Keys & Picks – Virginia Football Vs. William & Mary

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The Virginia football team opens its season against William & Mary.
Micah Kiser and the defense will try to get after a new starting QB for William & Mary. ~ Kris Wright

When Virginia football fans watch the team’s season opener against William & Mary on Saturday, eyes will be eagerly looking for something. Or, to put it another way, fans will be looking in earnest for any signs of hope and progress in 2017.

After the Cavaliers sputtered to a 2-10 finish in 2016, culminating in a frustrating 52-10 embarrassment against Virginia Tech, fans packed their football interest into storage and then labeled the box do not open until further notice. Yes, “Show me mode” is in full bloom in Hooville when it comes to the football team.

Still, deep down fans want to get on board. They want to have good times in Scott Stadium again. Look no further than message board posts about the good ol’ days for proof.

That’s why the season opener, the first of three straight home games to open the season, carries some importance to it. Fans want to see progress and at least a glimmer of hope.

Does the offense look more settled? Are mental mistakes limited? Does the defense stop the run and tackle well? Is the kicking game existent? Are there any new faces that look promising? Is a turnover free game still possible? Are there any sparks of explosive and exciting plays?

Jordan Ellis? Chris Peace? Joe Reed? Malcolm Cook?

You get the idea. They might as well play Poison over the loudspeakers as the soundtrack.

Kris’ Keys To Winning

1. Turnovers. It might be wise to just copy and paste this one until the Cavaliers prove they can win the turnover battle. Like the game preview pointed out, Virginia has the longest turnover streak at the FBS level (42 straight games) and has been on the positive side of turnover margin in a season only once from 2008-2016 (+5 in 2014). In the two upset losses to W&M in 2009 and Richmond in 2016, the Hoos combined for 11 turnovers (7 vs. the Tribe and 4 last year vs. the Spiders). Yuck.

2. Rattle the quarterbacks. William & Mary entered game week without a clear starter at quarterback and three players still in the mix. No matter who the choice (or choices), experience is not on their side. Junior Tommy McKee has been the No. 2 QB for two seasons, but attempted only five passes in 13 game appearances. Sophomore Brandon Battle was on the travel squad last year, but didn’t play and freshman Shon Mitchell just arrived.

The Cavaliers have a lot of experience back on defense. They should use that to get after the quarterback, particularly on the offense’s right side where the Tribe expect to have first-time starters at center and right tackle sandwiching two-time starter Nathan McConnell at right guard. Andrew Brown could make a big impact over there and that could jumpstart all kinds of opportunities. Bottom line: use the defense to disrupt an inexperienced QB and go from there.

3. Strength test. A little lost in the build-up to the season opener was this quote from UVA coach Bronco Mendenhall: “Yeah, I think it’s safe to say, and really I think even deeper than that you just really try or we tried a highlight of our most capable and most productive players, and right now we have a returning starter at quarterback who I think is a very good football player and has great potential. So really the ball distribution, as much as I like balance and as much as I like complements and moving the ball and spreading it around, it might happen more through the air than on the ground a year ago just as our personnel has changed.” That came in answer to a reporter question about relying more on the passing game following the completed careers of running backs Taquan Mizzell and Albert Reid, who teamed up for a huge chunk of the offense’s production last season. That duo combined for 14 of the team’s 37 touchdowns last season (38%).

Long story short: UVA may be relying on the experience and throwing ability of senior quarterback Kurt Benkert. The interesting part of that for the opener against W&M is that it sets up a strength-on-strength showdown potentially. The Tribe led the FCS in pass defense last season at 154.2 yards allowed and they’ve given up 300 passing yards just seven times since 2007, a span of 118 games. Winner take all?

The Picks

Sabre Editor Kris Wright: William & Mary has managed to scare (2015) or shock (2009) UVA in two of its last three visits to Scott Stadium. Still, those teams visited Virginia with coaches in the final year of their tenures. This is a different situation. These Cavaliers enter Bronco Mendenhall’s second year with something to prove after a 2-10 disappointment in 2016. That should resonate in the opener, particularly against a team with a lot of inexperience on offense. VIRGINIA 34, WILLIAM & MARY 10

Sabre Associate Editor Chris Horne: Virginia was totally unprepared for last year’s season opener against Richmond. The result wasn’t pretty, leaving the team and the fans stunned as the Spiders rolled to victory. Last year’s debacle will help this year’s Cavalier team heading into week one. Sure there are questions, particularly on offense, but physically and mentally the players seem sharp and focused and prepared to open 2017 with a good performance. William & Mary will be game, but I’m picking the Hoos to start Year 2 of the Mendenhall era the right way. VIRGINIA 38, WILLIAM & MARY 14

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