Three-List Game Preview: Virginia Football Meets South Carolina In The 2018 Belk Bowl

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The University of Virginia football program had achieved a 6-6 regular season record – a significant improvement on the 2-10 mark in Bronco Mendenhall’s first year as head coach – and reached a bowl game for the first time since 2011. This 2017 Cavalier football team proceeded to get blitzed by Navy in the Military Bowl last December, leaving a bitter taste on what otherwise was a step forward for the program. This Saturday, Virginia, which has now reached a bowl game for the second consecutive season for the first time since 2004/2005, will get a chance to avenge last year’s postseason effort when it takes on SEC-foe South Carolina in the 2018 Belk Bowl.

Like South Carolina, Virginia finished the 2018 regular season with a 7-5 record. Another nice step for the program, no doubt. However, there were opportunities missed in the final third of the season. The Cavaliers entered November boasting a 6-2 mark and holding the top spot in the ACC’s Coastal Division. After a lackluster home conference loss to Pitt and a drubbing of first-year FBS program Liberty, UVA squandered outstanding opportunities to finish out the regular season with road victories over Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech. Mendenhall acknowledged the devastating 34-31 overtime loss in Blacksburg was difficult for players and coaches to get over.

Virginia came up short on accomplishing its very public goal of taking down Virginia Tech. However, what has been a resilient Cavalier team gets another chance to show its resiliency in Charlotte, and fulfilling the goal of winning a bowl game would take some of the sting out of the regular season finale loss.

Leading the way for the Hoos is 6’3”, 215-pound dual-threat quarterback Bryce Perkins, who completed 63.8% of his passes while throwing for 2,472 yards with 22 touchdowns and nine interceptions during the regular season. Fulfilling Mendenhall’s desire of a dual-threat quarterback, Perkins has been excellent on the ground as well, rushing for 842 yards and nine scores in sometimes dazzling fashion. The Hoos will also look to All ACC first-team receiver Olamide Zaccheaus, running back Jordan Ellis, wide receiver Hasise Dubois and wide receiver/returner Joe Reed for strong performances against the Gamecocks, whose defense ranks no. 88 among all FBS schools in total defense. An athletic South Carolina group is surrendering chunks of yards but is faring better in terms of scoring defense, surrendering 27.2 points per game, which is no. 65 in the nation. The Gamecocks have forced only 15 turnovers this season, ranking near the bottom in that category. It’s sort of a bend-but-don’t break type defense the Cavaliers will face.

On defense UVA boasts a pair of first-team All-ACC defensive backs in safety Juan Thornhill and cornerback Bryce Hall, who headline a talented Cavalier secondary that will be tasked with slowing a potent South Carolina passing attack led by 6’4” junior quarterback Jake Bentley. The Gamecocks averaged 32.6 points and 440 yards of offense (277 yards passing) per game during the regular season. Head coach Will Muschamp’s squad will be without the services of star wide receiver Deebo Samuel, a 2018 All-SEC first-team performer who is foregoing the bowl game to prepare for the upcoming NFL Draft. South Carolina has other offensive weapons at its disposal, including one receiver we’ll discuss further below, but Samuel’s loss could prove very beneficial for the Hoos.

South Carolina’s offensive line allowed just 20 sacks all season long. Virginia is averaging only 1.92 sacks per game, so All-ACC third-team outside linebacker Chris Peace and the rest of the Cavalier defense will have to find a way to get pressure on Bentley. Of note is the Gamecocks will be playing without the services of All-SEC second-team pick Zack Bailey, who suffered a broken left fibula in the regular season finale versus Akron.

On special teams, South Carolina sophomore placekicker Parker White has made 13-of-15 field goals with a long of 42. Joseph Charlton is averaging 44.8 yards per punt and placed 16 punts inside the opponents 20. Samuel was the team’s top threat as a kick returner. Virginia counters with a solid kicking game featuring sophomore placekicker Brian Delaney, who has been rock solid, especially from the left hash. All three misses have come from the right hash. Senior Lester Coleman has played extremely well, particularly during the latter part of the year, and receiver Joe Reed gives Virginia home-run potential as a kick returner. Punt returner Chuck Davis had two drops against Virginia Tech, so who will play that role will be worth watch on Saturday.

Virginia’s last appearance in this bowl event was back in 2003, when the Hoos defeated Pittsburgh in what was then named the Continental Tire Bowl. UVA took down West Virginia in the 2002 Continental Tire Bowl. Will the Hoos stay perfect in Charlotte? Either way, 2018 has been a productive campaign and a step forward for the program, but no question the Cavaliers would love to send its seniors out with a win.

Virginia Football Essentials

Three Questions

Virginia football quarterback Bryce Perkins has been outstanding this season. The standout junior reportedly is feeling healthier after an ankle injury slowed him for the final two games of the regular season. ~ Photo by Kris Wright

1. Can Virginia close out a close game?

Coach Mendenhall has discussed throughout this season how several plays often make the difference in terms of outcome. Virginia had golden opportunities to win each of its final two games against Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech, but simply couldn’t get it done, particularly down the stretch as both of those games were decided in overtime. It’s a team game, but the offense’s ability to put games away is my main concern given what transpired against the Yellow Jackets and Hokies. The Cavalier defense held Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech to field goals in overtime, giving the offense the opportunity to win the game with touchdowns. UVA came away with zero points both times. Additionally, the offense had a chance for a touchdown late in regulation in both games but settled for field goals both occasions.

2. Is there any Virginia Tech hangover and is there any overconfidence on the part of South Carolina?

Virginia was in prime position to end its losing streak versus its rival, but it lost in heartbreaking fashion. It has been a month, but a loss like that stings. This Cavalier team has been tough all season long, so I’m expecting the answer to be no, but it’s definitely a question worth asking.

As for the Gamecocks, tight end Kiel Pollard’s confidence was evident when he said the following in this article by Mike Barber of the Richmond Times-Dispatch: “You’re supposed to beat up on smaller opponents,” Pollard told media following a practice. “I feel like we’re the bigger opponent.”

Might Pollard and the rest of his teammates be a little too, well, cocky against the upstart Cavaliers? Many of these Gamecocks tasted postseason success last year with a win over Michigan, so many on this team have reason to feel good about their chances. But Virginia has shown its fight this year, and, assuming there is no Tech hangover, should be ready to take advantage should South Carolina take them lightly.

3. How will South Carolina respond to some key injuries/departures?

Wide receiver/kick returner Deebo Samuels is a big loss for South Carolina. He accounted for 11 touchdowns receiving and broke a kick return for a touchdown as well. So is Bailey. How the Gamecock offense respond to these losses will of course be a major factor on Saturday, but South Carolina also has to deal with important losses on the defensive line and in the defensive backfield. Out are 6’6”, 305-pound defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw, who had 38 tackles with 10 tackles for loss and four sacks in 12 games, and senior cornerback Keisean Nixon, a starter who accounted for 63 tackles and a team-high eight pass breakups. Jaycee Horn, a true freshman who is having a terrific year, is expected to return at corner, but defensive back is a position where the Gamecocks have been hit hard with injuries this year (starting safety J.T. Ibe and defensive backs Jamyest Williams and Javon Charleston were all lost for the season). Nixon is the latest one.

Three Big Foes

1. Quarterback Jake Bentley

The 6’4” junior has had good numbers overall this season, completing 63.9% of his 349 pass attempts for 2,953 yards with 29 touchdowns. He has played particularly well the latter part of the season, tossing 16 touchdowns in South Carolina’s final five regular season contests, including five in a loss to College Football Playoff No. 2 Clemson. Bentley has had some struggles, though, including lackluster outings in losses to Kentucky (46.4% completion, 3 picks) and Texas A&M (48.6% completion, 1 pick). Additionally, he has thrown at least one interception in eight of his 11 starts and has had three multiple-interception games. Bentley has had some up-and-down performances, but statistically there are more ups than downs. He’s a fearless and fiery competitor the Hoos will have to make uncomfortable in order to come out with a win.

2. Wide Receiver Bryan Edwards.

With Deebo Samuel out, Edwards takes the mantle as South Carolina’s go-to-receiver. Edwards has some impressive size at 6’3”, 220 pounds and can beat teams deep – the junior has hauled a pass of over 70 yards in three separate games this season. In total, Edwards, who also serves as the team’s punt returner, has 52 catches for 809 yards and seven scores in 2018. Look for a lot of attention to be paid to him on Saturday.

Edwards is kind of an obvious choice. Also keep an eye on running backs Mon Denson and Ty’Son Williams, especially if South Carolina tries to do more on the ground with Samuel out. Denson has two 100-yard rushing performances in the Gamecocks final five games. He is a big back at 214 pounds. He’s hard to bring down, can run inside, but he also has a nice burst if he gets in the open field. Williams, who has been sidelined with a hand injury since early November, is a very good receiver with outstanding open field moves and nice speed. The Gamecocks’ leading rusher on the season is Rico Dowdle with 633. He appears ready to play as well although he was hampered some by an ankle injury in November.

3. Linebacker T.J. Brunson.

South Carolina’s no. 6 is the clear leader in tackles with 94 (54 solo), 23 more than the next player. He also leads the team in tackles for loss with 10.5. Look for the 6’1”, 240-pound junior to spy Bryce Perkins. Perkins’ speed and elusiveness are tough for any defender to handle, but Brunson runs very well sideline to sideline and should give the Cavalier quarterback all he can handle.

Three Trends To Watch

1. South Carolina connecting on big plays in the pass game.

Bentley has completed a pass of over 60 yards in each of South Carolina’s last six games. Those games were with Samuel, but even without him there are still players who can make big plays deep, such as Edwards. The Gamecocks aren’t shy about going deep and Virginia needs to be prepared for it.

2. Establish Jordan Ellis.

In games where Virginia senior running back Jordan Ellis has received over 15 carries, Virginia is 6-0 this season. The Cavaliers are just 1-5 in games where Ellis has under 15 carries. You know South Carolina will have all eyes on Cavalier quarterback Bryce Perkins, so it’s imperative the Hoos get the run game with Ellis going to open things up for the dynamic dual-threat junior signal caller. Virginia’s offensive line has to open up holes for Ellis up the middle.

3. Red-zone points a must.

South Carolina’s defense will give up yards. They are allowing 425 yards of offense per game, including 194.5 yards on the ground. The Cavalier offense may be able to pile up the yards, but the Hoos will have to come away with points. Among FBS schools, UVA ranks second-to-last in red zone offense with 36 scores (24 TDs and 12 FGs) in 49 red zone attempts. And playing against a capable offense like South Carolina’s, the Hoos will likely have to come away with touchdowns.

Hey, Remember When …

Virginia became bowl eligible this season? In case you forgot, the Hoos became bowl eligible with a win over North Carolina. Again, back-to-back years of postseason eligibility is very good for a program that won just six games combined in 2015 and 2016. Here’s hoping the Hoos can take down another Carolina on Saturday …

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    1. Discovered that just after posting the article, which has since been edited accordingly. I appreciate the heads up as well.

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