Keys & Picks – Virginia Football Vs. Indiana

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The Virginia football team is 1-0 for the first time since 2013.
Malcolm Cook helped the Hoos get a win in the opener. Indiana is up next. ~ Kris Wright

Indiana at Virginia. While this game did get picked up by ESPNU this week, it isn’t exactly a national landscape game. At least not in football.

With that said, this sure feels like a big game for the Hoos and Hoosiers doesn’t it? For both teams and bowl aspirations, this game could carry some weight down the road.

UVA needs to hold serve at home against teams like Indiana, UConn, Duke, and Boston College to have a realistic shot at that goal. IU, meanwhile, could win all five of its remaining home games (no easy task with Michigan and Wisconsin among them) and still come up short of the bowl line. That means it may need to win on the road and “at Virginia” looks more manageable than trips like Penn State, Michigan State, and Maryland.

Setting aside bowl talk, however, this game is big for other reasons too. Call it a ‘helper’ game if you will. A win or a loss here isn’t going to make or break either program, but a win helps. For the Cavaliers and their fans, it helps strengthen belief in Bronco Mendenhall’s plan. It helps show that offseason work can play off. It helps put a 3-0 start and growing fan enthusiasm in play.

It helps make the culture of ‘Hoos Rising’ more tangible.

On the other side of the field, Indiana has similar needs. Yes, the Hoosiers have made back-to-back bowl appearances but they made those runs in part with wins against the likes of Florida International, Ball State, Southern Illinois, and Western Kentucky. And they lost both times with their only non-conference Power 5 win coming against Wake Forest on the road in those two seasons.

So a win at Virginia helps show that there is continued progress for Indiana. It helps fans and players stick with the pre-bowl game coaching change to Tom Allen last year as Kevin Wilson, who engineered the program turnaround, left town. It helps erase doubts that could creep in with an 0-2 start.

The Hoosiers are pushing a certain culture change too, a ‘Breakthrough’ for the program.

“As I said after the game and will continue to say, BreakThrough is a mindset, it is a culture change, it is an expectation and we are raising the expectations here,” Allen said. “Being close, playing a great first half, all of that is not good enough. We will embrace that.”

So no, this game isn’t likely to lead SportsCenter on Saturday. It probably won’t trend nationally on Twitter. But for the players, coaches, and programs? This one’s big.

Kris’ Keys To Winning

1. Pressure vs. Protection. Both of these teams like to throw the football around a bit. UVA ranked 15th nationally in 2016 with 487 pass attempts, while IU checked in tied for 31st with 456. That’s 943 combined passes in 25 games, 35 or more for each team. If you’re going to throw the ball that much, you better protect the quarterback. That’s the challenge for the two offensive lines this Saturday and whichever one does it better could have a big hand in the outcome.

Neither side has been good at protection, though. Virginia gave up three sacks in the opener against William & Mary, while Indiana allowed five against Ohio State. That matches the trend line for both. Last season, Indy allowed 29 sacks to tie for 82nd nationally, while UVA gave up 36 to tie for 108th. So who can crank up the pressure vs. that protection the most? IU posted 33 sacks in 2016 (32nd nationally) and Virginia had 25 (t-71st).

Keep an eye on the lines this weekend.

2. Cross ‘Em Up. If the offensive lines can give quarterbacks Kurt Benkert and Richard Lagow some time, both have enough experience to find some openings in the opposing defense. Something that tripped up both defenses last week: crossing patterns. UVA gave up a couple of big plays to W&M’s tight end and IU’s Ian Thomas is an athletic threat on that at 6’5” and 248 pounds 2 TDs last week. Indiana had issues with the mesh concepts against Ohio State and that led to some big plays so this looks like a game where the coaches can set up Olamide Zaccheaus mismatches (or maybe even De’Vante Cross?) on those types of concepts.

3. The Momentum Changers. Odds makers have this is a fairly even matchup with the Hoosiers owning a 3-3.5 point edge as the favorite. In games that look that closely matched on paper, big plays can swing things dramatically in terms of game rhythm, crowd atmosphere, and potentially the scoreboard. Both teams have potential here.

Indiana created 66 plays last season of 20+ yards with 20 going 40+. The offense had four 20+ plays in the opener. On the flipside, Virginia’s defense allowed 64 plays of 20+ last season with 15 going 40+. A year later, the Hoos’ D looks more organized but the Hoosiers have some big play threats. Keeping those in check could be key.

UVA’s offense created only 36 plays of 20+ yards with nine going 40+ in 2016; it had four 20+ in the opener. IU’s defense allowed 62 plays of 20+ in 2016 with 13 going 40+. In other words, there’s some vulnerability there and it crept up in the Hoosiers’ opener as OSU posted six plays of 20+ with two going 40+.

Beyond that, other momentum changers include interceptions for pass-happy offenses. Indiana threw 18 INTs last season and two more in its opener, while UVA tossed 16 last season and none it its opener. As for the featured quarterbacks, Lagow had 17 in 2016 and both in the opener, while Benkert had 11 of the Hoos’ 16 last fall.

Lastly, the kickoff return game could be a momentum driver. Indiana allowed two returns last season of 40+ yards and ACC fans might remember Duke taking one to the house in the 2015 Pinstripe Bowl too. The Cavaliers produced four 40+ returns last season and Joe Reed already put up a 44-yarder in the 2017 opener. Last season, UVA’s coverage gave up four 40+ returns but Indiana didn’t have a return beyond even 30 yards in 2016.

The Picks

Sabre Editor Kris Wright: Since the start of the 2015 season, Indiana has held an opponent to less than 20 points exactly once, the 2016 opener against Florida International (13 points). That was the debut game for then defensive coordinator Tom Allen, who is now the head coach. His defense at IU seems to be high risk, high reward with lots of tackles for loss and big plays, but also some broken assignments and big plays allowed. Why do I bring that up? This game has the feel of the Central Michigan game a year ago to me where a possible shootout loomed but the Hoos were up to the task. I see a similar September result in this one. VIRGINIA 38, INDIANA 31. Season to date: 1-0.

Sabre Associate Editor Chris Horne: Just how good is Indiana, which lost by 28 points to one of the top teams in the country? Just how good is Virginia, which handled an FCS program at home? I don’t have a good answer for either question at this point. Generally speaking, I believe Indiana to be the more confident of the two programs at this point, coming off a successful 2016 season while the Hoos went 2-10. But Virginia has home-field advantage. Turnovers will be key in what figures to be a close game, but I think Virginia’s defense comes through with some big plays and helps the Hoos eke one out. VIRGINIA 24, INDIANA 21. Season to date: 1-0.

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