Three-List Preview: Virginia Football Tries For Turnaround In Miami

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Senior defensive lineman Mandy Alonso returns to his hometown, looking to help Virginia football snap a two-game losing streak. ~ Photo by Kris Wright/TheSabre.com

After a 2-0 start to the 2021 season, the University of Virginia football program has stumbled each of the past two weeks, falling at North Carolina 59-39 before losing at home to Wake Forest by 20. UVA, still in search of its first Atlantic Coast Conference victory of the season, seeks to get back on the winning track with a Thursday night (September 30) matchup at Coastal Division foe University of Miami.

Thursday night’s contest is the second consecutive short week for UVA, which faced Wake Forest last Friday night. The Hoos will be playing their third game in 13 days.

Virginia has not won at Miami since the 2011 season and is 1-4 versus the Hurricanes under head coach Bronco Mendenhall. The Cavaliers last defeated Miami at home in the 2018 season, 16-13, before falling at Miami each of the past two seasons. Thursday night’s contest will be the third straight game in the series in which UVA is the road team. The Hoos dropped low scoring, closely played games in 2019 and 2020. This latest matchup should feature more offense.

UVA’s defense struggled mightily against UNC and Wake Forest, surrendering a combined 96 points in its first ACC contests of 2021. Over the course of five quarters against the Heels and the Deacs, the Hoos allowed points on 12 consecutive drives – nine touchdowns and three field goals. Miami, meanwhile, is coming off a 69-0 shutout of a 1-3 FCS opponent in Central Connecticut State. But the Canes surrendered 38 points and 454 yards of offense at home versus Michigan State the week prior. The Spartans posted 28 second-half points in the 38-17 win. No. 1 Alabama posted 501 yards of offense and 44 points in the season-opening win over Miami in Atlanta, Georgia.

Redshirt junior quarterback Brennan Armstrong leads a high-octane Cavalier passing attack that leads the nation in passing yards per game (430.5). Miami has given up 983 yards passing, currently the second-most in the ACC, and has yielded four touchdown passes of 29 or more yards to its two Power 5 opponents. Armstrong and company posted lots of points in Virginia’s first three games of 2021, totaling 43, 42, and 39 points against William & Mary, Illinois and UNC. However, the Hoos had their difficulties putting the ball in the end zone last week against Wake. The Wake Forest game was the first game in which Armstrong completed less than 67% of his passes, as he went 33-of-59 (55.9%) in the home loss. We’ll see how UVA’s standout signal caller responds.

Miami rolled over Central Connecticut State, racking up 69 points and 739 yards of offense (417 pass, 322 rush). In the three previous games versus Alabama (44-13 loss), Appalachian State (25-23 win), and Michigan State (38-17 loss), the Canes averaged 360 yards of total offense per game (256 pass, 104 rush), 18.3 points per game, and turned the ball over seven times. Miami crushed Central Connecticut State without the services of star redshirt senior quarterback D’Eriq King, who was sidelined with an injured throwing shoulder. Freshmen signal callers Tyler Van Dyke (redshirt freshman) and Jake Garcia (true freshman) combined to complete 21-of-25 passes for 417 yards and five touchdowns.

Thursday night in Miami, both teams are seeking their first ACC win of 2021. The difference is, Miami has a clean slate, as it is just beginning conference play. UVA wants to avoid going 0-3. A loss and the Hoos are very unlikely – even in the crazy Coastal – to repeat the program’s 2019 Coastal Division championship. A win keeps those hopes alive and perhaps gives Bronco Mendenhall’s program confidence on the road, where the Cavaliers have gone 6-20 in his tenure. Virginia’s next game is also on the road, an October 9 contest against Louisville.

“This team is gaining urgency, identity, and clarity with each week, whether it’s win or loss,” Mendenhall said when asked about the urgency his team is feeling. “So I would just say it’s the next bit of information that is influencing the direction of the team. More urgent? Yes. More clear? Yes. As the picture becomes clearer.”

ESPN will televise UVA/Miami, which is set to kick at 7:30 p.m. EST. Click here to see our “Game News” page for more info on this ACC matchup.

Three Hurricanes To Watch: Offense

D’Eriq King, Quarterback, #1

Star quarterback D’Eriq King suffered an injury to his right shoulder (this is his throwing shoulder) in Week 3 against Michigan State. Whether he will miss a second consecutive game is in question, although on Wednesday evening (September 29) the Tampa Bay Times tweeted that while King’s injury is “improving,” he is not expected to start against the Cavaliers.

The dynamic King, who finished second in the voting for Preseason ACC Player of the Year, posted modest numbers in outings against Alabama, Appalachian State, and Michigan State, completing 66.4% of his passes for 767 yards with three touchdowns and four interceptions. All four picks came against the two Power 5 opponents. Still, he is likely Miami’s best chance to beat the Hoos, who are 0-2 against starting quarterbacks and 2-0 against backups this season. It is worth noting that Van Dyke (10-11, 270 yards, 3 TDs) and Garcia (11-14, 147 yards, 2 TDs; 1 rush, 45 yards) played very well against Central Connecticut State.

Charleston Rambo, Wide Receiver, #11

Rambo, a transfer from Oklahoma, leads the Canes in receptions (26), receiving yards (288), and receiving touchdowns (2). This included a 12-catch, 156-yard, 2-touchdown effort versus Michigan State. While Rambo is looking like the go-to threat, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention another starting Miami receiver in Mike Harley (#3), who went off against Virginia last season to the tune of 10 catches for 170 yards and a touchdown. The speedy Harley has 16 receptions for 148 yards and a score this season.

Will Mallory, Tight End, #85

Mallory has not posted big receiving numbers so far in 2021, tallying eight catches for 64 yards, but he is a very capable receiver with a 6’5”, 245-pound frame. Virginia surrendered two receptions to Wake Forest’s Blake Whiteheart last Friday, including a 20-yard pass play and a 12-yard touchdown reception. If the Hoos focus too much on Miami’s wide receiving corps, Mallory could be in store for a big game.

Three Hurricanes To Watch: Defense

Jared Harrison-Hunter, Defensive Tackle, #81

Virginia starting guards Joe Bissinger and Chris Glaser struggled versus Wake Forest, receiving Pro Football Focus overall blocking grades of 59.5 and 51.4. Bissinger wound up on the sideline for the entire second half after surrendering two sacks. Glaser surrendered seven QB pressures according to PFF. While center Olusegun Oluwatimi graded well against the Deacs, should UVA struggle again at the guard positions, Miami has the talent to take advantage. In fact, the strength of the Hurricanes’ defensive line appears to be on the inside, where 6’4”, 285-pound Jared Harrison-Hunte and Nesta Jade Silvera roam. Harrison-Hunte leads Miami with 3.5 tackles for loss and graded out above 80 versus Appalachian State and Michigan State in overall defense according to Pro Football Focus. Silvera, who measures in at 6’2”, 306 pounds, is second on the team with three tackles for loss.

Bubba Bolden, Safety, #21

2021 Preseason All-ACC safety Bubba Bolden leads Miami in total tackles, racking up 26 in four games. Bolden, who has good size at 6’3”, 204 pounds, has 15 solo tackles, eight of which came against Michigan State. He has 2.5 tackles for loss, two pass breakups, and one quarterback hurry. In addition, Pro Football Focus credits Bolden with nine “defensive stops,” which are defined by the site as “tackles that constitute a ‘failure’ for the offense.”

James Williams, Free Safety, #0

This is sort of a wildcard of sorts as Williams has not played much this season, but for a defense in search of a playmaking spark, he could fit the bill. The 6’5”, 224-pound safety – yes, a 6’5”, 224-pound safety – is an uber talented prospect who recorded an interception last week in what was his most significant playing time to date (40 defensive snaps). He also earned the highest overall defense grade from PFF, coming in at 78.9.

247Sports rated the true freshman as a 5-star prospect, the no. 15 overall prospect, and the no. 1 safety in the 2021 Class. Williams and Gurvan Hall Jr. are listed as the possible starters – it is Hall Jr. OR Williams – at free safety for the UVA game.

Three Keys

Tackling

Tackling was a major issue for Virginia against North Carolina, as the Hoos missed 21 tackles according to Pro Football Focus. According to PFF, this was tied for the highest since Bronco Mendenhall took over as head coach of the Cavaliers. UVA responded by receiving a 90.4 tackling grade against Wake Forest. This high number was one of the best efforts in the Mendenhall era, a sign that the focus and determination were much improved.

For Miami, tackling has been an issue the majority of the season. The Hurricanes have three porous tackling efforts by PFF standards, receiving grades of 46, 43.3, and 26.6 against Alabama, Appalachian State, and Michigan State. Against Michigan State, Miami was credited with 30 (!) missed tackles. Even last week’s effort against Central Connecticut State was just a bit above average, coming in at 72.3 according to Pro Football Focus.

Havoc

Neither team is creating much havoc, defined here as interceptions and sacks.

Miami’s turnover chain is not getting much use as the Hurricanes have forced three turnovers in four games, including two interceptions and a fumble recovery. The Hurricanes also aren’t getting to the quarterback that much, totaling eight sacks in four games. Meanwhile, Miami has turned the ball over seven times and surrendered 12 sacks. Central Connecticut State had three sacks last week.

Virginia’s defense has forced only three turnovers as well, while surrendering the football six times. The Hoos have totaled only six sacks while giving up 12, including six to Wake Forest this past week.

So, two similar situations here. The team that turns the trend around in this game could well come away with the victory.

Punch It In!

Virginia’s first two drives against UNC and its first two drives against Wake Forest were all promising. The Hoos came away with only three points combined on those four drives. Against the Heels, penalties ultimately forced a punt after UVA had driven to the Tar Heel 31. A lost fumble cost UVA a scoring opportunity on drive two, which reached the UNC 18. Virginia drove inside the Wake Forest 10 on each of its first two drives. After six plays inside the Wake 10 on the opening drive, the Hoos were stuffed for a turnover on downs. The Deacs forced a Justin Duenkel 21-yard field goal on drive two.

Brennan Armstrong eclipsed the 400-yard passing mark for a third straight game last week against Wake Forest. However, UVA mustered only 17 points in a 20-point home loss. Photo courtesy of Matt Riley/Virginia Athletics Media Relations

Counting on Virginia’s offense to score every time they touch the ball is not a recipe for success. That goes without saying. But when the Hoos cross into opponent territory, particularly into the red zone, they have to score touchdowns given the woes the defense has had the past two weeks. Scoring has been difficult to come by for either team when UVA and Miami have faced off the previous two seasons. Virginia has scored 23 points the previous two contests at Miami, posting nine points in 2019 and 14 in 2020. Turn in another performance like that and Virginia will be going home with another loss.

PICKS

Sabre Editor Kris Wright

Well, a home game didn’t solve the issue that resurfaced in Chapel Hill. Is there any chance a road game will? The Hoos have been horrible away from home for most of Bronco Mendenhall’s tenure so it doesn’t seem like a trip to Miami for the third straight year is going to be some sort of magic elixir.

The good news is two-fold. One, the UVA-Miami series has been a closely contested one for the most part during the Mendenhall era. The last three meetings have been decided by a combined total of 16 points. That includes last season’s 5-point loss in Coral Gables. Two, the Hurricanes have their own issues. They suffered big losses to Alabama and Michigan State and squeaked out a win against Appalachian State. The starting quarterback D’Eriq King missed last week and there are other spots with injuries too.

When you have two teams trying to find their footing, particularly on a short week of prep for a Thursday night game, things usually come down to mistakes as much as anything else. If Virginia’s offense turns the ball over in key spots like it did at North Carolina, that’s not good. If the defense continues to miss assignments and allows explosive touchdowns (that happened in last year’s Miami meeting too), that’s not good. If the team continues to pile up penalties, that’s not good. I think any chance UVA has of pulling off an unexpected road win boils down to the offense getting back on track with a big number and the rest of the team playing a clean game. Considering that the Hoos have scored more than 16 points just once in the last five tries against the Hurricanes, I don’t see that happening. MIAMI 27, VIRGINIA 20. Season to date: 2-2.

Sabre Associate Editor Chris Horne

Miami is not North Carolina, nor is it Wake Forest in terms of offensive execution. Its offensive line is not a dominant unit. The Hurricanes still have speed and playmakers at all skill positions, though, and UVA has simply not proven to be up to the task defensively the past two weeks. King’s absence would help, but even if one of the freshman signal callers gets the starting nod, I think Miami has enough to put up points in the 20s against this Cavalier defense.

The Virginia offense posted impressive passing yards against Wake Forest. However, as noted above, that did not result in points, and in general the offense seemed out of rhythm last week. Also, star receivers Dontayvion Wicks, Billy Kemp IV, and Keytaon Thompson (broken left hand) were beaten up, although I believe all three will play at Miami. Tight end Jelani Woods had a lower leg injury late against Wake as well. He traveled down to Miami, a hopeful sign for the Hoos.

Too much going against Virginia here for me to feel confident picking the Hoos – A struggling defense, a banged-up group of offensive playmakers, an offensive line that had some tough moments last week, and an opponent the Cavalier offense has struggled to score against the previous three seasons. Combine all of these things with another short week, and I think this equals another close loss in Miami.

MIAMI 24, VIRGINIA 23. Season to date: 2-2.

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