It’s time to dive into TheSabre.com’s weekly football feature called “Ask The Sabre” where our staff responds to fan questions. This feature is brought to you by our newest sponsor Bundoran Farm, where you can Create Your Virginia Legacy.
This installment looks at some bye week questions on the rushing game, play of the defensive backs, and more. To see the “Ask The Sabre” articles in the archives, just click here.
On to this week’s questions …
80 rushing yards: was that Duke’s D or was it a running game setback? – HOOserName
Sabre Editor Kris Wright: A little of both? Duke’s approach featured heavy slanting and darting into gaps, which blew up a lot of running plays before the ball carrier could get to the second level. I’m generalizing a little bit here, but Duke’s defense proved problematic on inside runs because Albert Reid could not get to his burst and on outside runs because Taquan Mizzell could not slide into a crease to use his cutting ability. This in theory could have opened up some cutback alleys – the run late in the game where Mizzell reversed field and gained a big chunk is an example – but the blocking didn’t get the upfield rushers turned or out of the play enough for those to materialize.
I’d call it a setback because the carries for the running backs had been much more productive the previous three weeks. Against Oregon, all three backs averaged 4.8 yards or better per carry (220 total yards). Against UConn, two backs averaged 4.9 or better (150 total yards). Against Central Michigan, all three backs averaged 4.7 or better (131 total yards). Then at Duke, all three backs averaged less than 4.3 per carry (107 total yards). That’s a pretty notable dropoff for the week.
Another question asked about the top task for the bye week? To me, this is it. The Cavaliers need to figure out better run blocking with the wider splits on the offensive line. The players said they had not practiced those splits prior to the Oregon prep week so opponents now have some film study to break down those splits. This should be UVA’s opportunity to put in a lot of work on run blocking with the splits.
How much in-season conditioning does the team do? How do you balance conditioning needs with trying to stay fresh for game day, especially in the later parts of the season? ~ zeropointzero
Sabre Editor Kris Wright: The players and coaches have indicated that the conditioning and lifting continued into the season, but the emphasis moved to the front end of the week for the heavy work. On Mondays, that’s the main focus of practice before opponent preparations begin more in earnest later in the week. As far as the balancing act, Coach Mendenhall has said from the beginning that each player and his individual workload is monitored and tracked every day. So there may be play-cap limits on Player A during practice to keep him on track for the overall plan.
Can you please explain the difference in the secondary’s technique this year compared to last year? ~ hawkb
Sabre analyst Ahmad Hawkins: The main difference that was on display vs. Duke was bump and run coverage. The corners were asked to play very aggressive this past Saturday and they were challenged to excel in 1 on 1 coverage. Virginia corners have been asked to excel on an “island” since the beginning of The Bronco Era.
In years past, the Hoos have asked the corners to play blitz technique coverage in which they are told to line up using inside leverage and not allow the opposing wide receiver to catch inside cut routes. On the flipside, this caused the corners to be a step too slow on deep out cuts and go routes. The fact that the defensive backs were always “trailing” the wide receiver, they didn’t have the opportunity to make a play on the football due to being out of position.
This season the defensive backs are playing a lot of straight man to man with late inside safety help. This allows them to take away deep routes on the outside; however, it will cause them to now “trail” on inside cut routes at times, like the post route the went for a touchdown in the first quarter in the Duke game. The defensive backs are in better position when the ball is in the air and thus you have seen them be able to TURN and LOOK for the football!!!! You can only look back for the football when you are in stride with the wide receiver. When a defensive back is “trailing” or out of position, they have to play the hands of the wide receiver. We call it the “High Five” technique, in which you smack at the hands of the wide receiver once they attempt to catch the football. UVA’s defensive backs are showing improved ball skills this season, due to their overall improved positioning once the ball is in the air.
What’s the one metric that our Sabre gurus have seen the most improvement in from the Richmond game through the Duke game (besides the obvious wins column)? E.g. passing yards/pass? Yards/offensive play? Etc.? ~ QBSacker
Sabre analyst Greg Waters: I don’t want to appear lazy but this question is pretty easy to answer since a piece of the answer has already been posted here on TheSabre.com. In the preseason series Four Trends Bronco Mendenhall Must Change, one of the areas discussed was Virginia’s offensive inefficiency over the previous decade. Within that article linked here, these key stats were identified for success on offense:
- Yards per play (YPPlay) – Simply the average yardage gained on every offensive play (Efficiency)
- Yards per point (YPPoint) – This measures an offense by how many yards they need to gain to earn one point. (Potency)
- Explosive plays (EP) – NCAA ranking based on the total number of seasonal plays of 20 yards or greater. (Potency)
- Fremeau Efficiency Index (FEI) – Compares the points earned on a drive with the expected number of points based on starting field position. (Efficiency)
- Points per game
Here’s how the previous decade compares to this year based on the NCAA rankings:
- YPPlay – 92.7 vs. 67 in 2016
- YPPoint – 92.8 vs. 62
- EP – 80.2 vs. 52
- FEI – 68.8 vs. unavailable at this point in the season
- PPG – 95.3 vs. 77
So under the metrics I use, Virginia has improved between 27-36% in yards per point, yards per play, and explosive plays and 19% in point per game rankings. In terms of raw numbers, the Hoos have gone from 0.341 to 0.385 points per play and they are currently at 5.81 yards per play. The last time UVA broke the 5.5 YPPlay mark for a season was in 2010 at 5.64. The 7.2 yards per attempt passing is also the highest since 2010. The rush numbers are the one area where there is not an obvious improvement. That said, much like during the Matt Schaub, Wali Lundy/Alvin Pearman days, the swing pass has become a substitute for the traditional running attack. Virginia’s current points per game average of 27.8 is the highest since 2004 when the Cavaliers averaged 30.2 points per game.
We’re all happy with the last two wins, but things still aren’t quite clicking on O. Against Duke, there were 14 offensive drives, but only 4 offensive scores. What is the next step in the progression to score more consistently? How do you see it working against Pitt, which will likely the best D on the schedule to date? ~ mwolve
Sabre Editor Kris Wright: Consistency is definitely the next target. As you noted and as Greg wrote in his weekly Grades/Trends article, there’s a little bit of feast or famine action going on with the offense. That happens to all teams, but it feels like pretty wild swings for this UVA team. To me, the key is to eliminate drive killers that have cropped up on a lot of the drives: penalties, dropped passes, sacks, or tackles for loss. Against Duke, for example, at least 8 of the non-scoring drives featured one or more of those things. Against UConn, at least 4 of the non-scoring drives did too. If you add in drives with turnovers or ‘no gain’ runs, the numbers would climb. Long story short: UVA must be more productive on first and second down and avoid plays that set back the offense.
Assuming the team continues to improve, how many wins do you see as the best-case scenario for this season? ~ CDCHoo
Sabre Editor Kris Wright: Before the season, I tagged the window for Virginia as between 5-7 and 7-5 based on the schedule and the coaching transition, which would account for improvement as the season develops. Considering that UVA lost two winnable games from the preseason projection, I think that window has slid to between 3-9 and 5-7. Making it to 6-6 will require either a remarkable string at home (no more losses at Scott Stadium) or winning at least one road game. That’s doable, but seven straight weeks of games ending with three of four on the road makes a surge to 6-6 or better challenging.