The University of Virginia football program answered the challenge last Saturday, fending off North Carolina on the road to secure a 38-31 victory and reclaim sole possession of first place in the Atlantic Coast Conference Coastal Division. The bowl-eligible Cavaliers return to Scott Stadium to face Georgia Tech on Saturday, the first of three home games UVA has to close out the 2019 regular season.
As was the case last season, Virginia controls its own destiny in the Coastal. The Hoos (6-3 overall, 4-2 in the ACC) face two Coastal Division opponents in its final three games, beginning with the Yellow Jackets at 12:30 p.m. tomorrow. The challenge that lies ahead is avoiding a letdown after last Saturday’s thrilling contest in Chapel Hill, particularly with a 2-6 Georgia Tech squad coming to Scott Stadium.
Virginia head coach Bronco Mendenhall was not concerned about his team’s mindset when he spoke with the media on Monday.
“I don’t anticipate any issues,” Mendenhall said during his November 4 press conference. “Every win matters. And all the North Carolina game did was make this one more important than even that one. The players, the reason they labeled [the final stretch of the season the “Coastal playoff race”] is they want to win the Coastal division, they want a chance to compete for the ACC championship, they want to move the program forward, they want this team to do something the previous three teams haven’t done. They’re anxious to grow and expand the program and they realize the timeframe and the margin for error that they have. So I would be very surprised if they don’t label [the Georgia Tech] game the very same way they just did the last one and rightly so.”
Georgia Tech is in its first year of the Geoff Collins era. With almost any head coaching change there is certain to be transition, but in Atlanta there has been a major upheaval on offense as the Yellow Jackets are transitioning from Paul Johnson’s triple option attack. Though Mendenhall says Georgia Tech remains a “run-first football team,” it’s certainly not what we’re used to seeing in previous years.
Georgia Tech is also young. Freshman quarterback James Graham (#4) has started the last six games and has shown the ability to complete deep passes, completing seven passes of 30 yards or more this season. Tech may be among the nation’s worst in terms of passing yards with 141 yards per game, but they are no. 37 in the nation in yards per completion (13.1). Graham hasn’t shown consistency as a passer, though, which should help a depleted Virginia defensive backfield. The freshman has completed 50% or less of his passes in the past five games – in three of those games he completed in the 40% range, and against Pitt last week he was 3-of-13 for 57 yards with a touchdown and an interception.
Graham is a capable runner, but Coach Collins likes to utilize his running backs first and foremost. Sophomore Jordan Mason (#27) is a big back at 6’1”, 220 pounds, and he is averaging 5.7 yards per carry. Mason has rushed for over 100 yards in two games and had 99 yards rushing in another. The Yellow Jackets are averaging 158 yards rushing per game, good for no. 75 in the nation, as well as 4.16 yards per carry. Rushing the football is Georgia Tech’s most consistent source of success on offense.
When Graham takes to the air, freshman Ahmarean Brown (#10), a 5’10”, 155-pound receiver, has been his top target. He has 16 catches for 302 yards and four touchdowns, including a 4-catch, 61-yard, 1-TD effort versus Pitt. His score against the Panthers was a 51-yard touchdown catch.
“Georgia Tech is still a run-first football team and creative in their application as they’re transitioning,” Mendenhall said. “They have athletes obviously at the quarterback position and I like the running game it’s creative and effective. They’re doing a really nice job of again both being creative and [transitioning] from the triple option, there are still option elements, but how they’re running the ball I think they’re doing a nice job, I like their running backs, I think they’re physical, I think they’re tough, I think they run hard. I think their team plays hard. Defensively they’re aggressive and they’re resilient and they’re tough and offensive just the nature of what they do, yeah, it kind of represents a gritty program and so I think they’re doing a nice job.”
Georgia Tech’s defense forced three turnovers against Pitt last week and has played well the past two games, holding Miami to 21 points and Pitt to 20 points. The Yellow Jackets now rank no. 81 in the nation in scoring defense, allowing 29 points per contest. Georgia Tech’s D is no. 74 in the nation in yards allowed with 405.5 yards per game. Coach Collins’ defense does not have remarkable numbers in terms of sacks (1.63 per game) or turnovers (12); however, they are good against the pass (187.9 yard per game allowed, no. 20 in the nation) and have seven interceptions on the year, so Virginia’s Bryce Perkins, who is coming off a career performance, will have to be on his game.
Linebackers David Curry (#6 is a former UVA commit) and Charlie Thomas (#25) lead the Yellow Jackets with 112 tackles and three sacks. Tre Swilling (#3) leads the defensive backs with seven pass deflections, while Kaleb Oliver (#22) has two interceptions.
Thanks to Perkins’ performance and quality performances from Cavalier receivers Terrell Jana, Hasise Dubois and Joe Reed, the Virginia offense is coming off its best game of the season. At times the Cavalier offense felt like it did when Bill Musgrave was running the offense in terms of keeping the Tar Heels defense off balance. The offense didn’t feel forced. It felt like the players were having fun and making plays. Conversely, the Cavalier defense surrendered numerous big plays but made enough stops to get a huge win. The Hoos now return to Scott Stadium with the chance to build on its Coastal lead on Saturday.
1. A Strong Mindset
Beat Georgia Tech and Virginia improves to 5-2 in the ACC. Depending on what happens elsewhere, the Hoos could conceivably clinch the division prior to the regular season finale with Virginia Tech. It’s certainly easy to get caught up in “what ifs” and that’s the challenge for a Cavalier program coming off an emotional win in Chapel Hill.
The Yellow Jackets showed their resiliency when they registered a 28-21 win at Miami on October 19. The win came on the heels of four straight losses that began with an ugly home loss to The Citadel. After a bye, the Yellow Jackets fought Pitt to the very end last Saturday before falling short at home, 20-10. No question this young Georgia Tech team continues to fight, so Virginia better be prepared for one.
I love how the Cavaliers are viewing November as the final stretch in a playoff race. It’s a small thing, but I think it will sharpen this team’s focus and I expect the Cavaliers to come out ready to play. Plus, last year’s experience of being in a similar position will help.
Neither Virginia nor Georgia Tech is great in terms of turnover margin. Virginia is worse at minus-6 (10 turnovers gained to 16 lost) for the season – this ranks no. 116 in the nation – while Georgia Tech is minus-2 (12 turnovers gained to 14 lost).
UVA was fortunate not to turn the ball over against UNC as the Hoos recovered both of their fumbles, so taking care of the football is still an issue as far as I’m concerned. The primary way the Yellow Jackets stay in this game is by doing what they did against Pitt and forcing turnovers.
3. Converting Red-Zone Opportunities
Georgia Tech’s defense has been fairly stingy in the red zone all things considered, allowing the opposition to score on 70.3% of its red-zone opportunities, ranking 10th on the FBS level. The Yellow Jackets have surrendered 19 touchdowns and seven field goals in 37 opportunities – the 37 opportunities ranks among the most on the FBS level.
Meanwhile, Virginia’s offense is average in terms of capitalizing on red-zone opportunities, converting 38 scores (27 touchdowns, 11 field goals) in 45 attempts. UVA was outstanding versus UNC, though, scoring on all five red zone (or should I say, “blue zone”) tries, including four touchdowns and a field goal. Since big play scores have been hard to come by, the Hoos could need that type of red-zone success to fight off a pesky Georgia Tech team.
Sabre Editor Kris Wright
Virginia finished off its regular season road schedule the same way it began: with a win. Those two victories at Pitt and at UNC have helped vault the Hoos into the driver’s seat in the Coastal Division as they have two league games to go and they’re both at home where they have a 9-1 record over the last 10 games.
The biggest questions for this week are clear. One, will the Cavaliers have a letdown in a game they’re heavily favored to win? Georgia Tech is an opponent struggling with a new coaching staff. It’s a 12:30 kickoff and that could challenge student attendance and noise levels vs. the later home games earlier this season. I just don’t see this team letting that be an issue with all that’s on the line. That leads to question two and something the Yellow Jackets could do to fuel an upset. Can UVA stop the run? GT enters the game averaging 158.50 yards per game, which is good for 75th in the nation. The Cavaliers have been strong with run defense for most of the year, but have shown signs of leaky play there the last two weeks. I think they’ll get back on track with that this week and slow down the Jackets.
Long story short. Home sweet home. Coastal Division playoff race. Big win. VIRGINIA 34, GEORGIA TECH 17. Season To Date: 6-3.
Sabre Associate Editor Chris Horne
Virginia has some serious questions in the defensive backfield with Brenton Nelson now joining the list of DBs out for the season. Unlike UNC, Georgia Tech has not shown the ability to consistently take advantage with big plays down the field. While the Yellow Jackets feature some good runners, I think the Cavalier front seven will rebound from last week with a dominant showing against the Yellow Jackets’ run-game.
A prideful defense, a confident Bryce Perkins, Virginia’s impressive receiving corps, an offensive line that is playing better, and playing in Scott Stadium will be too much for the young Yellow Jackets. VIRGINIA 37, GEORGIA TECH 14. Season To Date: 5-4.