The Virginia football team welcomes Miami to town Saturday for another night time kickoff. The Hoos and Hurricanes begin their clash at 7 p.m. on what’s expected to be a cool fall evening in Charlottesville.
Night games, perhaps because they had been rare for several years until this season (four known evening kickoffs is the most since 2014 and before that 2011), seem to provide some energy to the atmosphere at Scott Stadium. That’s something that coach Bronco Mendenhall acknowledged this week with reporters on the weekly ACC teleconference call.
“I’ve just been at Virginia long enough and have, I guess, the sample size is getting big enough, and I made a similar comment to our administration the other day that it appears to me that there’s more electricity, energy and vibrancy in the crowd in the evening, and so that’s been one of my takeaways kind of to substantiate your point,” Mendenhall said. “So I like – even though I don’t like night games just because of how hard it is to manage the day before the play and all the downtime, and the back end of game preparation, and it shortens your window, but it seems to me here at Virginia that our fans like that environment. They like that time of day, and if that’s the case, I’m all for it.”
You know what else boosts the electricity and energy in a home crowd? Scoring points. UVA has upped its explosiveness on offense over the past 30 games, but consistently scoring points remains an issue. That’s particularly true against Power 5 opponents.
In 21 games against Power 5 competition to date, Virginia’s offense has averaged 20.6 points per game. In 2016, UVA averaged 19.7 in nine P5 games. In 2017, that number inched up to 21.2 points in nine P5 games. In the three P5 games this season, the average stands at 21.3. The Cavaliers have cracked 30 points just three times in those games, scoring 34 against Duke and 31 against Pitt in 2016 and 40 against Georgia Tech last season. The Hoos went 2-1 in those games by the way.
This sort of thing naturally leads to fan criticism of offensive coordinator Robert Anae. In the search for reasons or explanations for the offense’s inconsistency, after all, play-calling always gets questioned. It’s too predictable. There’s no feel to the play-calling. There aren’t enough adjustments. Those things might explain some of it and they’re certainly good for message board fodder and tailgate conversations. Still, there’s a root issue too – the play of the offensive line.
The Cavaliers continue to work on improving the play up front, but an ongoing shuffle of injuries and graduate student plug-and-play depth makes long-term continuity challenging. This year, for example, Virginia hoped to have junior R.J. Proctor and redshirt freshman Tyler Fannin as part of the rotation. Proctor has been limited since a preseason injury, while Fannin never made it back from an offseason injury. Jake Fieler bounced back from an ankle injury early, while Chris Glaser missed some game time with an injury too. That’s pressed true freshman Bobby Haskins into action and increased the expected playing time for redshirt freshman Ryan Nelson too.
Where does all of the shuffling show up the most? Against Power 5 competition. The Hoos struggle to run the ball consistently against those teams and that trickles down to other areas on offense. By averaging fewer yards per carry, the Cavaliers fall behind schedule on offense more often and fail to convert third downs. They get to the red zone, but can’t pound the ball into the end zone and opponents blow up plays by getting to the backfield. Play action becomes less effective. And so on.
All of that makes this week a wary time for the Hoos. Miami comes to town with the nation’s No. 2 total defense (237.3 yards per game allowed). The Canes are No. 3 in passing yards allowed (137.3) and No. 7 in rushing yards allowed (100.0). They’re No. 1 for third down defense (19.8% conversions allowed) and tackles for loss (12.0 per game).
Long story short: it’s a big test for the offensive line and scoring points this week.
Kris’ Keys To Winning
1. Misdirection And Quick Throws
OK, so with all that in mind from above, what can the Cavaliers do to make up for the potential mismatch up front? This can’t be a simple ‘challenge your toughness’ and see if the offensive linemen can step up to win one-on-one battles (or, perhaps, even win double teams against Miami’s Gerald Willis and Jonathan Garvin). If that’s the plan, well it’s probably going to fail.
The plan needs to combine some concepts to slow down the front seven’s ability to crash running plays and pressure quarterbacks. That means some deception and some quick hitters. In Virginia’s case, that won’t take the form of traditional running back screen plays (unless those have been added to the playbook for the first time really) that the message boards have clamored for recently. Instead, I’d expect some motion into jet sweeps and some orbit motion (man in motion veers behind the quarterback) into option looks. Those types of plays can get the defense shifting one way and allow counter plays to take hold on cutback lanes, fake handoffs, and the like. If UVA goes to some of its read option plays, quarterback Bryce Perkins needs to make the decision at the mesh point quickly or the Canes will eat those plays up.
The Hoos also can try to slow down the pass rush with catch-and-release throws from Perkins, meaning throws where he gets rid of the ball almost immediately after catching the snap. That means patterns like quick ins, slants, tight end sit-down routes, bubble/tunnel screens to the perimeter, seam streaks, and short outs to the slot are all in play this week. UVA confused Miami with some crossover routes (routes that force defenders to pass off responsibilities) last season on the perimeter a bread-and-butter quick-hitter play like Olamide Zaccheaus on an out from the slot could break open too.
2. Contain Big Plays
Miami comes into this game with 32 plays of 20 yards or more on the season, which is tied for 33rd in the nation. The poster child for big plays is receiver Jeff Thomas, who ranks second nationally in average yards per reception at 24.75 yards per catch. Thomas has posted 17 of the 20+ yarders on the season and he had 22 of the big gainers a year ago too. Thomas owns a 50-yard reception against LSU and a 67-yard TD catch against Savannah State. The good news is that UVA has been mostly solid in this category through the first five games. The Hoos have allowed just 18 20+ yard plays on the season, which is tied for 21st nationally.
Thomas is a big-play threat as a punt returner too. Virginia has contained returns so far in 2018, but has had issues at times with it previously in the Mendenhall era. UVA enters this game allowing just 3.14 yards per return and that’s good enough for 17th nationally.
The other big plays, as always, are turnovers. Miami ranks sixth nationally in turnovers gained with 14. The Hurricanes completely destroyed North Carolina on that front with three defensive touchdowns.
3. Score On Defense Or Special Teams
Considering the offense’s ongoing consistency issues in the scoring column, any hopes of an upset might require a special play from the other two units. Joe Reed scored two touchdowns on kickoff returns last season and Miami comes into this game ranked 102nd nationally in opponent kickoff return average (23.31 yards per return). If Reed could break through again, that would fuel upset hopes.
This is also Miami’s ACC road opener and that makes this the first road start of quarterback N’Kosi Perry’s career. He’s tossed just three interceptions so far in his career and he’s coming off a career-best game with four touchdown passes against Florida State. Still, Virginia’s secondary has had its chances for some game-swinging picks this season. If the defense can pick off Perry and take one back for points, that could boost UVA’s chances too.
Sabre Editor Kris Wright
When you break this one down, Miami is the easy pick. The Hurricanes have big receivers than can win one-on-one matchups. They have balance with a running game and the potential to push around a defense with their O-Line. Miami’s defensive line can dominate a game. The defense as a whole can create turnovers. The team wins on third down on both sides of the ball.
A lot of those strengths hit right at UVA’s vulnerabilities. An inexperienced and depth-challenged defensive line. Corners that haven’t won enough of the one-on-one battles. An offense that gets one dimensional when it can’t run block and becomes susceptible to turnovers or lost yardage.
So, yeah, on paper this doesn’t look like a game Virginia should win. Fan hopes seem to be pinned on a disinterested and potentially cold-weather averse Miami team sort of sleep-walking through a game at Scott Stadium. Then the underdog Hoos hang around a steal a win. That’s happened before, of course, but I don’t see Homecomings magic happening this week. A late score dresses up the final margin a little. MIAMI 30, VIRGINIA 20. Season to date: 3-2.
Sabre Associate Editor Chris Horne
Bryce Perkins appears to have been a home run get for Virginia. He has shown the ability to make plays as a passer and as a runner. Jordan Ellis, if given some room to run, is a reliable back. Olamide Zaccheaus is playing like Olamide Zaccheaus and Hasise Dubois has developed into a reliable, productive receiver. Virginia is awaiting consistent production from other players, sure, but the bigger concern is the offensive line, which Bronco Mendenhall expressed concern with earlier this week.
Jordan Mack’s injury certainly hurts Virginia, but I think the Cavalier defense can slow down the Miami offensive attack. I’m not sold that the Cavalier offensive line will be able to play well enough for the entire game against a stout and disruptive Miami defense. Virginia puts up a good fight but ultimately falls to the Canes at home. MIAMI 24, VIRGINIA 21. Season to date: 3-2.