Snubbed by BYU in 2016, Virginia’s Robert Anae returns with the No. 4 offense in the country
Cavaliers will bring explosive attack to Provo on Saturday, led by lefty QB Brennan Armstrong and several talented receivers and running backs
Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall obviously doesn’t have anything to prove when he brings the Cavaliers to Provo on Saturday to face a BYU football program that he guided for 11 seasons and produced 99 wins and 11 bowl appearances.
Cougars on the air
at BYU (6-2)
Saturday, 8:15 p.m. MDT
At LaVell Edwards Stadium, Provo
Radio: KSL 1160 AM/102.7 FM
But his offensive coordinator probably feels like he does.
That would be Robert Anae, the former Cougars offensive lineman who was Mendenhall’s OC for two stints in Provo. Anae believed he should have been tabbed to replace Bronco after his departure in 2015, but athletic director Tom Holmoe instead went a different direction.
The job went to Kalani Sitake, who has actually been more successful at BYU in terms of wins and losses than Mendenhall has been in Charlottesville, albeit against a lesser string of opponents overall. Sitake is 44-28 at BYU; Mendenhall is 36-34 at Virginia.
Kickoff is at 8:15 p.m. MDT Saturday, and the game will be televised nationally by ESPN2.
“He is an OG in this game. I am just a little bubble gum guy, trying to come up and trying to be like him. In the Polynesian culture, and the community, we all look up to those guys who have been in the game for this long. That’s how I feel about Robert Anae.” — BYU defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki
Anae was not made available to non-local media this week, but clearly he has an ax to grind against the school he played at for four years (1981-84) and coached at for 11 — first as a graduate assistant in 1990-91, then as offensive coordinator from 2005-10 and again from 2013-15.
And he’s bringing an offense that is sharp enough to get it done.
Led by sensational junior left-hander Brennan Armstrong, easily the best quarterback the Cougars will face this season, Virginia is at or near the top of many offensive categories in the country.
“Yeah, they are really good,” BYU defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki said Tuesday. “They are obviously well-coached, have a lot of good players. Robert Anae has done an awesome job with them. With where they are at, the type of stats they are putting up, the amount of points they are putting up, it is a really, really tough offense to prepare for. We have our work cut out for us.”
Quarterbacks coach Jason Beck, running backs coach Mark Atuaia and offensive line coach Garett Tujague followed Mendenhall, and Anae, to Virginia and are still there and still valued members of the staff, Mendenhall said Monday when he spoke for a half-hour with Virginia and Utah media.
“I invited 14 families, or people, and all 14 accepted,” Mendenhall said. “At that time we had the most little kids in college football. So it was the giant reverse Lewis & Clark migration.”
“I am thankful they all came,” Mendenhall continued. “These are my friends. And I think that is pretty rare in college football, that you get to work with people you are friends with. I consider myself lucky.”
Virginia is No. 4 in total offense, averaging 539.9 yards per game. It is No. 1 in first downs (27.6 per game), No. 2 in passing offense (404.6 ypg.) and No. 16 in scoring offense (37.6 points per game).
“Their offense is really effective,” said BYU defensive end Pepe Tanuvasa, the Navy transfer. “I don’t remember the stats they put up last week, but it was an insane number of yards. … It is something you dream about as a kid, facing an offense like this. These are the games that you want to play the most.”
Armstrong, who originally committed to Minnesota out of high school in Shelby, Ohio, was seen as a major recruiting coup for Mendenhall and Anae when he signed in 2018, and he has delivered on that promise. The dual-threat quarterback leads the country in passing yards, having completed 64.2% of his throws for 3,220 yards and 23 TDs.
“I can’t think of anybody off the top of my head,” Tuiaki said when asked if Armstrong reminds him of any other QBs BYU has faced recently. “He’s really good. He is really efficient. He’s got a phenomenal arm. He does things with his legs. I don’t want to disservice him by comparing him to somebody that would take away from his talent. He’s a very talented person.”
Armstrong is No. 2 in passing yards per game (402.5), No. 5 in passing TDs and No. 2 in total offense (424.6) with a passer efficiency rating of 154.1.
“We have a big challenge in front of us,” BYU nickel back Jacob Boren said. “They have some really good wide receivers, especially. So this week we really need to be dialed in with our technique and our coverages. Practices are really important.”
One of those great receivers is Dontayvion Wicks, who has 38 receptions for 847 yards and eight TDs. He’s No. 10 in the country in receiving yards per game. Running back Wayne Taulapapa, a one-time BYU recruit, is averaging 5.1 yards per carry.
“Very explosive team, especially on the offensive side,” Sitake said. “They lead or they are in the top of a bunch of categories offensively in college football. And they are well-coached.”
Tuiaki and Sitake are familiar with Anae’s offenses, having faced them several times when they were at Utah and Anae was at BYU. In fact, Tuiaki speaks of Anae in reverential tones.
“He is an OG in this game,” Tuiaki said. “I am just a little bubble gum guy, trying to come up and trying to be like him. In the Polynesian culture, and the community, we all look up to those guys who have been in the game for this long. That’s how I feel about Robert Anae.”
Anae was a member of BYU’s 1984 national championship team. He was somewhat of an enigma in Provo in his second stint, installing an uptempo offense he called “Go Hard, Go Fast” and bringing in Tujague to instill more toughness to the offensive line. Some of his interactions with the media were friendly and amiable; other times he was critical and caustic.
So when it came time to pick Mendenhall’s replacement, he was never seriously considered. Navy’s Ken Niumatalolo, Sitake, Stanford defensive coordinator Lance Anderson and NFL offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell (now with Jacksonville) were the top names that surfaced.
But now he’s back — at least for the weekend.
“Looking at what coach Anae has done with that offense, they are at the top. They score a lot of points They get a lot of yards. They are very difficult to defend. They use so many different guys in so many different ways,” Sitake said. “He has evolved that he now uses so many guys. He has always done that, but yeah, they are spreading the ball all over the place, man.”