A familiar face to University of Virginia football fans returns to Scott Stadium on Friday night, when William & Mary takes on UVA at 8:00 p.m. Mike London, who was Bronco Mendenhall’s predecessor at Virginia, is in his first season as head coach of the visiting Tribe, who are 1-0 after defeating Lafayette last weekend.
Virginia, which is now in the fourth year of the Mendenhall era, earned a hard-fought 30-14 road victory over Atlantic Coast Conference Coastal Division foe Pittsburgh last Saturday. The Cavaliers had not beaten the Panthers in the previous four meetings and were winless at Heinz Field. UVA ended those streaks but more importantly opened 2019 with a potentially key conference victory on the road.
Quarterback Bryce Perkins passed for 181 yards and two touchdowns against Pitt, adding 44 yards rushing. Sophomore Wayne Taulapapa went for 66 yards rushing and a score. Virginia’s offensive numbers were modest – 310 total yards – but the offense was timely, turning a first quarter blocked punt, a third quarter interception, and a fourth quarter turnover on downs into 21 points. Junior Brian Delaney booted through three field goals on his way to earning ACC Specialist of the Week.
Timely offense, a shut-down defense for virtually all but two drives of the first half (Pitt mustered 263 yards total), and outstanding special teams play fueled an entire team effort from the Cavaliers last Saturday. Meanwhile, William & Mary overcame a 10-6 first half deficit to claim a 30-17 home win over Lafayette. The Tribe outscored the Leopards 24-0 in the third quarter alone to gain the victory.
Leading the way on offense for London’s group was true freshman Hollis Mathis, who totaled 193 yards of offense and scored a rushing touchdown. The defense tallied six sacks, limited Lafayette to 114 yards rushing, and forced three third quarter turnovers to come away with the victory.
Quite a few former Hoos are employed by London at William & Mary, including Vincent Brown, who served under London at UVA and is the Tribe’s defensive coordinator. Former Hoo players Ras-I Dowling (cornerbacks), Keenan Carter (defensive line), Josh Zidenberg (safeties, special teams) and Darryl Blackstock (defensive assistant) are assistants on London’s defense. Assisting on offense are former Cavalier players Matt Johns (inside WRs, tight ends) and Gordie Sammis (OL).
While London is a coach with an impressive defensive resume and a lot of experience returning on defense, Virginia co-defensive coordinator Kelly Poppinga is highly impressed with the Tribe’s offense, which is led by offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Brennan Marion, who served in the same role under London at Howard the previous two seasons.
“Super unique,” Poppinga said. “They do a lot of really good things. You’ve got to be really disciplined in your assignments. You’ve got to be really disciplined with your eyes, making sure you’re not looking at the wrong keys. They’ll stress you out every single play. One of the most unique and impressive offenses as far as just the scheme of it all.”
“They like to run the ball,” Poppinga added. “You’ve got to be able to stop the run, but then they take shots. They’re going to run gadgets. You have to be ready for everything.”
William & Mary offers some challenges and some intrigue with Virginia’s former coach making a return trip to Scott Stadium. A focused Cavalier team that seems intent on taking another significant step forward should be too much for the Tribe to handle, but we’ll find out for sure on Friday night on a short week.
1. A Post-Pitt Letdown?
Much was on the line for Virginia in the 2019 season opener. The preseason Coastal Division favorite Hoos rose to the occasion, however, scoring an important conference win against an opponent they had not beaten in four years. UVA following up a huge win by playing an FCS opponent at home in week two seems like a natural scenario for a letdown to occur. I don’t see it happening, but it’s certainly something to watch out for.
2. Who Wins the Turnover Battle?
William & Mary registered turnovers on three consecutive Lafayette possessions as part of a 24-point third quarter outburst last week. The Tribe also blocked a field goal in the third period. Virginia picked off two Kenny Pickett passes and came up with a blocked punt on its way to victory.
Ball security for Virginia will be essential as William & Mary forced four fumbles and recovered three against Lafayette. The Tribe forced 18 fumbles last season. William & Mary has talent and experience in the secondary, so Perkins will need to be sharp too. Safety Isaiah Laster had four picks last season.
On special teams, Virginia needs to be wary of a William & Mary team that had five blocked kicks last season and one more last week. Finally, look for Mike London to take chances with trick plays or an onside kick or two. UVA will need to be prepared for it all against a Tribe team that has nothing to lose.
3. Who Plays Clean Football?
For William & Mary to have a chance on Friday, it will have to play a penalty-free game, or at least close to it. The Tribe had eight penalties against Lafayette. Meanwhile, Virginia had only three penalties at Pitt.
The Cavaliers appear to have the edge here, though a short week of preparation could have an impact. Virginia had 10 penalties in a short week against Pitt last November.
Three Opponents to Watch
1. Hollis Mathis, Quarterback
The 6’2”, 170-pound true freshman rushed for 127 yards and threw for 66 more in his college debut. Some of those runs came in scramble situations, which Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett was able to hurt UVA with last Saturday. Virginia will need to be disciplined with its angles and containment of the speedy freshman … force him to win with his arm.
Also keep an eye on 5’11”, 215-pound running back Owen Wright. The redshirt sophomore had 14 carries for 63 yards and two scores versus Lafayette. He added one reception for 11 yards. He runs with good power and has solid speed. Reminds me of the Liberty backs who were effective against the Hoos last year.
2. Bill Murray, Nose Tackle/Defensive Tackle
The 6’4”, 280-pound senior earned All-CAA Second Team selection last season, when he led William & Mary in tackles for loss (9.5) and sacks (4.5). Murray has a knack for making plays on defense – he opened 2019 with five tackles including 1.5 sacks versus Lafayette – as well as special teams, as he has blocked four field goals – including one last week – the past two seasons.
3. Corey Parker, Cornerback
Parker, a two-time All-CAA defensive back, racked up 13 tackles (five solo) and one tackle-for-loss against Virginia back in 2017. He played strong safety at the time. Now a senior, the 5’11”, 190-pound lined up as a cornerback in Mike London’s first game as head coach. Parker responded with five tackles including one tackle-for-loss and one fumble recovery against Lafayette.
1. Virginia’s Offensive Line vs. William & Mary’s Defensive Front.
William & Mary had six sacks against Lafayette and the defensive line and linebackers were responsible for all of them. In addition to Murray, junior Will Kiely (four solo tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, one fumble recovery vs. Lafayette) and sophomore Carl Fowler (1.5 sacks vs. Lafayette) make up an active defensive line.
Nate Atkins (Sr, 2-time team captain, will be a 4-year starter), Gavin Johnson (Sr), Arman Jones (Sr, 21 straight starts) and Trey Watkins (Soph, 10 tackles vs. Lafayette) are the starters at linebacker. Marteise Phipps (1.5 sacks) and Jarrett Heckert (one sack) had nice games against Lafayette, so it appears the Tribe have depth and experience at linebacker.
After yielding three sacks to Pitt in the first half last Saturday, the Virginia offensive line was able to protect Perkins and create some room in the running game in the second half. William & Mary will be a test for a Cavalier offensive line still searching for its best starting five.
2. The William & Mary Rushing Game vs. the Virginia Front Seven.
The key for Virginia’s defense to shutting down William & Mary is keeping the Tribe from establishing a run game. The first step is controlling the line and shutting down designed runs by Mathis and Wright and others. The second step for the potentially Jordan Mack-less Cavalier front seven is keeping contain on Mathis and making sure he doesn’t have success with scrambling.
3. Mathis passing vs. the Virginia secondary
I expect the Cavalier defenders to do a good job of containing Mathis, so he’ll need to beat the Hoos with his arm. The freshman completed 6-of-13 passes for 66 yards versus Lafayette. He doesn’t appear to have the strongest arm and I think the Tribe receivers will find it difficult to get open versus the Virginia defensive backs, so if the front seven can do a good job in containment I think the secondary has a great chance of getting some turnovers.
Virginia defeated William & Mary in the 2017 season opener.
A year earlier, UVA opened the Bronco Mendenhall era with a humbling loss to another FCS in-state foe – the Richmond Spiders – on its way to a 2-10 record. The Hoos entered 2017 with obvious questions as to how they would follow up a disappointing 2016 season in Charlottesville. With senior quarterback Kurt Benkert leading the way with three touchdown passes, Virginia captured a 28-10 victory over the Tribe in Scott Stadium. The Cavaliers would finish the regular season with a 6-6 mark and earn a postseason bowl invite for the first time since 2011.