Virginia junior quarterback Matt Johns didn’t have an immediate description of the Cavaliers’ offense, which is hardly a bad thing, with its ability to provide many different looks.
After a second, Johns did point out one part which makes the offense stand out.
“A lot of playmakers,” he said.
Eight players have contributed plays of 28 yards or more this season. Boise State calls Virginia the most athletic offense it has seen this season, and it is aided by a system that moves those playmakers around, utilizing plenty of shifts and motion.
“They do a lot of things that are probably similar to what we do ... ,” Boise State coach Bryan Harsin said.
Johns’ top targets are senior wide receiver Canaan Severin, who leads the team with 19 catches for 264 yards, and sophomore running back Taquan Mizzell, whose 17 receptions are tops in the nation by a running back, in addition to his team-leading 155 rushing yards.
The Cavaliers also got a boost Saturday, when senior receiver T.J. Thorpe returned just five weeks after breaking his collarbone. He broke the same foot three consecutive seasons while at North Carolina but was a speedy threat with the Tar Heels. Coach Mike London said “he caught a lot of long passes” in Monday’s practice.
“Everyone’s bought in and found their roles. The coaches have done a good job finding ways to get everyone the chance to make a play,” Johns said. “Getting T.J. back is big. He’s so tough. We worked together really well (in the offseason), so getting a guy like that in there’s really exciting.”
Thirteen receivers have caught passes from Johns, who is off to one of the better starts of any passer in London’s six seasons, completing 64-of-96 passes for 790 yards with six TDs to three interceptions. Virginia hasn’t been involved in a blowout, so all those options are ones the Broncos could see Friday.
“They have every personnel group in the book,” Boise State defensive coordinator Marcel Yates said. “They’re trying to make you think a lot.”
No team the Broncos have faced this season has quite the variety of playmakers the Cavaliers have at different positions, especially in the passing game. That can put stress on a defense, but also rewards solid tackling and sound technique.
“They’ve got the big-play capability,” Boise State senior cornerback Donte Deayon said. “We’ve got to play as a group. We all have got to swarm to the ball, not leave it to one guy to make the tackle.”
Finding players who can stretch the field, along with Johns’ improvement, has the Cavaliers optimistic. Others wonder what could’ve been if not for defensive lapses in their first two games.
Virginia gave up 34 points in a loss at UCLA, allowed a late TD in a 34-27 home loss to Notre Dame and gave up 29 points points to FCS William & Mary.
“If we’d matched their focus and execution, there’s a good chance we’d be 3-0 right now,” Virginia senior defensive tackle David Dean said.
Coming off the William & Mary victory, Virginia wants to continue to hone an offense that is multiple in looks and personnel, but it also knows the Friday night test against Boise State will be tougher.
“Having a lot of guys you can rely on, it sure takes a lot of pressure off me,” Johns said. “We know we have to keep improving it, can’t be satisfied, because we’ll be facing a defense that doesn’t give you many openings.”