Inside The Game – UConn

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“I wouldn’t say it is a possibility or it’s not a possibility, but I will say the criteria is and that is it doesn’t make any difference what you did last year or what you might do in the future or what Rivals list you were on or what watch list you might be on … it’s all about who’s playing well now and who gives us the best chance to operate in the next game,” Groh said.

One player that could figure into future plans that didn’t start the season on the depth chart is true freshman linebacker Cam Johnson, who was credited with two tackles in his debut at Connecticut. Johnson, a 6’4″, 220-pound product of Gonzaga High School in Washington D.C., entered UVa as one of the most highly anticipated players in the 2008 recruiting class thanks to his combination of size, speed, and potential.

“He did a nice job with some things. That’s why we did it. It’s got to start some place,” Groh said of Johnson’s night at UConn. “He’s one of the players we have on the list to really try to give a lot of turns to here in the next two weeks.”

What about Johnson’s fellow classmates on the offensive line? Considering UVa’s offensive struggles and inability to run the football, true freshman names like offensive linemen Matt Mihalik , Aaron Van Kuiken , and Austin Pasztor also came up in questions. Pasztor, a 6’6″, 310-pound Canadian, has already played this season and could find his way into the mix at offensive guard. John Shuman, his coach last season at Fork Union Military Academy, routinely has delivered high praise of Pasztor.

“Well we’ll have a better answer here in a couple of weeks,” Groh said when asked if any of the true freshmen and other young offensive linemen could find their way to the field. “It’s kind of been the plan for a while here now that one of the uses for this time frame with this bye as early in the season as it comes is to give quite a bit of work to those players – and we’ll have to see what their maturity and performance is – but whose ability level would indicate they might be able to do some things to help us this year. A couple of the young offensive linemen fall in that category. Not to take away from the emphasis of the other players, because clearly we need emphasis at every spot, but we’re going to try to make sure that we give work to a number of these young players and see what they might be able to add either in way of competition or in the way of actual production.”

Running Game

Mikell Simpson has gained just 77 yards on 35 carries this season.

Coach Groh has said in the past that you throw the ball to score, but you run the ball to win. With that in mind, the lack of a running game may be the biggest issue facing this year’s football team. If UVa could run the football, it could give the defense more time to rest and make adjustments. If UVa could run the football, it would open up the play-action passing game and more downfield passing routes.

As Greg Waters statistically pointed out in his postgame stock report, UVa has called on its running backs the same amount of times through three games in 2008 as it did through three games in 2007; the average yards per play, however, has dropped. The culprit through three games is the running game where UVa averaged 5.4 yards per carry last season as compared to 3.1 yards per carry in 2008.

What can the Cavaliers do with two weeks of practice before their next game to improve the running game? Groh says the team will keep working on execution of plays like a tight end side power play.

“Just keep working on it. As was pointed out to the team, the play that gained the most yards [Saturday] night for UConn is almost exactly the same play that we ran repeatedly for low results. So it’s not like ‘Well, we should put that play in.’ We’ve had that play in,” Groh said. “We ran it quite a few times [Saturday] night. We’ve run it over the years. Both teams ran the same play with different results. So clearly we need to coach it better and we need to play it better because it’s not as if we don’t have what we need.”

A Stop Based On Scouting

There have been many message board debates about predictability in offensive play-calling so I won’t rekindle any fire here. I will, however, give credit to Connecticut for making an excellent defensive call based on the scouting report and team tendencies.

Trailing 14-0 with the ball at UConn’s 25-yard line, Virginia faced a decision on 4th-and-1 and opted to go for it. After initially showing a spread shotgun set, UVa signaled for a timeout at the 5:50 mark of the second quarter. Coming back on the field, quarterback Marc Verica lined up under center instead; on the snap, he faked a hand-off and then rolled out on a bootleg play to his right. The Hoos had tight end John Phillips dragging with the flow of the play to that side and he was undoubtedly the intended receiver even though Mikell Simpson was rolling late with the play as well. Virginia’s use of the tight ends is well-documented and this particular play-call is something the team has used frequently with success over the years; plus, it’s a safe call for an inexperienced quarterback because it gets him away from pocket pressure and simplifies his reads to one half of the field.

Two problems developed with the decision this particular time. First, UVa’s struggles with the running game so far in the game (and the season) limited the effectiveness of the play-action portion of the play – linebackers don’t bite as hard, leaving stopping the run as the line’s responsibility for the most part. Secondly, Connecticut trusted its scouting report and played the percentages. How? The Huskies double-teamed Phillips on the play, thus taking the primary read away. Verica did a nice job of staying with the play with hopes of something opening up, but eventually he ran out of space and he couldn’t wedge a throw in to Simpson against the sidelines.

A Bad Break

On a night when everything seemed to be going wrong, Virginia caught a bad break in the third quarter on a defensive play call. The Huskies took over for their second drive of the half at their own 37-yard line – 10 seconds later they had a 35-3 lead after Donald Brown broke free for a 63-yard touchdown run.

Antonio Appleby has recorded three tackles for loss this season.

Unfortunately for the Cavaliers, they had the wrong play to counter the offensive call – and then, of course, they executed poorly to limit the damage. So what happened?

UVa slanted the left side of its front – linebacker Clint Sintim and defensive end Alex Field – hard to the middle on the play in an effort to compress the line and allow space for a linebacker blitz behind their slant. Antonio Appleby runs around the slant toward the middle with a hard rush to the left side. In theory, not a bad defensive design to free up a middle linebacker.

UConn, however, happened to have a perfect play in place to counter. The right side of its line didn’t yield much ground and swallowed up Sintim and Field. Meanwhile, a pulling blocker from the left is able to run straight down the line and, thanks to that uninhibited path, pick off Appleby at the point of attack. That meant running back Donald Brown had a wide open hole to burst through toward an area vacated by Appleby – a big gain was almost a given considering how the two calls from each team lined up. A poor tackling angle by Brandon Woods allowed the damage to grow to touchdown status.

Borrowing From JHoo …

Things I Liked This Weekend …

Things I Didn’t Like This Weekend …

  • Seeing Kris Burd run into the punter.
  • Hearing color commentator Frank Quayle describe the loss as “a low point for the program.”
  • Scoring only one offensive touchdown. Again.
  • Rushing three when UConn quarterback Tyler Lorenzen was already 10-of-10 passing on the day. Yes, he moved up to 11 for 11 on the play.

Special Teams

While the rest of the team was struggling against the Huskies, the Cavalier special teams units played well. Jimmy Howell punted with success again and it seems like he’s improving week to week. The punt coverage team is smothering returns with three or four players arriving near the returner almost as soon as the ball is caught. Yannick Reyering made a 43-yard field goal.

And as mentioned above, the kickoff returns by Peerman, Ogletree ,and Minnifield were outstanding. All three had at least one return of more than 30 yards. Groh said Minnifield has shown solid instincts in the return game in practice so his 56-yarder wasn’t a complete surprise or anything like that.

“He’s shown a nice feel in practice on how to set it up and good patient running – when to slow down to let the blocks to get there and when it’s time to accelerate through the opening,” Groh said. “He really did in live action what we had seen him give hope to on a number of occasions during practice.”

Welcome Back

Corner Ras-I Dowling saw his first extended action of the season against the Huskies. He played on special teams and briefly in the nickel package against Richmond, but his time was limited against the Spiders; he has been working his way back from an unspecified leg injury and he practiced in the full rotation for the first time last week. Dowling, who had 44 tackles a true freshman, made three stops against UConn. The most notable tackle, of course, came against Connecticut running back Donald Brown, who Dowling chased down from the far side of the field to momentarily prevent a touchdown.

On the other side of the ball, Virginia receiver Staton Jobe returned to action against UConn after missing the first two games with an ankle injury. Jobe, one of 10 players to make a catch on the day, hauled in a 17-yard reception on a ball over the middle in the third quarter. Jobe had 17 catches for 163 yards in 2007.

Groh said he thought to himself just after that play that “this is a good indication that he’s back to Grade A as far as being able to run at his top speed.”

Worth Quoting

“Overall, he handled himself pretty decently. It’s all relative, but all things considered yes.” – Al Groh when asked if he was pleased with the poise Marc Verica showed.

Worth Quoting Too

“The whole team is my responsibility and I’ll take the blame for whatever happened.” – Al Groh during his Sunday teleconference.

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