Virginia Football Hoping To Return To Winning Ways Against No. 11 Miami

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Virginia football senior outside linebacker Charles Snowden and his defensive teammates are hoping to see better results on their side of the ball this week against no. 11 Miami. ~ Photo courtesy Matt Riley/Virginia Athletics Media Relations

The University of Virginia football program was on the cusp of ending its two-game losing streak and pulling out a win at Wake Forest last Saturday. Seventeen unanswered points by the Demon Deacons dashed those hopes, leaving UVA sitting at 1-3 with two ranked opponents on the schedule to close out October.

Head coach Bronco Mendenhall is not seeing any panic from his players, many of whom are used to early season success as Virginia went 3-1 in its first four games of 2017, 3-1 in 2018, and 4-0 last season. To the contrary, the toughness and confidence instilled in the reigning Coastal Division champions is holding steady as the Hoos head down to south Florida to face no. 11 Miami Saturday night.

“Yeah, there’s resolve,” Mendenhall said of his team’s mindset. “They know they’re capable of more. They’ve experienced more, but they also understand what they need to improve. And they believe that the way to progress in terms of outcome is totally within their control through their assignments and through their execution. And so, again, as I mentioned before, the ball security component, I think 47 points so far off of turnovers against us. And that’s relevant. As well as big plays against our defense, downfield, usually in the throw game right now that has to be more consistent, which is totally correctable. And those two things primarily have a huge influence on outcome. And so again our focus is not so much still on who we play, there is just internal issues and our own execution that have to be cleaned up. And we’re expediting that as fast as possible. And they’re resolute. They’re, I would say driven. They’re focused. And yeah, they’re pretty encouraged, to be honest. And they believe that it’s totally possible to have the same kind of results that they’ve had before. And they just they would like that to happen now. They’re also realizing that Brennan comes back, right? He’s played a game and a half, excuse me two games and about a quarter, and that’s, yeah, they they’re standing by him and want to help and support and anxious to get him back whenever he comes back.”

In order to snap the program’s first 3-game losing streak since 2017, Virginia will have to take down a program it has beaten only once in the Mendenhall era. UVA defeated Miami in a defensive slugfest in Charlottesville in 2018. Last year, Virginia moved the ball well but struggled to put up points as Miami came away with a 17-9 victory.

Virginia may be without starting quarterback Brennan Armstrong for a second consecutive week, leaving redshirt junior Lindell Stone as the likely starter once again. The Hoos successfully implemented a 3-man quarterback rotation against Wake Forest with Stone handling the majority of the snaps and passing duties while Keytaon Thompson and Ira Armstead utilized their rushing abilities from the quarterback position. Thompson and Armstead sparked the rushing attack, and Virginia finished with over 200 yards on the ground against the Demon Deacons. Establishing the run is a must for Virginia this week, especially if Armstrong cannot go.

Defensively, consistency from start to finish and limiting explosive touchdowns/plays is key against a Miami (4-1) offense that has racked up nine touchdowns of 20+ yards or more in 2020. This includes two rushing touchdowns (66, 75) and seven passing scores (75, 47, 24, 40, 35, 38, 45). Miami starting quarterback D’Eriq King, a transfer from Houston, had three long touchdown passes (35, 38, and 45 yards) in a win over Pittsburgh last week.

Virginia has not lost four straight games since the end of the 2017 season. If Armstrong cannot play, whether they have the firepower on offense to put out a win on Saturday is a major question mark. A talented but underperforming Cavalier defense will need to step up and play well, ideally making this game a low-scoring affair just like the previous versions.

Essentials

Three Opponents To Watch

Virginia: The Cavaliers need to get out of their own way. UVA has committed 12 turnovers through the first four games. Opponents have converted the miscues – too many of which have come on Virginia’s side of the field – into 47 points. Last week, Wake Forest scored a touchdown following a muffed kickoff return to take a 37-23 fourth quarter lead.

Defensively, the Hoos are allowing too many explosive touchdowns and explosive plays in general. Wake Forest had eight plays of 20+ yards, including a 40-yard touchdown pass on its first drive and a 75-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter to take a 30-23 lead.

Quarterback D’Eriq King, No. 1: The Houston transfer is the Bryce Perkins of the Miami offense, accounting for 66.3% of Miami’s total offense to date. He is second on the team in rushing behind junior running back Cam’Ron Harris and has 1,079 yards passing with 10 touchdowns and four interceptions. King had some difficulties the past two weeks against Clemson and Pittsburgh, throwing two interceptions in each of those contests while completing only 47.4% of his passes. Granted, Clemson and Pittsburgh are two top defenses, but a healthy UVA defensive squad playing up to its potential could present some challenges. Virginia’s defense will obviously have to play better and more consistent – injuries could be an issue in this regard – but if the UVA defense is healthy and prevents explosive touchdowns, the Hoos can make this competitive.

Safety Bubba Bolden, #21: The 6’3”, 200-pound junior has been one of Miami’s best playmakers in 2020. The former Southern Cal Trojan – he transferred to Miami in 2018 – leads the team in tackles with 33 – including a team-high 26 solo efforts – and also has three forced fumbles, two pass breakups, one interception and one sack to his credit. With two blocked field goals, Bolden is someone to watch out for on special teams too.

Bolden is part of a formidable secondary that also includes cornerback Al Blades Jr., who leads the Hurricanes in interceptions (2) and pass breakups (6). They will be a challenge for whoever is playing quarterback for the Cavaliers.

Honorable Mention: Tight End Brevin Jordan, No. 9: Jordan missed the Pittsburgh game due to a shoulder injury but still leads the team in receptions with 18, so he is clearly a favorite target of King’s. If one of the top receiving tight ends in the nation is out, that could make things more difficult for the Miami senior quarterback. The Hurricanes have capable tight ends behind him, but none appear as explosive as Jordan.

Miami head coach Manny Diaz had no clear update on Jordan’s availability in this video on October 21.

Three Quotes

UVA outside linebacker Charles Snowden and his defensive teammates are showing a sense of urgency with respect to fixing the current struggles: “Last week I got on a couple calls with Joey, Burney, Zane, and we just talked about what is wrong with this defense and what we need to fix, and so we’re looking forward to implementing that going forward.”

Virginia offensive coordinator Robert Anae on the challenge his offense faces against the Miami defense: “It’s a real up-charged defense. They’re very talented, they’re very athletic, and they play really inspired football. Our task is to meet the challenge and see if we can line up and compete and execute against a great defense and against a great stadium and atmosphere. A lot of our kids are from Florida, so a great chance for them to go home to play in front of their families. Great, great, great opportunity for us ahead.”

Following the Pittsburgh game, Miami tight end Will Mallory to MiamiHurricanes.com on the Hurricanes’ ability to connect on explosive plays: “We got a lot of trust in what our coaches put in and install and what each player on the team can do. So, you come in and you do what you’re coached to do. You do what you’ve been practicing all year. And you’ll hit big plays like that if you do it exactly how you’re taught. And so that’s a credit to our coaches and it’s a credit to the players for executing it like that.”

The Virginia secondary must prevent Miami from making explosive pass plays. The Hurricanes have seven explosive touchdowns so far in 2020. ~ Photo courtesy of Erin Edgerton/The Daily Progress

Three Key Questions

1. Will UVA eliminate the “losing plays”?

As mentioned above and as was detailed in Kris Wright’s feature analysis this week, Virginia football is committing too many turnovers – UVA is on pace to commit 33 turnovers in 2020 – with too many coming in its own territory, giving opponents a great chance at a score. UVA’s defense is playing well in stretches but has surrendered six explosive scores this season, including four the past two games. For a team that appears limited offensively with starting quarterback Brennan Armstrong on the sideline, Virginia can ill-afford to commit game-changing turnovers or give up easy scores.

2. How many key players miss the Miami game?

On Monday, Coach Mendenhall stated that Armstrong remained in the concussion protocol. On Wednesday, Coach Anae said he saw Armstrong was stretching and getting loose but added that the coaches are still waiting on the trainers to give him the go-ahead to play. His status for Miami remains in question. Meanwhile, defensive coordinator Nick Howell did not shed much light on the availability of starting defensive backs Joey Blount, Brenton Nelson, and De’Vante Cross on Wednesday. These are three of UVA’s most experienced defenders, and if they can’t go the Hoos will have to rely on inexperienced players (at safety, in particular) in the secondary against Miami.

3. Who will establish the running game?

For both teams, establishing the run will be important, but perhaps for different reasons. Miami has a balanced offensive attack and the run helped open up play-action against Pittsburgh last week. On the other side, UVA may need to lean heavily on a running game unless one of two things happens: Starting quarterback Brennan Armstrong is able to play (concussion) or Lindell Stone steps up his game as a passer.

Miami, which has a stable of capable runners as well as King at quarterback, is averaging 179 yards rushing per game. The Canes defense is allowing 144 per contest, which is tied for 32 among FBS program. Louisville, Clemson, and to a lesser extent UAB had ground-game success against the Canes. Florida State and Pitt did not, but they relied heavily on the pass.

Virginia’s defense is surrendering 136.5 yards rushing per game (no. 31 in the nation). Coach Mendenhall was pleased with the rush defense against Wake Forest aside from the 75-yard fourth quarter touchdown run. The Cavalier offense ranks 44th in yards rushing per game with a 158.8 per game average.

Three Picks

Sabre Editor Kris Wright

The Cavaliers have lost three straight games and the last two have thrown fans for a loop. NC State and Wake Forest both felt like winnable games from the 50/50 category and UVA won neither. Plus, the next two games are against currently ranked teams with this week’s trip to Miami and next week’s home game with North Carolina. So fans are worried that this season might spiral into disaster territory. As a result, fans are digging through every game looking for reasons – some of those are obvious: turnovers, big plays allowed, third down defense, and so on – why the Hoos are in a tailspin with hopes that those things can get fixed and help the Wahoos win again.

Does Virginia have a chance of righting the ship? That depends on which fan you ask. There is room for hope, though. The Cavaliers have gone through losing spells in every season under Bronco Mendenhall to date and lately found a way to respond. In 2017, UVA followed back-to-back losses with a win against Georgia Tech to secure bowl eligibility; that win, unfortunately, was a brief respite for a season-ending losing streak. In 2018, the Hoos lost three of four games to end the season but then bounced back with a convincing Belk Bowl win against South Carolina, 28-0. Last season, the team suffered a similar October spell with three losses in four games but then came through with four straight wins to claim the Coastal Division title.

This season’s losing string has come at the beginning with a 1-3 start. Does this team have the resolve to respond and get things turned around? Fans are worried that this is more like 2016, the 2-10 struggle, and 2017, the year that ended on a long losing streak. The team is talking about resolve and culture as the way to make this more like 2018 and 2019. We’ll see where it goes.

Starting with a game against Miami in Florida doesn’t feel like the place a turnaround will start. The Hoos have struggled historically to win games in the state and they’ve lost their last two games against the Hurricanes in Miami. The flipside is that these games with Miami are usually close contests that come down to key plays and execution in key moments. Both teams have found a way to win at home, but these have been mostly coin flip results. In other words, I think Virginia has a chance here to stop this skid. Ultimately, though, the turnover issues are too much for me to pick the Wahoos. MIAMI 26, VIRGINIA 20 This season: 2-2.

Sabre Associate Editor Chris Horne

This could be a trap game of sorts for Miami as the Hurricanes are coming off games against two tough opponents in Clemson and Pittsburgh. A Virginia squad that is 1-3 could result is a let-up from a program that has had its share of mental letdowns in the past. Are things different this year in Miami? The Pitt win was a good way to respond to the Clemson loss, but again UVA represents a different challenge from a mental perspective.

As for the Hoos, I thought the defense would come ready to play against Wake. Allowing explosive plays on the Demon Deacons’ first two drives – both drives resulted in touchdowns – was a disappointment. UVA responded well and certainly could have won the game if not for a horrible fourth quarter. I’m not usually a fan of quarterback rotations, but I thought last week’s performance was good. The execution was there, but the offense just didn’t make enough plays to allow the defense to take control of the game.

Virginia players seem confident that they can play with the No. 11 Hurricanes. The defense certainly can, although again the secondary injuries could hurt. The offense is another matter. Miami’s secondary is very good, so if the Hoos cannot get the run-game going, it could be a long day on that side of the ball. Perhaps Armstrong returns, but without knowing that for certain I have to go with Miami to come away with the win. I just don’t think the offense can put up enough points. MIAMI 27, VIRGINIA 17. This season: 2-2.

Sabre Message Board Fan CDCHoo

Statistically, there’s surprisingly little that separates Virginia and 11th-ranked Miami. For all its offensive woes, Virginia is ranked 28th of 77 FBS teams in total offense (26th in passing, 44th in rushing). For all D’Eriq King’s accolades, Miami is ranked 37th in total offense (42nd in passing, 33rd in rushing). Despite the recent defensive struggles, Virginia is ranked 43rd in total defense (a poor 56th against passing, but 31st against rushing). Unlike previous seasons, Miami ranks a pedestrian 38th in total defense (45th passing, 32nd in rushing). The only category with meaningful difference is turnover margin: Miami is in a tie for 37th at exactly 0 on the year, while Virginia is in 67th with -4.

It’s gut check time for Virginia. The effort against Clemson would be enough to steal a win in South Florida. The effort of the last two weeks certainly won’t be enough. Realistically, I expect an effort somewhere in between, which isn’t going to be enough. MIAMI 27, VIRGINIA 22. This season (last week Lile Hancock): 2-2.

Remember When …

Virginia football’s 16-13 win over Miami in 2018 is exactly the type of game this year’s Hoos are probably looking to play.

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