Virginia Football Eyeing First Ever Win Over Boston College In 2020 Home Finale

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Virginia football linebacker Zane Zandier, a member of Bronco Mendenhall’s first full recruiting class as Cavalier head coach, looks to have a big game in what may be his final game in Scott Stadium. ~ Photo courtesy Matt Riley/Virginia Athletics Media Relations

To pull off a fourth straight win and improve to 5-4 in the 2020 season, the University of Virginia football program will have to do something it has never done before … defeat Boston College. The Cavaliers are 0-6 all-time against the Eagles, who cruised to a 41-10 victory in Scott Stadium in 2017, which was the last time the two teams squared off.

Two years later, BC returns to Scott Stadium with a new coach at the helm. Forty-year-old Jeff Hafley, who served as Ohio State’s Co-Defensive Coordinator/Secondary coach in 2019 after a seven-year stint in the NFL, guides the Eagles (6-4) into what is their 2020 regular season finale. In his first season as a head coach, Hafley has Boston College on the brink of its first winning record in the Atlantic Coast Conference since 2009, when the Eagles finished with a 5-3 mark.

Two of Boston College’s four losses were Notre Dame and Clemson, programs currently ranked in the Associated Press Top 5. The Eagles led at Clemson, 28-10, late in the second quarter before the Tigers reeled off 24 straight points to capture victory. Notre Dame defeated BC, 45-31, on November 14, but the Eagles rebounded with a 34-27 home win over Louisville last week.

Virginia football coach Bronco Mendenhall is impressed with Hafley’s accomplishments in his first year in Chestnut Hill. This goes for off the field as well as on, as the Eagles have had zero COVID-19 positives since the team arrived back on campus in the summer.

“It appears that they battle and have a great, really strong competitive culture,” Mendenhall said of Boston College. “I think their schemes and design fit really well. I’m talking offense, defense, special teams. It’s really a collective approach to playing football, which I admire, in a complementary way. In a short amount of time I think their staff has done a really nice job, and then have their players prepared, and manage COVID effectively with the help of their administration and the university to allow all the parts to be given their best chance to remain healthy so they could make quick and certain progress, which is what they’ve done.”

Mendenhall used the word “efficiency” to describe a Boston College offense that is averaging 27.4 points and 373.2 yards per game. The Eagles have had 11 turnovers while their opponents have had 20 (12 fumble recoveries and eight interceptions).

“They stay ahead of the chains, they move the ball effectively, there’s not many negative plays,” Mendenhall said.

The Boston College offense is fueled by another offseason addition, former Notre Dame quarterback Phil Jurkovec, who has completed 61% of his passes while throwing for 2,558 yards (9th among FBS competition) and 17 touchdowns. The 6’5”, 226-pound transfer has thrown only five interceptions in 2020, helping Boston College excel in turnover margin.

The 2019 ACC Coastal Division champion Cavaliers must turn the page from the latest COVID-19-related development. The Hoos flew down to Tallahassee, Florida, last Friday night for a Saturday night matchup with Florida State. However, on Saturday morning UVA learned that the game had been postponed because of coronavirus issues within the Seminoles program.

Like Boston College, Virginia has been successful in the handling of COVID-19 and its potential impact on the program. While acknowledging anything can happen, Mendenhall expressed pride in his program being a dependable opponent on the schedule this fall. Injuries and attrition have taken a toll on Virginia, though, particularly the defense. The Hoos will likely face the Eagles without five defensive starters – safeties Joey Blount and Brenton Nelson (injuries), outside linebacker Charles Snowden (injury), defensive end Richard Burney (medical) and defensive lineman Jowon Briggs (transferring to Cincinnati).

Even with injuries, attrition, and the Florida State postponement (which now looks like a cancellation), UVA (4-4) enters Saturday’s home finale as winners of three consecutive games. With a win this week and next week at Virginia Tech, the Hoos can achieve back-to-back winning conference records for the first time since the George Welsh era, when UVA had a winning ACC record from 1993 through 2000.

Sophomore quarterback Brennan Armstrong has flourished since returning from a concussion that sidelined him for the second half of the NC State game and all of the Wake Forest matchup. In the four games since his injury, the lefty signal caller has completed 60.2% of his passes, averaged 243.8 yards passing per game and 67.3 yards rushing per game, and passed for 10 touchdowns while throwing just two interceptions. In two-and-a-half games before the injury, Armstrong completed 55.7% of his throws and was picked off six times.

On Saturday Armstrong will face a Boston College defense that has improved from last year in yards allowed per game (478.7 to 403.4) and points allowed per game (32.2 to 26.9), but has struggled against dual-threat quarterbacks, notably Louisville’s Malik Cunningham (296 yards passing, 133 yards rushing, 2 TDs), Notre Dame’s Ian Book (283 yards passing, 85 yards rushing, 4 total TDs) and Virginia Tech’s Hendon Hooker (111 yards passing, 164 yards rushing, 4 total TDs).

Essentials

Three Opponents To Watch

No. 4, Zay Flowers, Wide Receiver: Jurkovec is the catalyst of the offense and I’ll discuss him further in the “Three Questions” section, but as far as the “Three Opponents” to keep an eye on lets look at two of the standout quarterback’s top targets, beginning with the dynamic Zay Flowers.

Speedy wideouts have given UVA’s defense fits this season. North Carolina’s Dyami Brown (11 catches, 240 yards, three touchdowns) and Miami’s Mike Harley (10 catches, 170 yards) come to mind. For Boston College, Flowers is the speedy wideout capable of giving UVA’s shorthanded secondary headaches.

The 5’11”, 178-pound sophomore has 48 receptions for 712 yards and seven touchdowns in 2020. He has a long reception of 77 yards on the year. While he hasn’t been as much of a threat in the run-game this season (11 carries, 41 yards, one TD), Flowers is a threat any time he has the ball in his hands. Last season, he rushed 27 times for 195 yards and a score.

If UVA focuses too much on Flowers, BC does have Jaelen Gill (27) and CJ Lewis (25), who have over 20 receptions apiece. The 6’3”, 215-pound Lewis is averaging 16.2 yards per catch and has five touchdowns, while Gill, an Ohio State transfer, is averaging 14.2 yards per reception.

No. 80 Hunter Long, Tight End: The 6’5”, 253-pound junior leads the Eagles and all Football Bowl Subdivision tight ends in receptions this season with 49. He has hauled in at least two receptions in every game and has at least four receptions in six of 10 contests.

Long was dominant in the first half of the season, totaling 35 catches for 416 yards and three touchdowns. Opponents have keyed in on him in the second half of the season, but as is the case with Flowers, if the Virginia defense puts too much emphasis on Long, opportunities open up for other capable Eagles receivers.

No. 14 Max Richardson, Linebacker: Richardson has been one of the more consistent players in the conference from the middle linebacker position the past two seasons.

As a junior in 2019, Richardson led the Eagles with 108 tackles (72 solo) and had 14 tackles for loss with 3.5 sacks. As a senior the 6’0”, 230-pound team captain is second on the team in tackles with 86 (46 solo), trailing only fellow linebacker Isaiah McDuffie, and is second on the team with 3.5 sacks. Richardson has one of the team’s 12 fumble recoveries as well.

Three Quotes

Bronco Mendenhall on what the 2017 Class, his first full recruiting class as Cavalier head coach, has meant to the program. (For some, this will be their final game in Scott Stadium): “They’re essential. They are the foundational class which has allowed the program to improve every single year. And battle, quite frankly, without interruption this year. I’m so thankful that they’ve allowed me to coach them. I’m so thankful that they trusted me and chose UVA. I’m appreciative for every single thing they’ve done. I want them to be happy. I want them to have success. I want them to have a great experience but I also want them to have the results that they’re after. And so we’ll work hard as a staff to try to help these last couple of weeks.”

Defensive Coordinator Nick Howell on Boston College’s offense: “They really control the ball, don’t turn it over, and they got plays where they can get the ball in the run game that are safe runs that can kind of churn yardage and then their playactions that complement them are really, really good.

“They’re similar to Louisville in terms of the run game and the playactions. Quarterback’s obviously a different kind of guy. And then I think, schematically, there are some similarities there … not all the way the same, but then they have a really good tight end. Their quarterback’s really good. Really good little receiver. He’s a good player. So, different personnel but similar schemes.”

Virginia sophomore quarterback Brennan Armstrong has impressed Boston College coach Jeff Hafley.Photo courtesy Jim Daves/Virginia Athletics Media Relations

Eagles coach Jeff Hafley’s on Coach Mendenhall and Brennan Armstrong: “I think Coach Mendenhall does a really good job. Just from sitting in the Zooms throughout the offseason and just, again, as a new coach, just kind of sitting back and listening and observing, he does a really good job. He has built a really strong culture. They play really hard. They’re tough kids. I think they’re one of the better fundamental technique and are very sound in their scheme. He seems like a really smart guy who cares a lot about his players and he cares about doing things the right way, which I have a ton of respect for and I look forward to meeting him. Offensively, I think their quarterback’s playing really well. He’s a really good athlete. Lefty. Southpaw. He’s throwing the ball pretty well. Seems to have good command of the huddle. Their last three games, I thought they’ve done really well on offense.”

Three Key Questions

1. How healthy is Phil Jurkovec? Jurkovec left the Louisville game with an apparent knee injury and did not return. Coach Hafley said on Wednesday (Dec. 2) that his quarterback looked good and was on track to start against the Cavaliers.

A healthy Jurkovec has demonstrated the ability to scramble. He had 94 yards rushing in a win over Georgia Tech and 34 yards rushing against Notre Dame. Even a slight knee injury could impact his ability to scramble like he would otherwise. Passing-wise, Jurkovec has had some inaccurate days, completing under 55% of his passes in four games, and an injured knee could lead to some poor throws.

If Jurkovec cannot go the entire game, the Eagles do have an experienced backup in 6’1”, 205-pound junior Dennis Grosel, who played in 12 games in 2019 and has made two appearances this season. Subbing for Jurkovec last week versus Lousiville, Grosel passed for 44 yards and two touchdowns and had two rushes for 49 yards.

2. Can UVA pressure the quarterback? Jurkovec could be in store for a big day if UVA cannot pressure him consistently throughout. The Hoos are averaging 3.5 sacks per game, ranking 11th in the nation in that category, but this will be the first game without its season sack leader and team captain Charles Snowden. Replacing Snowden are Matt Gahm and Elliott Brown. Gahm is a seasoned, reliable, physical player who has three sacks this season, while Brown is more comparable to Snowden from an athleticism and speed standpoint. I think the duo will fill in well in Snowden’s absence.

Virginia’s thin defensive line concerns me most in terms of pass rush. Specifically, how will the defensive line hold up throughout what could be a tough, back-and-forth contest? I expect the Hoos to utilize a two-man defensive line for much of this game. Those players will have to create consistent push from start to finish, a tough chore without any experienced depth to speak of.

In last year’s final game at Scott Stadium, Brian Delaney rebounded from a missed extra point to drill a 48-yard field goal that put Virginia ahead of Virginia Tech for good. ~ Photo by Mike Ingalls

3. Who has the edge if this comes down to the kickers? If this game becomes a shootout, the placekickers could be extremely important in the final minutes. Boston College features fifth-year senior Aaron Boumerhi, who has made 15-of-19 field goal attempts and all 27 extra points in 2020. His long this season is 41 yards. His comfort range is probably about mid-40 and below, as he has made only one 50+ in his career in six attempts and his longest makes were 45 yards last season and 46 the year before. Two of his four misses this year have come from over 50 yards out.

Virginia senior placekicker Brian Delaney entered 2020 as one of the conference’s best kickers, if not one of the best in the country. He just hasn’t had many opportunities this season and has had some rough spots the past five games.

Delaney has had only had nine field goal attempts, and seven of those attempts have been successful. However, Delaney went 1-of-3 – both attempts were between 30 and 39 yards – in losses to Wake Forest and Miami. He has made both of his field goal attempts since (both were less than 40 yards out) but did miss an extra point against UNC on Halloween. In other words, there is enough to make you nervous if you’re a Virginia fan and this comes down to the kickers late.

The Picks

Sabre Editor Kris Wright

It’s easy to look at this game on paper and think toss-up. Both teams have some strengths that will test the others’ vulnerabilities. BC’s passing attack with a speedy receiver and talented tight end could challenge the UVA defense, which has given up a lot of yardage through the air. The Hoos’ ability to roll up yards with mobile quarterbacks and to rip off some big plays could challenge the Eagles, who have allowed 56 plays of 20+ yards to rank in the bottom 10 nationally. A shootout is a possibility and turnovers, as they have all season, could swing things in either direction.

With all of that said, Virginia has made it to the week of the home finale. That makes it Senior Day for the 2017 class, the first full recruiting class for Bronco Mendenhall. Many things have changed on their watch, but one of the key ingredients to the improved success has been winning at home. Coach Mendenhall put a toaster in the locker room to make it feel more like home and to emphasize how important it was to take care of wins at Scott Stadium. UVA has won 16 of its last 18 home games as a result. The Cavaliers already had the home hiccup against NC State and I just can’t see this senior class or team allowing it to happen again. A victory secures at least a .500 record for this regular season too. There’s plenty to play for. VIRGINIA 38, BOSTON COLLEGE 30. This season: 6-2.

Sabre Associate Editor Chris Horne

I remember feeling confident about Virginia’s chances to beat Boston College back in 2017, but then the Eagles trounced the Hoos in Scott Stadium by 31 points. Boston College has a new coach this time around. Will the result stay the same?

For starters, I would be extremely surprised if this is a lopsided game for either side. This is more likely to be a shootout type of game with both teams reaching the 30s. UVA’s defensive losses, especially on the defensive line and at safety, are really concerning against a sound Boston College offense that features a good quarterback and a variety of receiving threats. On the flip side, Virginia’s offense – if Armstrong can continue his efficient play and the running backs can get back on track – presents problems for a Boston College defense that looks solid but not spectacular.

Mendenhall often says most games come down to just a few plays. This has all the makings of one of those types of games, where a turnover or a big play in the fourth quarter makes the difference. This game could easily go either way, but I’ll say it goes the way of the Hoos, who will be ready to play following the Florida State disappointment and will hold off the Eagles in the final minute.

VIRGINIA 38, BOSTON COLLEGE 34. This season: 5-3.

Remember when …

Well, Virginia football has never beaten Boston College, so I’ll look back to that 2017 season when the Cavaliers became bowl eligible for the first time since 2011 with a wild victory over Georgia Tech in Scott Stadium.

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