Three-List Game Preview – Virginia Football Vs. Indiana

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The Virginia football team won its opener for the first time since 2013.
Juan Thornhill had a big game against William & Mary and the defensive backs will need to come through against Indiana too. ~ Kris Wright

The Virginia football team faced just 13 passes last week in its season opener against William & Mary. Things will be drastically different this Saturday, though.

Indiana comes to Scott Stadium as one of the nation’s most pass-happy offenses. The Hoosiers attempted 456 passes a year ago to rank 31st nationally (that trailed UVA’s 487 that ranked 15th by the way). In the season opener against Ohio State, they threw 68 times with 65 of those coming from starting quarterback Richard Lagow as he set a new program record.

In other words, IU will test the team’s pass defense. The Cavaliers likely will counter with varying sub schemes that put extra linebackers or defensive backs on the field. Their nickel package already gets a lot of work in Bronco Mendenhall’s game plans with two defensive linemen and a mix of nine linebackers and defensive backs on the field.

The Hoos showed that look a lot against William & Mary, which pushed Chris Moore into heavy snaps. The safety turned linebacker is the sort of hybrid athlete to make that scheme work as a counter to the spread looks from pass-heavy teams.

”I think we have a lot of DBs on the field so we have a lot of speed on the field,” Moore said. ”For me, I just know being in nickel means the ball probably is going to be thrown so higher chance for me to get an interception or knock down a couple of passes. The way we’re going this year, I think nickel is our best package.”

Moore started the season finale against Virginia Tech last season as one of six true freshmen to make at least one start in 2016. He made eight tackles in that game and then followed it up with five tackles against the Tribe.

Moore had been in competition with Brenton Nelson for that nickel role for most of the preseason, but played well early in the game to pick up most of the snaps. Nelson, who Mendenhall said can play any of the spots between cornerback, nickel back, or safety, figures to become a key figure anyway in the coming games. With Tim Harris lost for the season due to a wrist injury, Nelson is now listed at corner on the depth chart with the versatility to move around.

Whichever combination of defenders make the game plan against Indiana should expect a lot of work. The Hoosiers ran 95 plays (65 passes and 27 rushes) in their season opener with Ohio State. The Hoos will prepare for that tempo as best as they can after seeing just 54 plays against William & Mary.

“It’s not possible to simulate,” Mendenhall said. “In the first half versus Ohio State, Indiana ran more plays than we defended the entire game the other night, so you’re looking at almost double the output in terms of energy expenditure and volume of plays. But you also have to have a healthy fast and fresh team. And so we have some ideas and obviously having defended our own offense for a long time at Brigham Young and a year ago we had a small taste of it against Oregon. So we have ideas. But, again, each team, each roster, you have to manage it a little bit differently.”

Lagow expects the defense to challenge his team not only with nickel and being prepared for the tempo, but by throwing a lot of looks his way. Mendenhall mixes in a lot of coverage looks, rolls, blitz packages, twists, and stunts as part of the scheme.

“Film study is very important against a team that is this multiple,” Lagow said. “I want to know everything that they can do, how they might disguise it and their tendencies. Virginia is going to try to do a lot of things defensively. We have to be on top of our game this weekend.”

Virginia Football Essentials

Three Big Trends

  1. Red Zone Scoring. UVA scored three touchdowns on four red zone trips against the Tribe, a 75% touchdown percentage that would have ranked in the top 10 nationally in 2016. The Hoos have been good in this area through the first 13 games of the Mendenhall area with a 71.8% rate a year ago (28 of 39 trips for touchdowns) that tied for 16th nationally. Saturday’s showing against W&M stopped a three-game trend below those numbers, though. UVA ended the season last season with four touchdowns in its final nine red zone trips, a low 44.4% rate. If the opening touchdown percentage carries through the season, that would go a long way to improving on the 2-10 finish of 2016.
  2. Kurt Benkert Touchdown Passes In Non-Con Games. Virginia quarterback Kurt Benkert has started 11 games in his Virginia career and he’s put up some good numbers against non-conference competition. In the five games against teams outside the ACC, he’s thrown two or more touchdown passes in four of those games with 13 total. That includes eight in his last two non-con games: a three-touchdown day last week against William & Mary and five against Central Michigan last season, which tied for No. 2 in UVA program history for most touchdown passes in a game.
  3. Double ‘em up duo. Virginia seniors Micah Kiser and Quin Blanding have finished atop the ACC’s tackle standings in back-to-back seasons with both finishing with double-digit averages in 2016. Kiser averaged 11.2 stops, while Blanding averaged 10.0. One or the other almost always finishes with double-digit stops of late: in 14 of the last 16 games, either Kiser or Blanding has reached that bar.

Three Big Questions

  1. Will Losing Tim Harris Cost The Hoos Against The Hoosiers? As you’ll read below, IU quarterback Richard Lagow put up big numbers in 2016 and in the opener against Ohio State. He’s got some big and talented targets to throw it to too with three players at 6’0”, 6’4”, and 6’4” starting at receiver. Virginia lost one of its biggest and most physical options at corner last week when 6’2” 205-pound Tim Harris suffered a wrist injury that ended his season. Germane Crowell, a 6’0” 190-pound true freshman, is listed at the top of the depth chart now with 5’11” 180-pound redshirt freshman Brenton Nelson on the second line after moving over from safety. If those two end up getting a lot of the snaps in that spot, they’ll be tested. Will they be up to the task?
  2. Can UVA prevent negative plays? Virginia felt like it left points on the field in the opener against William & Mary between a missed field goal and stalled drives after crossing the 50-yard line. The biggest issue on the day proved to be lost yardage as the Hoos lost 41 yards on nine tackles for loss by the Tribe. Mendenhall indicated that UVA counted “probably” seven of the nine TFLs as “assignment and execution mistakes.” That had a big hand in a 2.9 yards per carry on running plays. Indiana had just three TFLs in its opener, but ranked 18th nationally a year ago with 97 (7.46 per game) and the man in charge of that defense is now head coach Tom Allen. If the Cavaliers give up a big number in this category Saturday, it could lead to a long day for the offense.
  3. Where does O go? Olamide Zaccheaus has at least one touchdown catch in six of the last 10 games, including one in the season opener last week. That stretch helped him lead the team in touchdown receptions last season with seven. He’s also closing in on 1,000 career receiving yards, needing just 144 more to join that club. In the opener, the Hoos targeted Zaccheaus but used him in simple ways – mostly on quick flat patterns or inside slants out of the slot, though he did score his touchdown on a slot wheel route. The Cavaliers have more in store for him over the long haul, however, so everything from motion sweeps to backfield carries to screens to vertical routes could be on the table at times. Do they pull out some of those wrinkles in week two against the Hoosiers?

Three Big Foes

  1. Quarterback Richard Lagow. The community college transfer is making the most out of his two years with the Hoosiers. He started all 13 games for the team a year ago and passed for 3,362 yards with 19 touchdowns and 17 interceptions. He also posted two rushing scores and a touchdown catch. In this season’s opener, he passed for 420 yards against Ohio State to become the first QB in program history to reach the 400-yard plateau twice. He completed 40 passes (second in program history) on 65 attempts (a program record) in the loss. Between the tempo and the air attack, UVA’s pass defense will get a big test this week.
  2. Linebacker Tegray Scales. You could bill this game as a battle between two of the nation’s best linebackers with Micah Kiser at Virginia and Scales at Indiana. Scales has posted four straight games with double-digit tackles dating back to last season and including the 2017 opener when he had 12 against Ohio State. Since the start of the 2016 season, he has 10 10-plus tackle games, which shares second nationally. He led all defenders nationally with 23.5 tackles for loss a year ago. That helped him become the first IU linebacker since 1987 to earn All-American recognition (second team from
  3. Receiver Simmie Cobbs Jr. Lagow has several tall targets, but may be the most dangerous at 6’4” and 210 pounds. The redshirt junior is motivated in a big way too after an injury in the 2016 opener ended his season, making this a comeback year. He got off to a good start against the Buckeyes with 11 catches for 149 yards and a touchdown. That marked the fifth 100-yard game of his career. He’s up to 1,298 yards receiving for his career, good enough for fourth in program history. He landed on several preseason lists, including the Phil Steel All-American preseason team (second team).

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