Game Preview: Western Michigan at Virginia

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The Cavaliers open the 2005 season against one of the most disappointing teams in college football last year. But new head coach Bill Cubit sees a new attitude at Western Michigan and believes the Broncos will be one of the more improved teams in the MAC.

Virginia is coming off a disappointing 2004 where expectations of a conference title and a big-time bowl game went unmet. There are lots of new faces at critical positions for the Wahoos and this opening day tuneup will give the coaching staff some early looks at how these new starters might impact the upcoming campaign.

For notes, stats, articles, depth charts, a roster card, a weather report and more, check out the Western Michigan game information page below.

  • Western Michigan Game Info

    WMU offense vs. UVa defense

    The Broncos have a good returning nucleus on the offensive side of the ball and should provide a decent test for UVa’s young defense.

    WMU returns eight starters on offense, including All-America candidate Greg Jennings at wide receiver. Coach Cubit’s son, Ryan (58.6%, 1,887 yards, 14 TDs, 12 INTs), a battle-tested signal caller, returns for his senior campaign. He’ll be throwing to a pair of solid receivers in Jennings and senior tight end Tony Scheffler. All three players have adapted rapidly to WMU’s new pass-happy offensive system and that should afford the Broncos a chance to move the football.

    Cubit has been fighting shin splints and his ability to start is still in doubt. If he is not ready, junior college transfer Robbie Haas will go for the Broncos at quarterback.

    Coach Cubit was the offensive coordinator at Western Michigan from 1997-1999 and during that span produced some of the most productive offenses in school history. His offenses were noted for their high-octane passing, but they also produced 1,000-yard rushers in each of his three seasons. In a twist of typical offensive strategy, Western Michigan uses the pass to set up the run.

    The Broncos will deploy a three-receiver set with a single back. They would like to try and attack the Virginia run defense but they will be thin at running back for Saturday’s game. The situation there is tentative with the loss of Daniel Marks (50 carries, 189 yards) in the spring to an ACL injury and projected starter Trovon Riley (172 carries, 691 yards, 4.0 YPC), who was suspended for two games for a team rules violation. Mark Bonds, who saw limited action last season, is listed as the starter with walk-on Lawrence Cannon number two on the depth chart.

    Because of that, the Cavaliers should prepare for an aerial assault.

    “The balls will be flying up in the air. It’s going to be aggressive, high pressure,” said Coach Cubit. “We plan on putting in different formations, putting the ball in the air and getting our best people the ball.”

    If there is one constant where the offense is concerned, traditionally the Broncos have been deepest at wide receiver. This should be the case again in 2005. Jennings (74 receptions, 1,092 yards, 11 TDs) is one of the premier receivers in the country and only the second Bronco to record back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons. A consensus preseason All-MAC selection, Jennings possesses an uncanny knack for catching balls in traffic and has game-breaking speed and cutting ability.

    With Virginia’s defense obviously concerned about Jennings, that might open things up for Western Michigan’s other receivers. Sophomore Brian Jackson (19 receptions, 224 yards, 1 TD) provides a big target at 6-4, 211 pounds, and is a former quarter-miler on the Bronco track team. Redshirt freshman Jamarko Simmons has good size (6-2, 231) and solid speed. He caught three touchdown passes in a scrimmage in training camp last season. Junior Joe Chapple averaged 11.7 yards per reception in 2004 and is listed as the third receiver.

    Scheffler, an All-MAC tight end, is coming off a career year, finishing second on the team with 53 catches for 570 yards. His receptions were the most ever by a Bronco tight end. The Mackey Award candidate is difficult to tackle and has the foot speed to be used on deep post patterns.

    This game will afford Virginia’s staff the opportunity to get an extensive look at the nickel package and it would not be surprising to see the nickel deployed from the get-go.

    A unit that has shown steady improvement the past few seasons is WMU’s offensive line. “We feel good about our front line,” Cubit said. The Bronco line offers much potential, returning four starters and two key reserves. Center Robbie Krutilla, who received freshman All-American honors from the Sporting News last year, appeared in 861 plays and started all 11 games.

    Dominic Moran started 12 games last year at left tackle and was the team leader in 80%-plus graded games (10), second in pancakes (7), second in plays (768) and was one of the lone bright spots in WMU’s 63-0 loss to Virginia Tech. James Blair was rated as one of the top recruits in the MAC in 2003 and combines with Moran at guard on the left side. Blair moved from defensive tackle to shore up the offensive line as a freshman. Last season he got plenty of repetitions, appearing in nine games.

    Mark Ottney, the team’s offensive captain, has started 23 consecutive contests and allowed just one sack in 720 plays last year from his right guard position. Tackle Chris Bartula redshirted in 2003 and saw action in just one game in 2004, but the coaches have been pleased with his training camp and believe he is ready.

    With the limitations in the running game, look for Virginia’s two new starting outside linebackers and its two new starters in the secondary to get ample opportunity to perfect their pass defense. The Broncos will attack with a mix of crossing patterns coupled with deep routes. Cubit’s offense will use multiple formations and motion to force the safeties to make quick decisions and will challenge Tony Franklin’s ability to call the proper coverages in his first outing.

    Fortunately, the Cavaliers should be able to stifle the Bronco running attack with the front three and the interior linebackers with minimal support from the secondary. Clint Sintim and Jermaine Dias will get a baptism by fire in their initial starts with one of most sophisticated passing offenses they will see all season. The Bronco receivers are as good as many of the top receivers in the ACC and the Virginia defense will face one of the nation’s top tight ends.

    UVa offense vs. WMU defense

    During the 2002 season, the Broncos ranked first in the MAC in total defense, allowing just 330.7 yards per game. Last season Western Michigan fielded one of the worst defenses in college football, allowing 480.6 yards (115th nationally) and 39.6 points (114th) a game. They have scrapped their 4-2-5 scheme that simply could not stop the run and switched to a 4-3 defense.

    Cubit says the team has “a renewed confidence and trust in the system. When I first got here they said they didn’t trust it. It was not a very good situation last year defensively according to these kids.”

    The Bronco defense is undersized and inexperienced on the line and at linebacker and will be relying on up to five underclassmen in the secondary. WMU’s primary focus Saturday will be to stop the Virginia running game, and with a weak secondary that should open up the floodgates for the Virginia passing attack.

    Maybe the biggest question for Saturday is how the Bronco defensive linemen, who average 6-2, 267 pounds, will hold up against Virginia’s front five (average size: 6-6, 304). None of the backups has game experience and the returning starters accounted for just two sacks and eight tackles for loss.

    Converted linebacker Anthony Belmonte has five career starts but only two at the defensive end position he occupies. Junior Matt Ludeman will be making his first start for the Broncos on Saturday and will line up at the other end position. The interior of the defensive front includes Paul Moersch, the dean of the defensive line with 21 starts, 3 career sacks and 6 tackles for loss. Nick Varcadipane is a redshirt freshman starting his first collegiate game.

    Like the defensive front, the WMU linebackers are undersized, averaging 5-11 and 222 pounds. When the Broncos experienced depth issues at linebacker
    last season due to injuries, 2003 JUCO All-American Ameer Ismail switched from running back to linebacker, earning his first start in the fifth game against Eastern Michigan. In that outing he recorded a game-high nine tackles, three tackles for loss and a sack. Walk-on Dustin Duclo is one of four freshmen defensive starters for new defensive coordinator Scott Shafer. Paul Tithof was a Sporting News first-team Freshman All-America when he started 10 games in 2003. Last fall he was the team leader in tackles for loss (12) and fourth in tackles (56). Tithof has 144 career tackles and 19.5 tackles for loss in 18 starts.

    There is an overwhelming amount of youth and inexperience in the Bronco secondary. True freshman cornerback Louis Delmas and redshirt freshman free safety C.J. Wilson both will make their college debuts against Virginia. Strong safety and special teams standout Antwain Allen switched from wide receiver to safety in 2004, making his initial appearance in week five and garnering his first start in week seven. Jimmie Vincent has nine career starts (26 tackles 2004) and mans the other corner position.

    Virtually every element of the Bronco defense is suspect. The Virginia offense should be able to run and pass at will. The biggest question is how will the Cavalier staff use this warmup contest? There are new offensive linemen at three positions and both the running attack and pass blocking need to be tested.

    Virginia needs to attack the Bronco pass defense and get its receivers as many repetitions as possible. This has all the makings of a world-class blowout and the question is will Groh be willing to allow the offense to operate in a fashion that will significantly test the passing game. Virginia must get every aspect of the passing operation involved in the offense and not worry about the final score.

    Special Teams

    Bronco special teams displayed success last season as punt returner Greg Jennings finished third in the MAC with a 14.8-yard average and scored two touchdowns. Mark Bonds took over the kickoff return duties late in the season and tied for fourth in the MAC, averaging 23.6 yards per return. Adam Anderson averaged 42.8 yards per punt and the team netted 36.7. Junior Nate Meyer takes over the placement duties after going 1-4 in field-goal attempts last season.

    Virginia must improve its abysmal punting game and the hope is that Chris Gould or Ryan Weigand will be the difference. Kurt Smith is a solid kickoff specialist and Connor Hughes is as consistent a place-kicker as there is the college game. Michael Johnson will be the leading return specialist and the coverage units have traditionally been strong under Groh.

    Who has The Edge?

    Quarterbacks: Virginia

    Running Backs: Virginia

    Offensive Line: Virginia

    Receivers & Tight Ends: Virginia

    Defensive Line: Let’s face it, these are all edge Virginia

    Linebackers: Virginia

    Secondary: Virginia

    Special Teams: Virginia

    Coaching: Virginia

    Key Matchup

    WMU receiver Greg Jennings vs. Virginia’s cornerbacks

    Many questioned Virginia’s ability in man coverage last season and Al Golden was moved from coaching the linebackers to head the effort in the secondary. Jennings will give both veteran Marcus Hamilton and new starter Chris Gorham a solid early-season test to see if Golden’s more aggressive defensive tactics will make a difference.

    Absolutes and Desirables

    (Absolutes are things UVa must do in the game. Desirables are things we’d like to see from the Cavaliers.)

    Absolutes

    1) Establish the passing game early – Expect the Cavaliers to take some shots deep and look for offensive coordinator Ron Prince to get Michael Johnson and Cedric Peerman involved early in the passing offense. Hopefully, backup quarterbacks Christian Olsen and Kevin McCabe also will get some work in the game.

    2) Stay healthy – It’s pretty simple: Put the game away, get the starters out early and get the two-deep plenty of rotations.

    3) Get Michael Johnson the ball – We know what Lundy and Snelling can do. I want to see what Johnson can do. He needs to get plenty of touches whether it’s returning kicks, receiving, running reverses or straight-up runs. We need to find out what one of the most dynamic game-breakers on the Virginia offense can do and if he can hang on to the football.

    4) Play with intensity – Virginia needs to come out and play with intensity. The ‘Hoos need to maintain that intensity for 60 minutes and dominate all phases of the game. Championship teams play with a swagger and a dominant mentality. That attitude needs to be displayed whether the opponent is ranked 115th in the nation or #1.

    Desirables

    1) Get rid of the “class-act” – Groh is not the type to run up the score and embarrass an opponent. That’s nice but not practical in the world of big-time college football. There are too many young players at new positions, especially on offense, not to ensure the backups on offense and defense get as many live opportunities as possible; running the full offense, not the mop-up time addition. The ‘Hoos need to get repetitions for their freshmen receivers, backup quarterbacks, new safeties and corners and the backup offensive linemen. I don’t care about the final score. Nothing personal, WMU, just business.

    2) Shutout – Hey, since defense wins championships, why not start off the year on a good note?

    3) Pack the stands – It’s great to have 63,000 people in the stands for Miami. It’s even better to have 63,000 orange-clad fanatics in the stands for Western Michigan.

    4) See what the punters can do – That may be a difficult chore as the Cavaliers may do what they did to the Tar Heels last season and score on virtually every possession. Perhaps the second team will have some difficulty scoring on a few occasions so the staff can get a look at the 2005 punting operation.

    Predictions

    Greg: There are too many gaps and too many inexperienced players on the WMU defense for the Virginia offense to be anything but overwhelming. The WMU starting quarterback is banged up and the Broncos will be without their top running back. This is a tremendous opportunity for Virginia to test every aspect of its offense and to get plenty of repetitions for players it will be counting on to produce in 2005.

    Defensively, this is a perfect opportunity for the Virginia staff to get a solid look at its new pass defense with Franklin at safety, two new outside linebackers and a new cornerback.

    Virginia 47, WMU 3

    John: Western Michigan is a poor man’s Central Michigan. That’s how bad the Broncos are. A new scheme isn’t going to compensate for an undersized, inexperienced defense. The Cavaliers should be able to do whatever they want on offense, but I hope they take the opportunity to work on their vertical passing game rather than just ram it down WMU’s throat.

    I like that the Broncos will provide a legit test for UVa’s pass defense. I’m not sold on Virginia’s secondary, nor on the ability of the linebackers to cover tight ends and backs. Also, without Ahmad Brooks , I don’t think the Cavs have a dominant defense. Don’t bet on a shutout, but expect a blowout.

    Virginia 45, WMU 14

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