Three-Game Winning Streak On The Line When Virginia Football Hosts Abilene Christian

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Virginia football quarterback Brennan Armstrong looks to lead his team to a third-straight win, which would improve the Hoos’ 2020 record to 4-4 heading into the final stretch. ~ Photo courtesy Matt Riley/Virginia Athletics Media Relations

Preparing to play football in a pandemic, the Atlantic Coast Conference devised a 2020 schedule that had its members playing 10 in-conference games plus one out-of-conference opponent. Virginia football had to do some searching but finally settled on FCS foe Abilene Christian as its “plus-one.”

This Saturday at 4 p.m., the Wildcats and Cavaliers will meet for the first time ever.

“I don’t remember much about scheduling this game,” Virginia football coach Bronco Mendenhall said during his November 16 press conference. “We were really trying to find an opponent, not ‘the’ opponent, knowing it was straight through ACC schedule. Someone non-conference-wise that was playing football. That would be available to play. [Deputy Athletics Director] Jim Booz worked really hard and trying to suggest different teams. We went through a number of them. I don’t even remember the different options we had. There weren’t many that could play or would play or had this date available to play. I have no connection with Abilene Christian or their program or their staff. We were really looking for also things that would guarantee that they would be compliant and would test at the level that we needed to besides having the date. So, a lot of filters were in place and there weren’t many options available. From a broader perspective I don’t remember the specifics of how we ended up here, but I don’t remember having really any other choice. Or choices. But it’s been a long time since we went into the process.”

Since dropping four-in-a-row and falling to 1-4, Virginia has put two straight in the victory column, defeating North Carolina and Louisville in Scott Stadium. With a win over Abilene Christian the Hoos can pull to .500 heading into the final stretch of conference contests, which includes the season-finale in Blacksburg.

Despite its win-streak, Virginia enters Saturday’s game with some disappointing news. Talented young defensive lineman Jowon Briggs, who started all seven games for the Hoos this season, has entered the transfer portal. On the other side of the line, senior Dillon Reinkensmeyer is out for the season because of an injury.

Abilene Christian earned its first victory of the season on Halloween, rallying from seven points down in the fourth quarter to claim a 20-17 win. The Wildcats, who lost three games before securing win number one, could not build on that momentum, dropping a 34-21 decision to Division II Angelo State on November 7. ACU surrendered 414 yards rushing in the loss, which should have a Virginia offense that has run the ball effectively over the past month licking its chops.

Abilene Christian’s November 14 matchup with Arizona Christian was canceled due to the coronavirus, leaving Virginia as the program’s 2020 season finale.

Essentials

Three Opponents To Watch

No. 2, Peyton Mansell, quarterback:
Mansell, a 6’2”, 210-pound signal caller who transferred to Abilene Christian from the University of Iowa, is described by his coach as having a “very impressive football IQ” as well as “great physical abilities and athleticism” and a “big arm that can make all the throws.”

Virginia defensive coordinator Nick Howell has been impressed.

“Their quarterback can throw the ball,” Howell said. “I like him. I think he’s a really good player.”

Mansell has played well in three of Abilene Christian’s games while struggling mightily in two. His best games came in a loss to his parents’ alma mater, Army, and in the Wildcats’ 20-17 victory over Mercer. He completed 23-of-37 passes for 279 yards with three touchdowns and zero interceptions against the Black Knights, and completed 27-of-35 passes for 249 yards and a touchdown as Abilene Christian scored 10 points in the final six minutes to beat the Bears.

Mansell tossed three interceptions – the only interceptions he has had all season – in a loss to Stephen F. Austin and went 16-of-35 for 155 yards in a score in the loss to Division II Angelo State.

No. 4 Lionell McConnell, junior, wide receiver:

The team’s leading receiver through five games is the 6’0”, 187-pound McConnell, who has three games with six or more catches, including an 11-reception effort at Army. The former Liberty Flame had 101 yards receiving against the Black Knights – one of two 100+ yard receiving games he has enjoyed in 2020. The other was a 115-yard effort in the win over Mercer.

McConnell is also a threat as a runner. He had two carries for 59 yards versus Army and two carries for 34 yards versus Stephen F. Austin.

If available, Kobe Clark (No. 88) is another receiver to watch. As a sophomore last season, he set a single-season school record with 87 receptions and totaled 777 yards and three touchdowns. The 5’10”, 173-pound junior has 19 catches, 281 yards and three touchdown receptions in 2020. Clark missed Abilene Christian’s loss to Angelo State on November 7, so his status may be in question when the Wildcats come to Charlottesville on Saturday.

No. 47 Jack Gibbens, senior, linebacker:

Virginia football fans should be very familiar with the Campbell Trophy, also known as the “Academic Heisman” award, which recognizes “an individual as the absolute best in the country for his academic success, football performance and exemplary leadership.” (From the National Football Foundation website.) Cavalier linebacker Micah Kiser won the award in 2017, and linebacker Jordan Mack was a finalist in 2019. Abilene Christian linebacker Jack Gibbens is a finalist for this year’s award.

One of the Wildcats’ best defenders, Gibbens racked up 14 tackles (10 solo efforts) and a sack and forced and recovered a fumble on the same play in the loss to Angelo State. The 6’4”, 240-pound linebacker earned FCS Co-Player of the Week honors for this performance. Gibbens leads Abilene Christian in total tackles (42), is tied for the team-best in solo tackles (18) and has the team’s lone interception of the season.

Three Quotes

Virginia head coach Bronco Mendenhall on preparing for Abilene Christian: “I think it’s a challenge that it presents is framed best by previous principles and how much weight is put on an opponent. My team gets tired of hearing weekly when I stand up and say ‘this is the next nameless and faceless opponent.’ I’m even talking about ACC teams. Meaning that the focus is us. That’s what I mean by that, not in relation to the opponent. Because that’s just the core philosophy that I have kind of extracted from John Wooden. Have the focus entirely be on us. The context is the next game. Where it might be in the booth, but really there’s very little attention that we put on the next opponent. The focus is only on us.

“Now, having been someone that coached at New Mexico, and traveling West Texas and Angelo State and Abilene Christian and… I’m certainly aware of the program’s existence. But on the East Coast, there might be many that haven’t traveled the plains of West Texas, seeing the horses and the cows and the farms and all the things out there. But I have. In fact, I used to take my wife in the car recruiting in the spring, driving from Albuquerque, all the way through those areas. Maybe for anyone that doesn’t love the Western life or being a cowboy, but for me it was basically blissful. And I couldn’t stay out there long enough. I just wish I was on horseback.”

Virginia defensive coordinator Nick Howell points out the similarities Abilene Christian’s offensive scheme has two a couple of Cavalier opponents in the ACC: “So you’re going to see the tight alignments like Louisville. When people condense the field, now it makes the fits a lot tighter and they have blockers, which is really good. And then they have a fly-sweep element from what Pitt used to do, I can’t remember, when we first got here. They have the fly-sweep guy and the zone runner, and then the play-action is off that. Those are the most familiar teams, I’d say, are Louisville and Pitt.”

Abilene Christian’s Gibbens following the loss to Angelo State: “Not much good came out of this game. We battled back a little bit the second half, but it’s a frustrating loss for sure. We all need to look in the mirror and figure out what’s going on.”

Three Key Questions

1. Will UVA have the right mindset?

UVA’s performance versus NC State earlier this season was surprising. Following a quality outing in a losing effort the week before at Clemson, the Hoos appeared unfocused and lacked energy against the Wolfpack. UVA ultimately turned up the intensity, but it was too little, too late.

The effort we are accustomed to seeing in Mendenhall’s Virginia teams returned the next week against Wake Forest and has been there every game since. Still, with all that these players are doing just to play this season, it would be understandable to have some sort of letdown against a lower caliber opponent.

(For the record, I don’t see this Cavalier team having a letdown.)

2. What is Abilene Christian’s mindset?

Abilene Christian does not have the talent and depth to defeat Virginia. The Wildcats offense has eclipsed 30 points just once this season and is averaging only 21.8 points per contest. But, aside from a blowout loss at Army, ACU was competitive in each game heading into Angelo State. Wildcats head coach Adam Dorrel was upset with his team’s effort following the ASU game.

“We were undisciplined,” he said. “We had no passion to play the game of football. I was just extremely disappointed with the lack of energy on the sideline.”

If Abilene Christian wants to make this game interesting, the team will have to play with the focus and passion Coach Dorrel said they lacked the last time out. The Wildcats are likely to come ready to play in what is their biggest – and last – game of the season.

The Virginia defense has forced five turnovers the past two games. ~ Photo courtesy Matt Riley/Virginia Athletics Media Relations

3. Can UVA have a turnover-free game while keeping the havoc coming?

The turnover trends are going in the right direction.

Virginia had 12 turnovers in its first four games. The past three outings, the Hoos have surrendered the football four times … still not terrific, but certainly an improvement from the performances against Duke, Clemson, NC State and Wake Forest. UVA has turned the ball over at least once in all seven games, so it would be nice to snap the streak this week, prior to the final stretch of ACC play.

On defense, the Cavaliers have wreaked havoc in consecutive wins over North Carolina and Louisville the past two weeks. Virginia forced the Tar Heels into two turnovers. Louisville had three. Those takeaways resulted in 24 points for the Cavaliers, a significant factor as to how UVA came out victorious in those contests.

Three Picks

Sabre Editor Kris Wright

The Cavaliers are ready for one more home game before Thanksgiving and for their only non-conference opponent of the season when Abilene Christian visits this Saturday. This is a complete mismatch with the early betting line showing UVA as a 35+ point favorite.

There will be a few things to watch. For example, UVA co-defensive coordinator Nick Howell said that AC does some things to set up perimeter runs. Those are the types of plays that have given the defense a little bit of trouble. The Hoos will have a different starting group on the offensive line with Dillon Reinkensmeyer confirmed as out for the season and they’ll need to adjust to that, though Joe Bissinger had picked up more snaps in that left guard spot in recent weeks.

Ultimately, this game needs to be about execution and playing a clean game for the Wahoos. Can they have their first turnover free game of 2020? Can they post low penalty numbers again (just 3 last week)? Can the defense make it through with no explosive touchdowns (25+ yards) allowed for the second straight week? Those benchmarks will be key indicators for the ACC stretch run that follows this week.

Hoos win big. Fans see some different names get significant snaps. Happy Thanksgiving. UVA 52, ABILENE CHRISTIAN 10. This season: 5-2. UVA 52, Abilene Christian 10. This season: 5-2.

Sabre Associate Editor Chris Horne

When it comes to the weekly preparation, Coach Mendenhall has said that the focus is heavily skewed towards improving his team rather than the opponent. That consistent mindset should prepare Virginia well to play an inferior opponent from a talent and depth perspective.

Saturday presents several opportunities for the Hoos. Winning, of course, tops the list, but here are some of the “games within the game” I’ll be watching for:

– How the offensive line performs without Reinkensmeyer. Guard Joe Bissinger and tackle Bobby Haskins are part of the rotation, so there probably won’t be a lot of adjustments to make, but their roles will expand with Reinkensmeyer out.

How the young defensive linemen perform. With Briggs gone, Virginia will have to lean more on true freshmen Jahmeer Carter and Nusi Malani. We’ll see who else enters the mix as well.

– Sharpen the pass game. Brennan Armstrong has thrown eight interceptions this season. Miami is the only game in which he has not thrown a pick. His decision-making has improved, but certainly the passing game is an area Virginia could improve coming down the stretch. This week could give them some confidence and develop more chemistry.

– Take care of business. Struggling versus Abilene Christian could foreshadow a disappointing final ACC stretch. Instead the Hoos need to play sharp and get a big win over the Wildcats, keeping the momentum going heading into Florida State. This is how I see things playing out. Go Hoos! UVA 56, Abilene Christian 10. This season: 4-3.

Sabre Message Board Fan DA LF heckler

Things I hope to see this week: A monster day passing from Brennan Armstrong. The defense take out some frustrations on Abilene Christian. They don’t seem to have too many playmakers. UVA force three turnovers. Lots of rest for some of our starters in the fourth quarter!UVA 41, Abilene Christian 17. This season (last game – el dorado Pedro (W)): 5-2

Remember when …

The last important Virginia athletics tilt with a school from Texas went well for the Hoos.

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