ASU at BYU Preview

Overviews of BYU's offense and defense, plus a prediction for Saturday's game

Hey Fellow Sun Devil-Obsessed Nerds,

In this edition of The Smart Sun Devil newsletter, we’ll take a close look at the BYU Cougars, ASU’s opponent this weekend, who they’ll face in Provo, UT. For those of you who are younger, the Sun Devils and Cougars are former Western Athletic Conference (WAC) foes, and ASU is 20-7 all-time against BYU. However, the most recent meetings were in 1997 and 1998, with BYU winning both.

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The Basics

Both teams come into this matchup ranked in the polls, with ASU at 19 and BYU at 23 in the AP poll, and ASU at 21 and BYU at 23 again in the USATODAY coaches’ poll. The computer ratings1 look a little different: SP+ has ASU and BYU at 20 and 35, respectively, with a 4.7-point difference between the two teams’ ratings. ESPN’s FPI (probably the ratings I trust the least) have them at 40 and 50, respectively, and Brian Fremeau’s FEI ratings have them at 28 and 21, a reversal of most of the other rankings.

ASU is favored by four by Las Vegas, and there’s been some movement in the line this week, as the Sun Devils started out as only 2-point favorites. SP+ projects a 29-27 ASU victory, FPI gives a 53% probability of a BYU win, and FEI projects a 31-27 BYU victory with a 58% chance that BYU wins.

BYU is coming off a good 2020 season in which they went 11-1 with a Boca Raton Bowl victory. That good season had a downside, however, with only 35% of their 2020 production returning for 2021, according to Bill Connelly, which ranks dead last (127th) in FBS, and by a wide margin (for reference, the 125th-ranked team returns 51% of their production). Their most notable departure was QB Zach Wilson, who was the second pick in the 2021 NFL draft. In addition to Wilson, they lost four starters on offense - three of five starting OLs, and one starting WR. On defense, they lost six starters - two of three DLs, one LB, and three of four DBs.

Losing so much production, the big question is how well they will be able to replace those that departed. If we look at their last five recruiting classes, their average rank is 76th, according to 247Sports. This may lead you to believe that ASU will be facing a team with a large talent deficit, but BYU often outperforms their recruiting rankings, a prime example being last year’s team that finished 11-1 and ranked 11th in the final AP poll while having an average recruiting class ranking not much better than their current team’s. However, when teams that overachieve their talent level have outlier-like seasons, it’s often because they are a particularly experienced team and/or have a special quarterback (2020 BYU had both), so while I wouldn’t expect the 2021 BYU team to fall off a cliff, I also would not expect that they come particularly close to repeating last season’s success.

BYU has played two PAC-12 opponents already this season, so what can we learn from those results? In week one, they defeated UofA 24-16 at a neutral site in Las Vegas, while in week two, they beat the Utah Utes 26-17 at their home stadium in Provo, UT. An eight-point victory over the 104th-ranked team in SP+ (and also the owners of the longest current losing streak in FBS) is not the most impressive result, but they followed that up by beating a Ute team that is ranked 19th in SP+, and was predicted to finish second in the PAC-12 South Division by the media. While it’s hard to judge just how good teams are two weeks into the season, my feeling is that they are about as good as a middle-of-the-road PAC-12 team, and would probably go 4-5 or 5-4 against a PAC-12 schedule (Utah looks to be a middle-of-the-road team as well, not as good as they were projected to be).

BYU on Offense

The cougars suffered two huge losses on offense from last season’s excellent team - the aforementioned Zach Wilson, and offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes, who left for the same position at Baylor. If you recall, Grimes served as ASU’s OL coach from 2001-2004 under Dirk Koetter. Grimes spent three seasons as BYU’s OC, taking their offensive from the 121st-ranked unit in SP+ the year before he arrived, to the 7th-ranked unit in 2020. Aaron Roderick has taken over the OC position, after serving as the passing-game coordinator and quarterbacks coach from 2018-2020. Grimes ran a modern pro-style offense, and Roderick appears to have kept the same system.

On the Ground

BYU’s offense is a run-first attack (in 2020 they averaged 34 runs and 32 passes per game), despite the fact that they have been incredibly productive passing the ball. Their run game is very straight-forward and is entirely zone-blocking based, with the vast majority of their runs being some variation of the inside zone play (they’ll run inside zone read, with the QB having the option to keep several times a game, and will occasionally run split zone). Despite its simplicity, the run game is effective. BYU averaged 192 rushing yards/game last season, and has gained 392 yards on the ground in their two games this year, including a 230-yard performance against Utah, who usually has a good run defense. They return their top two rushers from last season, Tyler Allgeier and Lopini Katoa. Allgeier, who is 5’11” and 220 lbs., rushed for 1,130 yards last season on 7.5 yards/carry. He is a good inside runner with good tackle-breaking abilities, who also possesses decent speed for a bigger back. BYU frequently involves its QB (especially this year) in the run game, and in addition to zone read, will frequently run speed option and QB draws.

In the Air

BYU’s 2021 passing attack is highly unlikely to be as productive as it was last season. Zach Wilson was a generational talent, and his replacement, Jaren Hall, is a much different type of quarterback who, even if he performs beyond expectations, won’t replicate Wilson’s passing prowess. Hall is a 6’1”, 205 lb. sophomore, who is more of a true dual-threat than Wilson was (Wilson was a good athlete, and BYU frequently took advantage of his athleticism, but his passing was always the main threat). So far this season, he is 36-58 for 347 yards (6.0 yards/attempt), five TDs and zero interceptions. He’s also rushed 13 times for 128 yards, 9.8 yards/carry. He’s most effective outside the pocket, or on play-action, which BYU uses frequently. As a pocket passer, he’s moderately accurate and often checks down to shorter options, as evidenced by his yards/attempt. However, with his athleticism, he has an ability to extend plays if he gets outside the pocket, where he can hurt you with his arm or his legs. He also seems to be a good decision-maker and is not prone to turnovers.

BYU returns two of its top three receivers from last season, Gunner Romney and Neil Pau’u, and gained two transfers, brothers Samson and Puka Nacua, who are expected to be big parts of the passing game this season but have started out with injury issues. BYU also likes to involve its tight-ends, h-backs and running backs in the passing game.

Personnel and Formations

BYU runs the vast majority of its plays from either shotgun or pistol formations, and only occasional goes under center. They are generally a no-huddle team, but not especially focused on tempo - they can go fast on occasion. The most common personnel groupings2 are 11 and 12, probably representing at least 80% of their offensive snaps. They’ll use 10 personnel on occasion in obvious passing situations, and have jumbo packages for short-yardage situations. They really like to run the ball out of the pistol formation, with 12 personnel, with an inline TE and an H-back on opposite ends of the line.

BYU on Defense

BYU runs a 3-4 defense, and likes to play a lot of zone in the secondary. In the past, Kalani Sitake defenses haven’t blitzed a lot, but they seem to have bucked that trend so far this year. Against Utah, they blitzed on 11 out of 29 pass plays. Interestingly, they rushed only three 14 times (although 6 of those were on Utah’s final drive, when BYU was playing prevent). This was effective against Utah, holding Charlie Brewer to 147 yards on 5.7 yards/attempt, but UofA was fairly successful against the Cougars, gaining 345 passing yards on more than 7 yards/attempt.

If their pass defense performances were polar opposites of each other, so were their run defense efforts, giving up only 2.3 yards/carry to UofA, but almost 8 yards/carry to Utah. The true strength of their defense, however, has long been their ability to not give up touchdowns, and this seems to be the case again this year. Against Utah, they got a turnover-on-downs in their own red zone, forced field goal attempts on two other Utah trips into their territory (one of which was missed), then got another turnover on downs in their own territory near the end of the game. UofA had even a tougher time converting trips into BYU’s territory into touchdowns, being forced into FG attempts on four different red zone trips (two of which were missed), turning the ball over once in BYU territory, and punting once from BYU territory.

Summary and Prediction

I believe ASU is the better team, but this is a totally losable game against a decent opponent in a tough environment. Things ASU needs to do to win:

  • Run the ball. I have not seen enough from Jayden Daniels so far this season to believe ASU can beat decent teams relying on just his arm.

  • Jayden Daniels needs to be willing to stay in the pocket and be able to find open receivers when BYU decides to rush three and sit back and play zone. Tucking and running quickly won’t be as effective against this defense as it was against UNLV. There will be times when it’s best for him to use his feet, but he needs to be selective.

  • Finish drives and not turn the ball over.

  • Make Jaren Hall a pocket passer, and force him to give on zone reads.

BYU wins if:

  • Jaren Hall makes big plays, either with his feet, on play-action deep throws, or on passes when he gets out of the pocket.

  • They hold ASU to field goal attempts - ASU is likely to miss a decent share of FGs that aren’t chip shots.

  • They turn ASU into a pass-first team. If Jayden Daniels has much more than 30 pass attempts, that won’t be good for ASU

Prediction: ASU runs for 175+ yards, and Jayden Daniels has a decent game on about 25 pass attempts. Jaren Hall makes a few big first down conversions, but BYU doesn’t run the ball well enough to gain too much traction. ASU over BYU 27-24.

Question of the Day

What are your predictions for the game at BYU?

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1

Two weeks into the season, computer rating systems are still fairly reliant on prior-season data for their ratings. They all determine their pre-season ratings differently, and phase that data out in different manners as the season progresses, which explains, to a large extent, how differently they have BYU rated, at team that lost a lot of production from last season.

2

Personnel groupings - the first digit is the number of RBs, and the second digit is the number of TEs. You can infer the number of WRs from that information.