Hall will hit for over 250 yards passing, the BYU rushing attack will have one of its best rushing outputs, and the BYU defense will tee off on a struggling Stanford offensive line.

BYU 30 | Stanford 20

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Pick Six PreviewsBYU CougarsSportsCollege
Brett Ciancia is the owner of Pick Six Previews, a college football preview magazine graded as the "Most Accurate Season Preview" since 2012 (via Stassen). Ciancia was named a Heisman Trophy voter in 2019 and was invited to the FWAA's All-America Team selection committee in 2020.

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