The Virginia football team plays its first ACC road game of the season Saturday when it travels to Raleigh to face NC State. Kickoff is scheduled for 12:20 p.m. as the Cavaliers will try to reach 2-0 in league play ahead of a bye week on the schedule.
To make that happen, the Hoos will probably need to bring a Snoopy vs. The Red Baron mentality on the trip. That’s because, for the defense at least, this game figures to be a test of aerial skills.
The Wolfpack enter the game ranked No. 1 in the ACC and No. 4 among FBS schools with 370.7 passing yards per game. Quarterback Ryan Finley leads the conference with 352.0 passing yards per game. He has 1,056 passing yards, 5 touchdowns, and 1 interception. Finley’s top target has been junior receiver Kelvin Harmon, who leads the league by averaging 104.0 per contest (UVA’s Olamide Zaccheaus is tied for first in receiving yards with 392). Harmon put up 150 receiving yards last week and now has 312 yards in three games, but no touchdowns.
That start is building on an already strong career with NCSU. He’s thrown for more than 3,000 yards in each of the last two seasons (3,059 in 2016 and 3,514 in 2017) with 35 touchdowns and 14 interceptions in those two seasons. Adding in this year’s totals, he’s up to 7,629 yards, 40 touchdowns, and 15 interceptions. As that ratio suggests, he takes care of the football. No NC State quarterback had more attempts as a starter before his first INT – Finely attempted 139 passes before he got picked off. Then he put together another really good streak when he went 339 passes without an interception bridging the 2016 and 2017 season.
On his sixth year of eligibility (a broken ankle earlier in his career led to the extra year) after transferring from Boise State, Finley has a ton of experience. He’s seen it all at this point. That means a defense probably is not going to be able to fluster him by throwing just one look his way or by just blitzing relentlessly.
The goal then is for the defense to try to keep him off rhythm by mixing up its looks and coverages. Finley may recognize everything thrown his way, but if he’s having to make different throws repeatedly, then maybe you can slow down the passing game a little bit.
“You’ve got to mix it up. … You’ve got to blend it,” Virginia co-defensive coordinator Kelly Poppinga said. “Play some zone, play some man, blitz him, run some stunts, but … he’s seen it all. He’s very experienced. He knows how to diagnose coverages, he knows how to throw in zones, he knows where to put the ball when it’s man, and he knows when to scramble. He’s really good. He’s the best I think we’ve seen since we’ve been here as far as just a passer. We’ve got a great challenge on our hands and our guys are very excited for that challenge on Saturday.”
Of note, while UVA’s coaches have yet to play NC State in ACC play, they have faced Finley before. When he played at Boise State in 2014 and 2015, the Cougars faced him twice. In 2014, BSU got the win with Finley only seeing a footnote moment on a 21-yard carry in the game’s final five minutes. In 2015, Finley started for the Broncos when BYU got the win. Finley went 25-of-38 passing for 297 yards with one touchdown and three interceptions in that game. The Cougars netted four sacks as well.
Cavalier coach Bronco Mendenhall said that “since that time, maturity, experience, consistency have all increased from I would say the earlier version” of Finley in that game.
Kris’ Keys To Winning
1. Play Keep Away, But Score Touchdowns
It’s no secret that NC State can throw the football around the yard a little bit.
As noted above, a defense needs to try to keep Finley off rhythm by mixing up its looks and coverages. Another way to challenge his rhythm and reduce the passing attack, however, is to play keep away with your own offense. To do that, Virginia’s blocking and run execution will need to be better than last week’s outing against Louisville. Jordan Ellis averaged just 3.4 yards per carry on 20 attempts last week for 68 yards. If you subtract the eye-catching hurdle play from Bryce Perkins that covered 36 yards and the Brennan Armstrong play that went 34 yards, UVA’s run total drops dramatically.
The challenge to do that this week comes from NC State’s run defense, which enters this game ranked 22nd nationally (ahead of Alabama at No. 23!) by allowing 108 yards per game. Of course, those numbers may be boosted by playing Georgia State and Marshall, who rank among the bottom 15 FBS teams in rushing yards. Did NCSU cause that or did that boost the defense’s average? We’ll find out soon enough. UVA enters the game ranked 33rd nationally in rushing offense at 216.5 yards per game.
Of course, the keep away strategy alone won’t work if any time-eating drives don’t put enough points on the board. The Cavaliers need to finish off drives with touchdowns too. They have 10 touchdown drives this season covering between three to six minutes (anywhere from 20% to 40% of a 15-minute quarter) so this is a reachable goal. NCSU has been good in the red zone where it has allowed two touchdowns in nine attempts.
Make no mistake, if the offense can get some one-play touchdowns like the Ohio game, you’ll take those too. But if those are absent, eat up some clock and then break the opponent spirit with a touchdown on those drives.
2. Avoid A Game-Changer
Bryce Perkins has done a solid job of protecting the football in the passing game so far in 2018 with nine touchdown passes just two interceptions. Only one quarterback in the ACC has more touchdown throws and that’s Boston College’s Anthony Brown, but he also has double the interceptions with four. The only ACC QB with as many touchdown throws and fewer interceptions and that’s Syracuse’s Eric Dungey, who owns a 9-1 TD-INT ratio.
With that said, both of Perkins’ interceptions nearly ended up in opponent touchdowns. Richmond pulled off the pick-6, while Louisville ended up on the UVA 3-yard line (Perkins saved the touchdown by pushing the return out of bounds). UVA fans certainly feel a little snakebit in this area since it feels like those interception returns happen at a high rate against the Hoos in recent seasons. NC State scored on a pick-6 last week when Jarius Morehead brought one back 57 yards for the score.
The same logic could apply to special teams too.
3. Win Third Down
Both teams come into this game ranked in the nation’s top 10 for third down conversions on offense. NC State is fourth at 58.54% (24-41), while UVA is ninth at 55.17% (32-58). UVA quarterback Bryce Perkins noted earlier this season that a big key to third down success is what happens on first and second down, which shows up in the statistics. Virginia is 19 of 21 on 3rd-and-4 or shorter this season (90.5%), but 13 of 37 (35.1%) on longer attempts. NCSU, meanwhile, has averaged 6.3 yards on 98 first down plays this season to help that offense stay on schedule.
Granted, neither team has really faced an FBS stopper on third down. Georgia State, Louisville, Marshall, and Ohio all rank 95th or lower in third down defense. Indiana is the only trend-breaker there at No. 39 in the nation. So which defense has done better between the two teams? UVA has held opponents to 36% on conversions (18-50) to rank 57th nationally, while State has held opponents to 39.5% on conversions (17-43) to rank 82nd nationally. The defenses haven’t faced a third down offense ranked in the top 50 yet (IU is tops so far this season among the five FBS opponents at 53rd).
If either defense gets an edge in this category, that could be a huge boost toward a winning outcome.
Sabre Editor Kris Wright
In the first two years of the Mendenhall era, Virginia has won its ACC road opener in both years and both of those games came in North Carolina. In 2016, the Hoos won at Duke, 34-20, and in 2017, they won at UNC, 20-14. Can the third time be just as charming?
On paper, there’s not a real clear answer. The two teams stack up fairly even in any number of categories from scoring offense to scoring defense to third downs to turnover margin to penalties and on down the list. NC State boasts a dangerous passer in Ryan Finley. UVA boasts a dangerous threat in Bryce Perkins. Both teams have great receiving threats too in Kelvin Harmon and Olamide Zaccheaus. Both teams have players among the ACC leaders in tackles with Germaine Pratt and Juan Thornhill. And on it goes.
The home team usually holds an edge in these toss-up games and oddsmakers like NCSU even beyond the traditional home bump (favored by 6 as of Thursday afternoon). Virginia fans hope the fact that NC State hasn’t faced much competition yet will help even things out.
Where does that all leave my pick? I think that means this game will come down to a few plays made by a playmaker on one side or the other. The last time Zaccheaus had an off week by his standards against Indiana, he came through with a monster performance against Ohio. Plus, NC State gave up a 42-yard kick return to Marshall last week so maybe Joe Reed makes something happen too. UVA finishes a five-game September at 4-1. VIRGINIA 30, NC STATE 27. Season to date: 3-1.
Sabre Associate Editor Chris Horne
Unbeaten NC State and its passing attack figures to be Virginia’s toughest test of the season. However, UVA, which is coming off a complete performance (one of its best in the Mendenhall era to date) in a victory over Louisville, should be NC State’s toughest contest of the season as well.
I’ve honestly gone back and forth on this pick. Virginia’s lack of depth on defense, particularly at inside linebacker, where the Hoos will be without star Jordan Mack for the next six weeks, worries me. But I’m not sold on NC State’s defense, which had to replace eight starters from a year ago. The Wolfpack D has played well so far, but how tested have they been? Of the two teams, Virginia has faced tougher competition so far in 2018.
This, along with a Virginia offensive attack that is more balanced and is playing well, will be enough to move the Cavaliers to 4-1 on the season, 2-0 in the ACC. Ryan Finley and company will be tough, but I like the Hoos in a close one. VIRGINIA 35, NC STATE 31. Season to date: 3-1.