It’s been an interesting week for the Virginia football program hasn’t it? First, the Hoos played in a monsoon at Indiana and lost in frustrating fashion, 20-16. Then, they returned home to answer questions about potentially playing in similar weather conditions this week against Ohio.
Instead, the weather projections led to a State of Emergency in the state and UVA proactively moved the game to a neutral site at Vanderbilt in Nashville. The forecast shifted enough to pull Charlottesville outside of the most serious rain bands it appears, but there’s enough uncertainty state-wide to stay the course. The decision was made early enough for the Hoos to alter their preparations, though.
The team fit in its regular game week practices and then headed to Nashville on Thursday, a day earlier than most road games. They’ll change hotels for the two nights in town due to the short notice of the trip and then play the game at 4:30 p.m. ET. UVA coach Bronco Mendenhall discussed the changes on the ACC coaches’ teleconference Wednesday.
“I’m trying to just get my details correct here,” Mendenhall said. “On Monday night, I’m not certain that we knew or clearly didn’t know for sure if the game would be played. And so going into – we’re a Tuesday early morning practice team, and so we practiced Tuesday. Basically I didn’t share anything with the team or the staff other than it was business as usual, but there was still some uncertainty in my mind whether we would be playing the game. Fortunately after Tuesday morning’s practice, our administration had worked really diligently and quickly to where we knew we’d be playing somewhere at that point, and so it kind of put the rest of the preparation at ease from the coaches and the players.
“What hasn’t kind of been mentioned is our support staff in trying to find airplanes and hotels and travel, so we’ll be staying at two separate hotels because there wasn’t accommodations – knowing that we’re going to be leaving Thursday to get ahead of the storm, when it was projected to come, so we found one hotel that can accommodate us for Thursday night. The same hotel can’t accommodate us for Friday, so we’ll be changing hotel, so our support staff and operations crew has been working more around the clock, and it’s probably affected them more than it has myself and the team.”
The main thing for Mendenhall this week, he said, was to try to get the game in if at all possible. Several ACC schools, including Virginia Tech, will not play this weekend. He thinks every rep is still critical for the program’s progress at this point; UVA is 27 games into his tenure. Many outside observers also project this as an important game for the Cavaliers’ bowl hopes because a win would inch them closer to the needed six wins and take some pressure off some of the ACC games ahead.
“Yeah, certainly it was an option [to cancel],” Mendenhall said. “I really want the young people on our team to succeed. I want them to continue to grow and develop. I feel a sense of urgency and a responsibility under my stewardship to do everything possible to give them that chance, and the easy thing would be just to cancel. But that’s really not why I came to Virginia, and it’s not why these kids have chosen to come play here. We want to grow, we want to play, we want to be developed, and there was an option, and that’s all I was asking for. If there was an option, let’s explore it. Again, every minute to me matters, every game matters, and so that was the reference point I was acting from.”
Kris’ Keys To Winning
1. Clean Up The Cutback Lanes
One of the big issues in last week’s loss to Indiana proved to be run defense. The Hoosiers rolled up 237 rushing yards at 5.4 yards per clip and effectively ate the game away in the second half with ball control running plays. Running back Stevie Scott keyed the attack with 31 carries for 205 yards and a touchdown.
A lot of his success in the second half came off simple cutback lanes created when the IU front washed out or pushed away UVA’s pursuit near the line of scrimmage. These weren’t the electric highlight plays where a running back gets out side the tackle box, reverses field, and makes something happen but those basic start running a few steps, wait for the defense to get carried too far, and then take the first available alley back against the grain a step or two. Rinse and repeat.
Virginia blamed inconsistency with its gap responsibilities for the run defense problems Saturday. Mendenhall indicated that some of it trickled from the front of the defense toward the back (D-Line backward), while linebacker Chris Peace said that the outside linebackers didn’t get their positioning right enough. Bottom line? It needs to be better this week or the Bobcats might be able to duplicate the Indiana plan.
Ohio ranked 16th in the country last season in rushing offense (244.5 yards per game) and averaged 5.74 yards per carry (the most in program history). The Bobcats scored 44 rushing touchdowns to set a new program record that ranked fourth in the nation. Redshirt senior running back A.J. Ouellette currently ranks eighth in school history with 2,537 career rushing yards. While things didn’t start well in the opener against Howard (146 rushing yards, 3.7 yards per carry), the team had a bye week and thus almost two full weeks of practice to re-establish those running roots.
This will be an important part of the story Saturday.
2. Don’t Come Up Short In The Red Zone
The Cavaliers scored touchdowns on both of their red zone chances Saturday to bring their season total to four scores – all TDs – in five trips this season. That could be an important figure again this weekend. One, the Hoos simply need to get there more often or else reply on explosive scoring plays to get to the end zone. Two, the Bobcats are really good in the same area of the field so if this comes down to scoring efficiency in the red zone, you don’t want to trade touchdowns for field goal attempts.
In the season opener, Ohio scored four touchdowns in five red zone trips and hit a field goal on the other possession. That comes on the heels of a superb 2017 season that saw the offense score on 91.9% of its red zone trips (12th nationally) with a touchdown rate of 80.65% (3rd nationally). That included an impressive 35 red zone rushing touchdowns. This simply means the defense also can’t come up with ‘almost got a stop’ possessions if the Bobcats get to the red zone in this one.
Keep an eye on the quarterback down there too. Nathan Rourke had 21 rushing touchdowns a year ago, the most by any QB at the FBS level in 2017. While he may or may not start for Ohio this weekend (Quinton Maxwell came in for him against Howard and led the team to a win), he could get a look in the red zone either way. Keep in mind that UVA has had some trouble containing running quarterbacks at times.
3. Challenge Up Front
In many ways, the difference in outcomes from week one to week two for Virginia can be boiled down to the offensive line. Against Richmond, the line got some push and helped create openings for 301 rushing yards. Against IU, the blocks weren’t as consistent, didn’t move the line of scrimmage forward, and that led to a less productive 188 rushing yards. This could be a season-long theme too. If this offense is going to be based on a combination of run-first calls and option calls, the running game will need to be better and more consistent.
What’s that mean for Ohio? The Bobcats are inexperienced in the defensive front seven where only one starter returns (3 of 4 starters are back in the secondary). They lost two All-MAC linebackers from a year ago. Howard put up 161 rushing yards and 645 yards of total offense in the season-opening matchup two weeks ago. Simply put, Virginia needs to put pressure on Ohio’s front seven this week plus the coaches and/or team need to challenge the offensive line to play better this week.
Sabre Editor Kris Wright
Usually, it seems like you start to learn a lot about a team during the first two to three games of the season. When the first game is against an overmatched FCS opponent and the second game is in a rainstorm, however, those lessons get significantly reduced. As UVA enters week three, there are still questions to be answered.
A few things are fairly clear even through two weeks, though. One, both the offensive and defensive lines must play more consistently to improve chances of winning. Two, Bryce Perkins is still adjusting to the reads and speed for decisions, which is leading to some rushed scrambles and throws. Three, the skill players have to help Perkins out by making routine catches and only then adding something after the catch. Four, the secondary can play better than it did in week two. I’m sure fans can think of some others.
So, that brings things to Ohio, this week’s opponent. The Cavaliers should be playing on a dry surface in Nashville. They should have made some strides this week in practice on some needed corrections. They should be able to match up fairly well with the Bobcats. With that said, they’ll need to avoid mistakes, inconsistency, and special teams’ miscues to take advantage of all that.
I think somebody has a big day and sparks the team to what could amount to a ‘must have’ win by season’s end. Virginia 27, Ohio 17. Season to date: 1-1.
Sabre Associate Editor Chris Horne
How will the team react to the loss to Indiana? How will they react to the game moving from Charlottesville to Nashville? The resiliency of this Virginia football program will be tested in a couple of ways this week.
I like the leadership of this Cavalier program, who I think will answer both of these questions with a quality performance on Saturday. That being said, Virginia will have to make more plays in the pass game and get Jordan Ellis more carries, plus its defensive line will have to be more consistent and prevent Ohio from establishing a running game like Indiana did. Ohio has some questions of its own to answer, including how the defense will rebound from surrendering 645 yards to Howard. The preseason pick to be MAC Champions has some playmakers on offense.
Ultimately, though, I think the Virginia defense will be too much and I think the UVA offense will play better as the Cavaliers move to 2-1 on the season. Virginia 31, Ohio 21. Season to date: 1-1.