What a difference a week makes. The Virginia football program entered last Saturday’s road matchup with North Carolina undefeated at 2-0, having posted consecutive 40-plus-point performances while yielding only two touchdowns combined in those two victories. Then Chapel Hill happened.
UNC handed UVA its first loss of the 2021 season in convincing fashion. The Tar Heels’ offense was unstoppable, racking up 699 yards (392 rushing, 307 passing) and 59 points, 35 of which came in the second half. The Cavalier offense was once again a bright spot, hanging 39 points as redshirt junior quarterback Brennan Armstrong sparkled for a third straight game. Questions surround UVA’s defense, though, with unbeaten Wake Forest coming to Charlottesville Friday night (September 24). Through three games, the Demon Deacons are averaging 39.3 points and 416.3 yards (233 passing, 183.3 yards rushing) per game.
We’re only in the first month of the season, but the Wake Forest contest is important for the Cavaliers, who face the same situation UNC faced last week. Lose, and the Hoos start 0-2 in the conference, a rough start for a program hoping to repeat as Coastal Division champs. Meanwhile, Wake Forest is looking to improve to 2-0 in conference play after downing Florida State last week, 35-14.
Virginia and Wake Forest have met twice since Bronco Mendenhall became Cavalier head coach. Both matchups came in Winston-Salem, and both matchups resulted in a win for the Demon Deacons. Tied at 20 at halftime in last season’s contest, Wake Forest outscored the Hoos by 17 in the second half on its way to a 40-23 victory. The Demon Deacons have captured the past four meetings in the series dating back to 2008.
Wake has won convincingly over Old Dominion, Norfolk State and Florida State the three weeks prior, but Virginia will be the first 2021 road opponent for Dave Clawson’s crew. The Monarchs, Spartans, and Seminoles are a combined 2-7 on the year, and none of those teams present the challenge the Demon Deacons defense will face from Brennan Armstrong and company.
Wake’s defense ranks 41st in the nation in total defense, surrendering an average of 308 yards per game, including 125.7 yards rushing (60th nationally) and 182.7 yards passing (36th nationally). Wake is 14th in the nation in scoring defense (13.3 PPG) and 12th in the nation in tackles for loss per game with 8.3. The Demon Deacons have excelled in keeping offenses out of the end zone and creating turnovers, but again this Virginia offense – particularly the aerial attack – is red hot, averaging 41.3 points per game. Armstrong and company lead the ACC in total offense (1,678 yards), passing yards (1,135 yards), passing first downs (56), passing touchdowns (11), and passing yards per game (438.3).
ESPN2 will cover this important early season ACC Matchup, which is set to kick at 7 p.m. EST. This is the first of two consecutive short week preparations for the Hoos, who travel to Miami next Thursday, September 30.
(Click here to view our “Game News” page for all the info you need on the UVA/Wake Forest game.)
Three Demon Deacons To Watch: Offense
Sam Hartman, Quarterback, #10
The 6’1”, 208-pound Hartman, a team captain and one of the emotional and vocal leaders of the Demon Deacons, won’t “wow” anyone with his physical skills. But he does make plays and he takes care of the football.
Dating back to last season, Hartman has thrown 19 touchdowns and six interceptions in 12 games. Through three games in 2021, he is averaging 230 yards passing per game, has thrown six touchdowns and just one interception.
Hartman’s completion percentage so far this year is 68.7%, 10 points higher than 2020, which was his career best over the course of a season. Although wide receiver Donovan Greene is out for the season, Wake still boasts several wideouts with big-play speed, and Hartman isn’t afraid to throw deep.
Hartman’s experience and control of the offense is what has impressed UVA head coach Bronco Mendenhall.
“Experience is first and foremost, so he has a great idea of how to run their system,” Mendenhall said. “He knows exactly where he’s to look, and he knows what decisions to make, and he does it in real time, which is a part of how their offense is designed, to give them a little bit better chance to be right on every play, whether to give it, whether to throw it and where because of their exchange timing. So experience and capability, so an active runner, he’s tough, he’s competitive, he throws the ball well, so when you add the right system to a quarterback that can do all that, then yeah, you end up with scoring a lot of points, which they are.”
Christian Beal-Smith, Running Back, #1
Virginia is happy not to see Kenneth Walker on the Wake Forest roster. Walker, who is now making headlines as the primary ballcarrier at Michigan State, rushed for 128 yards and three touchdowns against the Hoos last season. This included a 75-yard touchdown run.
Back, though, is Christian Beal-Smith, who had 14 carries for 58 yards against UVA in 2020. Beal-Smith has rushed 39 times for 229 yards and four touchdowns as Wake’s lead ballcarrier in 2021. He’s averaging 5.9 yards per carry and has a long of 48 yards, so the big-play ability is there from the 5’10”, 200-pound redshirt junior.
Jaquarii Roberson, Wide Receiver, #5
The 6’1”, 182-pound speedster broke out in a big way last season, totaling 62 receptions for 926 yards and eight touchdowns. Roberson concluded 2020 with four consecutive 100-yard receiving performances. He is still searching for his first 100-yard game of 2021, but he has continued to be a force for the Demon Deacons, totaling 12 catches for 154 yards and two scores.
While Roberson, who had seven catches for 126 yards, including a long of 49 yards, against UVA last season, is drawing the attention of opposing defensive coordinators, 6’5″ wide receiver A.T. Perry has emerged. Perry has 13 receptions for 255 yards and two scores.
Three Demon Deacons To Watch: Defense
Jacorey Johns, Defensive End, #4
The 6’4”, 260-pound Johns is coming off a 4-tackle (three solo), 1-sack outing against Florida State. Pro Football Focus credited him with a team-high two quarterback hurries and assigned him a 94.2 run defense grade as well. Virginia struggled some with pressure off the edge against North Carolina last week, and Johns, who totaled 14.5 tackles for loss including five sacks combined the past two seasons, is a formidable defensive lineman for Wake.
Caelen Carson, Cornerback, #29
Carson may be a young player, but he has been a playmaker in his short Wake Forest career. In eight games played as a true freshman last season, the 6’0”, 190-pound Carson had five pass breakups, a forced fumble and an interception. The pick came against UVA. Through three games in 2021 he has two interceptions and four pass breakups.
Carson did take a step back against Florida State according to his Pro Football Focus coverage grade, receiving a 56.6 mark. However, he finished 2020 with a 73 coverage grade, so typically he is a dependable player for the Deacs.
Traveon Redd, Strong Safety, #17
The Martinsville (VA) native was a force against Virginia last season in Winston-Salem, tying for a team-high with nine tackles and one tackle-for-loss, and achieving a quarterback hurry. Redd finished the 2020 campaign with 4.5 tackles for loss and an interception and recorded 46 tackles, which was fourth highest on the team. Through three games in 2021, the 6’0”, 205-pound redshirt senior has two interceptions, two quarterback hurries, 0.5 sacks and eight tackles (four solo).
Friday’s matchup in Charlottesville will be Redd’s final game in the Commonwealth, so he could have some extra motivation there to down the home-state school for a second consecutive year.
Receivers Vs. Cornerback
Friday night’s contest pits a Virginia receiving corps playing at a high level and a Wake Forest secondary with some playmakers. It promises to be a fun matchup.
Four Cavalier receiving targets, including wide receivers Billy Kemp IV (18 catches) and Dontayvion Wicks (14), “football player” Keytaon Thompson (14), and tight end Jelani Woods (12), have reached double-digit receptions, and receiver Ra’Shaun Henry is not far behind with nine. Wicks has 346 receiving yards and three touchdowns and is averaging 24.7 yards per catch. Kemp has 216 yards and three touchdowns.
Wake Forest features three defensive backs with over an 80 coverage grade – Carson (84.5), Redd (84.4), and safety Nasir Greer (88.5). Senior cornerback Ja’Sir Taylor, who has played the most snaps on the team, has a 70 coverage grade and has an interception.
In a close game, turnovers and penalties make a big difference. Virginia was hampered by both against North Carolina. The Hoos reached UNC territory on each of their first two drives against UNC but came away scoreless, with penalties impacting the opening drive that resulted in a punt, and a handoff miscue between Armstrong and Keytaon Thompson ending drive number two. Armstrong had an interception in the third quarter as well, costing UVA another scoring chance in a must-score situation.
Wake Forest ranks No. 7 in the nation and is tops in the ACC in turnover margin. The Demon Deacons have six interceptions on the season, including three last week versus Florida State. Penalty-wise, Wake is No. 18 in the nation and No. 3 in the ACC in fewest penalties, averaging 4.67 per game. They did have eight penalties against Florida State, so we’ll see if that was an anamoly or a sign of things to come versus better competition. Virginia, which had eight penalties versus Illinois and nine versus UNC, is averaging 6.3 penalties and 66 penalty yards per game. The Hoos need to return to the form they showed against William & Mary, when they committed just two penalties for 22 yards.
The “Havoc Hoos” have been relatively quiet on the havoc front in 2021. UVA has forced just three turnovers (two interceptions and a fumble) in three games, while the offense has surrendered the ball four times.
We heard a lot about mindset ahead of Virginia’s first road matchup. The result was mixed, with the Cavalier offense playing well as the Cavalier defense struggled mightily. How will the Cavalier defense respond to the UNC embarrassment? Wake Forest presents a great challenge. The Hoos will have to be locked in. Is the Cavalier defense mentally ready with the quick turnaround? If Wake hits some big plays early, will the defense hang in there? Will the Hoos play better assignment football this week? Lots of questions to be answered from Virginia on the defensive side of the ball, and we’ll find out our answers Friday night.
Sabre Editor Kris Wright
A hopeful week after a strong start with two home wins turned sour in a hurry. The Virginia football team squandered two early drives with self-inflicted issues – a penalty and a turnover on offense and two rapid scores allowed on defense – and trailed 14-0 in a blink. A rally to lead at halftime showed some resilience, but ultimately the Hoos didn’t have enough answers and lost by 20 at North Carolina. That has left fans reeling and the team soul searching on a short week as Wake Forest comes to town Friday night.
Are the Wahoos more like the first two games where they romped by a combined 85-14 score or more like the road test at UNC where the defense simply had no answers? The truth is probably somewhere in between. Is that good enough to beat Wake Forest? The Demon Deacons are an experienced team that understands how to run their style on both sides of the ball. They don’t have the same level of speed as the Heels, but they do have an experienced QB too in Sam Hartman and he put more than 300 passing yards on the UVA defense last season. If the Hoos play anything like they did last Saturday night, they’ll lose.
However, Virginia at home is a totally different animal. Plus, Wake Forest is 3-6 in its last 9 road games. If the Deacs don’t get to take advantage of turnovers (a critical one in last season’s win helped turn a 23-23 stalemate into a two-touchdown game in the fourth quarter and 6 turnovers by Florida State last week helped fuel that blowout), I think Virginia can take care of business at home. Expect some nervous and potentially frustrating moments, but in the end I think UVA wins the turnover margin and wins the game. UVA 38, WAKE 34. Season to date: 2-1.
Sabre Associate Editor Chris Horne
I don’t believe Virginia’s defense is as bad as they showed against North Carolina. Still, there are many questions. Where are the playmakers outside of a select few? For those players adapting to new and larger roles, how will they be impacted by last week’s performance? How deep is this defense? Lots of questions. Not many answers.
Conversely, I’m not sure just how good Wake Forest is. Solid for sure and capable of beating UVA in Charlottesville; however, all three wins have come over opponents with losing records and have come at home. The Demon Deacons went 3-8 away from Winston-Salem the previous two years. UVA has been outstanding at home, losing only twice in Scott Stadium since 2018.
This game could go either way. The urgency of needing an ACC win and the confidence of playing at home helps the Hoos. I think the UVA defense responds positively to the UNC game and I think Brennan Armstrong and company score enough points to come away with a close, high-scoring affair. VIRGINIA 35 WAKE FOREST 34. Season to date: 2-1.