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Is BYU equipped for a shootout with Virginia?

The Cougars’ offense isn’t nearly as prolific as the Cavaliers’ this year, but looks can be deceiving.

Virginia quarterback Brennan Armstrong passes during game against Miami, Thursday, Sept. 30, 2021, in Miami Gardens, Fla.
Virginia quarterback Brennan Armstrong passes during game against Miami, Thursday, Sept. 30, 2021, in Miami Gardens, Fla. Armstrong directs an attack that is No. 4 in total offense, No. 1 in first downs per game (27.6), No. 2 is passing offense (404.6 ypg.) and No. 16 in scoring offense (37.6 ppg.) in the country.
Lynne Sladky, Associated Press

After his Virginia Cavaliers defeated Georgia Tech 48-40 last week in Charlottesville, former BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall was asked if he would rather win games by scores such as that, or something like 13-7.

“I would rather win 13-6, actually,” said Mendenhall, ever the defensive Grinch.

Current BYU coach Kalani Sitake would probably prefer a low-scoring game as well on Saturday when Mendenhall returns to Provo for the first time since departing at the end of the 2015 season, seeing as how the Robert Anae-coordinated Virginia offense is one of the most prolific attacks in the country.

At first glance, it appears that the No. 25 Cougars (6-2) will have a hard time keeping up with the 6-2 Cavaliers at 8:15 p.m. Saturday at LaVell Edwards Stadium. After all, Virginia is No. 4 in total offense, No. 1 in first downs per game (27.6), No. 2 is passing offense (404.6 ypg.) and No. 16 in scoring offense (37.6 ppg.) in the country.

BYU’s offensive numbers pale in comparison.

A shootout seemingly favors the Hoos, who rarely flinch when they have the ball. If Virginia has a weakness on offense, it is red-zone efficiency, where Anae’s group ranks a mediocre 57th in the country (86.4%).

By comparison, BYU’s offense — just so-so in many statistical categories for reasons we will get into later — is tied for 15th in the country with Alabama in red-zone efficiency at 92.9%, having scored on 26 of its 28 red-zone attempts: 21 touchdowns and five field goals.

Are the Cougars equipped to go toe-to-toe with Virginia’s offense and one of the country’s top quarterbacks, Brennan Armstrong?

“Absolutely,” said his counterpart from BYU, redshirt sophomore Jaren Hall, on Monday. “You look at our roster, top to bottom, and we have (the weapons). We are set to do something like that. Now we just gotta go out and do it.”

Added BYU offensive lineman Joe Tukuafu, when posed the same question on Wednesday: “Most definitely. The offense’s goal is to put points on the board every opportunity we have to do so, and I really believe we are equipped. We have a strong run game. We can also air it out. We have a great receiving corps and great tight ends that can catch the ball. And we have a great quarterback.”

BYU’s offense is a bit banged up, as most are in late October. Receiver Gunner Romney and center James Empey left the 21-19 win over Wazzu last Saturday with serious-looking injuries; Starting right tackle Harris LaChance hasn’t played since the South Florida game on Sept. 25. Their status is unclear.

“The honest answer is there are a couple of guys in question that are trying to work their way back and we are not sure yet who is going to be ready or not,” BYU offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick said Wednesday.

Roderick has spent more than a month, usually on a weekly basis, telling BYU fans and reporters to not fret over the offense’s rather pedestrian numbers. In five of their eight games, the Cougars have secured wins in the fourth quarter by using Tyler Allgeier and a clock-eating running game to protect leads.

“We have won games in various ways this year,” Roderick said. “One of the strengths of our offense is that we feel we can play in any style of ball game. If we need to grind out four or five minutes off the clock running the ball, we can do that. If we need to go fast and throw it down the field we feel like we can do that as well. So, we will be ready for any type of game.”

It tends to take opponents a long time and/or a lot of plays to score against BYU’s defense, which obviously keep the ball out of Hall and company’s hands, Roderick noted.

“We’ve got to work together as a team to beat Virginia,” Roderick said. “It is not our offense against their defense. It is all three phases working together trying to get one more point than they do.”

Speaking of Virginia’s defense, which is co-coordinated by former Cougars linebacker and linebackers coach Kelly Poppinga and former BYU defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach Nick Howell, it hasn’t been all that stout this season, either.

The Cavs are 73rd in scoring defense (26.4 ppg.) and 105th in total defense (432.8 ypg.) while facing William & Mary, Illinois, North Carolina, Wake Forest, Miami, Louisville, Duke and Georgia Tech. They gave up 59 points to UNC and 37 to now No. 13 Wake Forest and Howell’s guys have been susceptible to the run, ranking 113th in rushing defense. They are tied for 109th in sacks, with 12 in eight games. Former BYU linebacker Shane Hunter is the Cavs’ safeties coach.

Miami running back Cam’Ron Harris is tackled by Virginia linebacker Nick Jackson during game, Thursday, Sept. 30, 2021, in Miami Gardens, Fla. Jackson is arguably Virginia’s best defender, with 70 tackles and a sack.
Lynne Sladky, Associated Press

“They are a big team (on defense),” Roderick said. “They are long-levered. They are big at every position — tall, athletic guys. The secondary guys are all 6-1 to 6-2 or 6-3. They got a linebacker who is 6-5, an outside linebacker. The defensive linemen are big. It is a good-sized team,” Roderick said.

Junior linebacker Nick Jackson is arguably Virginia’s best defender, with 70 tackles and a sack.

Roderick said he matched wits with Howell and Poppinga when he was an offensive coordinator at Utah and they were coaching in Provo.

“Their defenses play really hard. They fly around, they are tough, and I don’t know a ton about their program, but I have a feeling it is a program that has a lot in common with us — smart, tough guys,” he said.