7 burning questions as BYU football prepares for Virginia

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Cougar fans don’t know whether they should rejoice or be discouraged after BYU held on to beat Houston 33-25 last Thursday night. Did the Cougars let a bad team sneak up on them, or did they dominate and then hold off a formidable opponent? How should they feel heading into this week’s game against Virgina? Using a complex system, author Alex Clark came up with a highly scientific method of unraveling BYU football’s unknowns in its current state. That is, he basically made up some random questions and then answered them below.

1. After teetering on the edge of blowing out Houston, how concerned should BYU be about allowing that second-half comeback?

Mitch Matthews and the Cougars started hot and fought off a fierce Houston comeback. (Photo by Elliott Miller)
Mitch Matthews and the Cougars started hot and fought off a fierce Houston comeback. (Photo by Elliott Miller)

It’s hard to imagine a worse possible start for Houston, which was so bad that it ultimately cost the team the game. Houston’s opening three drives netted a combined 10 plays that resulted in two punts and a safety. The team was down 16-0 before John O’Korn and the offense were able to really get going, and that drive ended with a field goal attempt that traveled about a foot off of the ground before hitting the long snapper in the back. That play was a metaphor for how the game’s first quarter went.

Give BYU credit: it took full advantage of the sloppy play, sustained long scoring drives and rode a wave of momentum to a 23-0 second-quarter lead. But that’s when things started to break down.

Back-to-back turnovers in the final three minutes of the first half gave Houston new life. The first was the result of a tipped Taysom Hill pass that was picked off at the defensive line, resulting in Houston’s first touchdown. The second turnover consisted of Houston safety Adrian McDonald stripping the ball from receiver Mitch Juergens, recovering it and then racing back to the Houston 45 yard line with three seconds left in the half. That led to this insane play, which made it a 23-15 game:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jTTCjCBMliM&start=0mins53secs&w=450]

The sudden rejuvenation wasn’t so much the result of a poor BYU performance as it was Houston’s offense finding some rhythm as its defense forced turnovers. Houston led the nation in turnover margin in 2013 and has continued that trend as third overall in turnovers forced this year. Two interceptions, a fumble recovery and a failed fake punt on BYU’s part were the exact conditions Houston needed to claw back into the game.

“We knew that they were a good team coming into the game,” safety Craig Bills said. “When we went up 23-0, we weren’t coasting, (but) we shot ourselves in the foot a couple times, and there were some assignment mistakes and penalties. They were a good team, and we knew we were going to have to battle from beginning to end.”

Meanwhile, quarterback John O’Korn and the Houston offense responded to BYU’s blitz-happy defense basically by saying, “Alright, you keep sending linebackers and safeties at us, we’ll just turn this into a ‘Madden’ game’ and throw the ball 53 times.” BYU’s secondary was subsequently burned for 315 yards passing yards and three touchdowns as a thriving O’Korn quickly got the ball out of his hand, scrambled away from pressure, bought time for his receivers and then hit them downfield. After the game, Coach Bronco Mendenhall expressed surprise at not being “able to get more pressure and sack O’Korn more than we did.”

The good news for BYU is that it won’t be seeing another John O’Korn-Deontay Greenberry-caliber passing attack until week 14 at Cal and maybe general conference weekend, when Chuckie Keeton and the Utah State Aggies roll into town. The Cougars have enough time to work out their schemes and tighten up their pass defense by those games.

2. Is it just me, or does BYU get flagged for a ton of penalties, especially on big offensive plays. What’s the penalty count so far?

Through its first three games, BYU has been penalized 32 times for 288 yards.

3. Wow, isn’t that an abnormally high amount of penalties?

That is a lot of penalties! In fact, it’s the most in the country. BYU currently ranks first out of all FBS schools for most penalties this season, and the 288 yards of penalties they’ve managed to rack up also is the rock-bottom worst in the nation. But hey, they’re only the fourth worst in the penalty yards per-game category. Progress!

4. Why are so many penalty flags being thrown? Is this BYU team simply undisciplined?

BYU’s offense has been flagged 14 times this year with the majority of infractions coming at the line of scrimmage. The offensive line isn’t so much to blame, as is the nature of BYU’s “Go-hard! Go-fast!” spread offense. Taysom Hill’s mobility allows him to leave the pocket, scramble around, reverse the field and otherwise extend the play, but it also at times can be a burden to his blockers who have to protect for six to eight seconds or longer. The more Hill leaves the pocket on passing plays, the greater the chances a blocker will be in a position to hold a defender. Hill’s athletic ability is the focus and strength of BYU’s offense, but it comes with its drawbacks.

Also a contributing factor to the offense’s penalties is the amount of “run/pass option” plays the Cougars run. A run/pass option is a play designed exactly the way it sounds-the quarterback has the choice of either handing the ball off, taking it himself or throwing the ball, according to what the defense shows him. The hitch is that the linemen have no idea what the quarterback wants to do with the ball, so they’re essentially forced to block the play according to the “run” version. It’s an easy call for an official to make when the ball is thrown downfield and he sees linemen already blocking defenders.  This happened twice last Thursday, and Mendenhall admitted afterward that it was the result of failed run/pass option plays.

“I was discouraged a little bit (against Houston) that we weren’t cleaner in critical times,” Mendenhall said. “We have to work on it.”

5. Has BYU safety Craig Bills officially reached the “Andrew Rich zone” of upper-echelon BYU safeties?

If not, he’s definitely getting there. If you need a reminder, Andrew Rich was one of the Cougar’s best all time free safeties, not only for his coverage abilities but also because of his tendency of clobbering ball carriers. Bills has also embodied the complete free safety package this season as evidenced by his interception at UConn and devastating blows to Deontay Greenberry last Thursday. Though it’s statistically difficult to measure a “big hit” in a game, the resulting impact it has in altering momentum is pretty well accepted.

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6. BYU will be wearing “all white” jerseys against Virginia. Has this ever been done before during a home game?

The Cougars will don their all-white jerseys this week versus Virginia. (Photo by Mark Philbrick/BYU Photo)
The Cougars will don their all-white jerseys this week versus Virginia. (Photo by Mark Philbrick/BYU Photo)

This will be the first time the Cougars take the field at LaVell Edwards Stadium in anything but their home blue (or sometimes black) jerseys, although they have gone with the white-on-white “storm trooper” look on the road quite often as of late. BYU has a 4-6 record when playing in the all-white uniforms, including last year’s loss at Virginia.

7. At 2-1 and a win over Louisville, is Virginia actually good?

Virginia comes into Saturday’s game well accustomed to playing schools in the top 25. In fact, this weekend will be their second straight game going against the AP No. 21 team. Last week, they upset Louisville on a late 42-yard field goal for their first win over an FBS school since…drum roll…when they beat BYU 16-19 last year.

Virginia also looked impressive in their opening week loss to UCLA, who needed three defensive touchdowns to leave Charlottesville with a win. Though their offense may not be causing anyone to lose sleep at night, the Cavaliers will come into Provo boasting the nations top turnover-forcing defense with 13 in three games.

“They have a good defense,” Craig Bills said. “I’m looking forward to the game, last year was a tough way to start the season. I’m excited to play them.”

Mendenhall noted that his offensive line’s protection against Houston “didn’t hold as well as I would have liked to see.” They’ll need to have a better performance this week against a much scarier Virginia front seven if Hill is to have any success throwing the ball. Look for Hill and Jamaal Williams to carry the ball on designed runs early on in the game to try to offset Virginia’s pressure.

A lot has changed since BYU stalled in Charlottesville last year. There will be no lightning delay, no monsoon-like playing conditions, and two highly improved football teams.

But which one has made the most improvement? Now that’s a good question.

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