Ed. - The Badgers have a bit of an awkwardly scheduled non-conference game tucked into the 2nd week of November. Not only is the timing unique, but so is the opponent. Wisconsin has only played the Cougars once before, in 1980. To help us get a better feel for who the Cougars are - through a B1G lens - we've enlisted the help of Matt Brown, Managing Editor of Land Grant Holy Land and former editor of Vanquish the Foe. Given his unique perspective, we think he brings a one of a kind feel for the game.
If you’re a Wisconsin fan, you can be forgiven for not religiously (get it???) following BYU football. If you need a quick primer on what to expect, from the perspective of a Big Ten fan (I edit Land Grant Holy Land, one of the premier Ohio State websites), I’ve got you covered.
BYU ON OFFENSE
BYU’s motto on offense is to “go fast, go hard”. They’ve certainly gotten the “go fast” part down pat, as the Cougars lead the entire country in plays per game at 92.8. On the road, they’ve averaged a completely ridiculous 101 plays per game. Running all of those plays have helped BYU compile some impressive total offense numbers, as they’re 11th in the country in total yards (511.2).
What BYU isn’t, however, is particularly efficient. They’re only an average team with yards per play (5.5, or 64th nationwide), so they shouldn’t be confused with Oregon. The Cougars are particularly troublesome on third down, where they convert an abysmal 34.93% of the time, which is 92nd nationwide (worse than the explosive offense of say, Idaho, or New Mexico). BYU is less of a particularly explosive offense as it is an offense that is able to get okay results again and again and again, and has an excellent defense that’s able to stay on the field a little longer should the Cougars go three and out.
Teams don’t average more than 500 yards a game on accident though. The Cougars’ offense starts with their rushing game, which picks up 258.9 ypg, good for 13th, just a few spots behind Wisconsin, on 4.7 yards per carry. That formidable attack is led by explosive triggerman Taysom Hill, a lightning fast, 6-2 Sophomore out of Idaho. Hill leads the team with 841 rushing yards, good for 23rd in the country, and 2nd among QBs, behind NIU’s Jordan Lynch. You might remember Hill’s exploits against Texas, where he ran for a ridiculous 259 yards and 3 TDs, on national TV. Hill isn’t quite as explosive or elusive as Ohio State’s Braxton Miller, but he’s strong, very fast, and capable of making good defenders miss in the open field. He must be accounted for.
Hill is joined in the backfield by talented sophomore running back Jamaal Williams. Williams, who has been dinged up a little this year, still has 733 yards and 3 scores on 145 attempts. He went over 100 yards and 5 yards a carry against Boise State, and is shifty enough to be a dangerous read-option partner with Hill. The Cougars’ rushing attack hums when *both* players are a credible threat, and BYU will try to find creative ways to get both into space. BYU’s offensive line isn’t a strength, so trying to just blast over Wisconsin will probably not be so successful.
What about throwing the ball? The bad news for Wisconsin fans is that BYU has an absolute stud of a wideout in Cody Hoffman, who has 524 yards and 3 TDs so far. By just about any measure he’s the best wide receiver in BYU history, and the 6’4 Hoffman has both great hands, and excellent awareness in space. Hoffman would easily start for any Big Ten school, even Ohio State, and if he hadn’t been dinged for a few games early, and had a more consistent quarterback, he could be in the running for All American honors. The other options (Mitch Mathews, Skyler Ridley and Ross Apo) are more than competent, especially Mathews, but won’t wow you with their athleticism.
The problem comes from Hill, who, while drastically improving, still isn’t a complete QB yet. BYU is near the bottom of the country in team passing completion percentage at 52.5% (108th), and is only average at yards per attempt (7.3, 62nd). Hill has been excellent over his last three games, exceeding 65% on his throws against Georgia Tech, at Houston and against Bose State, with a 8-3 TD to INT ratio. That’s a good counterbalance against his first three games, where he failed to complete more than 37% of his passes, and tossed 3 picks to only 1 TD (if you’re looking for how BYU managed to lose to UVA to start the season, that’s a good place to start). An efficient Hill makes the uptempo BYU offense hard to stop, and he’s playing his best football of the season right now, but Hill can also make awkward throws and poor decisions. Right now, he’s a lot like Taylor Martinez. A good Martinez is absolutely good enough to beat a great football team…but he’s also capable of making some really dumb mistakes.
BYU ON DEFENSE
You probably already know about BYU linebacker Kyle Van Noy. You should, because he’s a complete monster, a future NFL player, and single handedly capable of changing this game. Van Noy has 3 sacks, a defensive TD, and 40 tackles this season, but most importantly, will command extra attention from the offense that can free up his teammates to wreck havoc on offenses. Van Noy is fast, strong, and tackles well in space, things that are critical if you want to slow down Melvin Gordon and James White.
BYU’s team defensive numbers are strong in a lot of areas. They limit teams to 4.8 yards per play (17th nationwide), limit teams to only a 34.68% third down version percentage (29th nationwide) and finish strong, only allowing 8.6 points per game in the second half. Most importantly for BYU, they limit teams to only 3.7 rushing yards per play (31st in the country), and that’s after playing Georgia Tech, which does nothing BUT run. BYU’s front seven is physical and smart, and while they probably won’t be able to completely shut down Wisconsin’s dynamic rushing attack, they have a good chance of at least slowing it a little.
The weakness, if there is one for BYU, is their pass defense. BYU holds opposing QBs to a relatively solid 55.77% completion percentage (31st nationwide) and a 116.4 passer rating (25th). Their pass rush isn’t great (only 1.8 sacks per game, 77th), and they do give up an average of 236 yards per game through the air (66th). BYU had some injury problems in the secondary to start the season, and they can be beaten in man coverage. Jared Abbrederis will need to have a big day to help keep some of the pressure off of Wisconsin’s rushing attack, but if he’s healthy enough, the potential is there.
BYU is good enough to beat Wisconsin. They’ve won 4 in a row, have wins over Texas, Georgia Tech, Houston and Boise State, and are playing their best football of the season right now, especially Taysom Hill, who is the wild card. The Cougars have talent at the skill positions, have a mobile QB, and a stout rush defense.
I think the key here will be how well BYU’s offensive line can block, and how well Wisconsin can force BYU off schedule. This is not a team that converts on 3rd down well, and forcing multiple 3rd and longs, while keeping Hill in the pocket, will increase the likelihood that he makes a mistake. I think Wisconsin is able to grind down BYU’s defense just enough to get a win here, but I like BYU to cover. Something in the neighborhood of a 27-23 Wisconsin victory sounds about right.