Virginia Football Game Preview: Central Michigan

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The Virginia football game preview returns to get you ready for kickoff.
Olamide Zaccheaus and the Hoos are in search of win No. 1 on the season. ~ Kris Wright

Central Michigan’s game-winning Hail Mary touchdown pass against then No. 22 Oklahoma State will go down as one of the 2016 season’s top plays. The Virginia football team hopes to avoid a similar fate this weekend when CMU comes to town.

(Video courtesy of ESPN).

Thanks in part to the referees – the untimed down should not have been given – but mostly because of quality football, the Chippewas enter Scott Stadium with a perfect 3-0 record. Dating back to game No. 5 of last season, John Bonamego’s first as the program’s head coach, Central Michigan has won nine of its last 12 games. This is a program that has reason to be confident heading into Charlottesville.

Leading the way for the Chippewas is quarterback Cooper Rush. One of the most productive signal caller’s in Central Michigan history, the 6’3”, 220-pound senior ranks No. 2 on the school’s all-time list in career touchdown passes, passing yards, total offense, and passes completed. He has not disappointed this season, completing 65.7% of his passes while throwing for 957 yards with 11 touchdowns and 3 interceptions. Against Oklahoma State in Stillwater, the senior signal caller completed 31 of 43 passes for 368 yards with 4 touchdowns and 1 interception.

Meanwhile, UVA is still in search of its first win under first year coach Bronco Mendenhall. The Cavaliers have improved since a season-opening home loss to Richmond but will have to bounce back emotionally from a tough defeat to Connecticut in the final minutes last week.

With that in mind, let’s look at this week’s game preview.

Virginia Football Essentials

Hoo Facts

  • Virginia and Central Michigan have met only one time before with the Cavaliers defeating the Chippewas, 55-21, in Scott Stadium in 1996.
  • Tailback Tiki Barber rushed for 147 yards and 2 touchdowns in Virginia’s win, which also marked the Cavalier debut of running back Thomas Jones. Jones’ first carry went for 57 yards.
  • The win over Central Michigan in 1996 was George Welsh’s 99th win as Virginia’s head coach. Bronco Mendenhall won 99 games in 11 seasons as BYU’s head coach before accepting the same job at UVA.
  • UVA is 11-2-1 all-time against teams currently representing the Mid-American Conference. Mendenhall has never faced a team from the MAC.
  • The Virginia coaching staff will be wearing the Coach to Cure MD patches during Saturday’s game. Coach to Cure MD is a nation-wide project designed to build awareness and funding to support researchers trying to find a treatment and cure for Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy research.
  • Saturday is Youth Day. The first 2,000 kids in grades 8 & below receive a reusable UVA football jersey lunch bag.

Chippewa Facts

  • Senior safety Tony Annese made the preseason watch list for the Thorpe Award, given to the top defensive back in college football.
  • Whoever wears jersey No. 21 will do so in honor of former Central Michigan defensive back Derrick Nash, who died from Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia on June 22, 2015. Each week, a different Chippewa player dons the jersey in an honor to Nash.
  • Head coach John Bonamego, a Central Michigan alum, is in his second season as the Chippewas head coach.
  • The Chippewas received 16 votes in the most recent AP Top 25.
  • Central Michigan has not beaten a team currently in the ACC in 13 tries.
  • This will be Central Michigan’s third game ever in the state of Virginia. The Chippewas traveled to Virginia Tech in 2010.

3 Hoos To Watch

  • Quarterback Kurt Benkert. How healthy is UVA’s starting quarterback? Benkert suffered an apparent left shoulder injury against UConn. He played through the pain; however, after being tackled shy of the goal line on Virginia’s final offensive play of the game, he ran off the field favoring his left arm. Benkert remains atop the depth chart, but can he make it through the Central Michigan game if he takes some hard hits? Virginia has yielded 10 sacks so far this season, while Central Michigan has amassed seven. If Benkert can’t go, look for senior Connor Brewer to take his place.
  • Defensive end Andrew Brown. Brown was outstanding against Connecticut. Can he put two strong games in a row together? He and the rest of Virginia’s defensive front will be important in pressuring and harassing an experienced, quality quarterback. Brown has 14 tackles already this season, surpassing his 10 total tackles during his first two years.
  • Cornerback Kareem Gibson. With Tim Harris injured, Myles Robinson had received the bulk of the playing time at cornerback opposite Juan Thornhill against Oregon. Gibson emerged last week, though, and played extensively opposite Thornhill against the Huskies. Virginia’s defensive backs will be tested by Rush and a good group of Central Michigan receivers – three of those receivers have double digit catches this season. Thornhill was tested big-time against Connecticut, but you can bet Gibson will get more throws his way this week now that he’s on film. Will the redshirt freshman cornerback be ready?

3 Chippewas To Watch

  • Quarterback Cooper Rush. Production, experience, poise … Rush has it all. He is off to a hot start to the 2016 season, so the Cavalier defense will have to be sharp from beginning to He has passed for 10,311 yards in his career. This ranks 10th all-time in MAC history and is just 377 yards short of catching former Marshall quarterback Chad Pennington. Rush’s 78 career touchdown passes currently ranks ninth all-time in MAC history, 6 shy of former Miami (OH) signal caller Ben Roethlisberger.
  • Receiver Jesse Kroll. Kroll is the elder statesman of a quality Central Michigan receiving corps. The sixth year senior was Rush’s go-to-receiver last year when he finished with 61 catches for 866 yards and 4 touchdowns. He has 12 receptions for 205 yards and a score this season. Corey Willis, who had 108 yards and 2 touchdowns, and Mark Chapman, who leads the team with 13 receptions, will certainly be factors as well on Saturday.
  • Linebacker Malik Fountain. Just a sophomore, Fountain is tied for the team lead in tackles so far this season with 18. He tallied 9 total tackles, 8 of which were solo, in last week’s win over UNLV. Fountain will play a key role in trying to slow down UVA’s run game.

3 Things To Watch

  • UVA’s Secondary Vs. Central Michigan’s Receivers. Central Michigan will attempt to run the ball, but the passing game is truly its bread and butter. Chapman, Kroll, and Willis have 53% of the team’s receptions; however, Rush will throw to tight end Tyler Conklin (10 catches) and tailback Devon Spalding (8 catches) as well. It will take a complete defensive effort to slow down Rush and company, but certainly UVA’s defensive backfield will be challenged.
  • Virginia’s Running Game. While awful against Richmond, the Virginia run game responded with 193 yards rushing against Oregon and 142 yards rushing against Connecticut. Central Michigan is allowing 92 yards per game so far through three games. The Cavaliers will have to have success on the ground on Saturday to control the ball, keep Rush and company off the field, and take pressure off of Kurt Benkert.
  • Third Down. Keeping with the ball control theme, third down will be key to Virginia’s success. Richmond and Oregon converted 19 of 31 chances combined on third down. Virginia’s defense improved mightily against Connecticut, holding the Huskies to just 3 of 13. Two of those conversions were because of Cavalier penalties. The defense will need to shut the Chippewas down on third down. Conversely, the offense will have to have success converting on third down. The Hoos have struggled in that department in general this season, converting only 13 of 38.
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