When the Virginia football team learned of its bowl date with South Carolina earlier this month, it didn’t take long for a strong sense of deja vu to set in for the Cavaliers’ defense. As the players dug into film and preparation, they saw some similarities to a late September game.
The flashbacks traced back to the NC State game on Sept. 29, a game the Hoos lost 35-21 in Raleigh.
“In terms of their ability and as far as the kind of players and skill set that they bring, it’s similar to NC State,” UVA corner Bryce Hall said. “I think they were probably one of the best teams we played all year in terms of size, speed, skill, and ability. We expect it to be a similar matchup just like that. They’ve got some big receivers.”
The comparison starts with USC quarterback Jake Bentley, who reminded some in the Virginia secondary of NCSU QB Ryan Finley. Bentley checks in at 6’4” and 224 pounds, while Finley is listed at 6’4” and 212 pounds. Both prefer to wing it in the pocket than scramble around or run keepers.
Oh, and when it comes to that preference, both are really good at it. Each ranked in the top 20 nationally in passing yards per game and in the top 30 in passing touchdowns. Cavalier senior safety Juan Thornhill said Bentley looked like a strong passer on film.
“He can throw the thing,” Thornhill said. “They remind me so much of NC State. They’re just alike. Their quarterback can throw it just as well as Finley. He really impressed me.”
Statistically, the comparison holds up. Finley ranked fifth nationally with an average of 315.8 passing yards per game. He owned a 151.88 passer rating after completing 307 of 452 passes (67.9%) for 3,789 yards, 24 touchdowns, and 9 interceptions. Bentley ranked 17th nationally with an average of 268.5 passing yards per game. He posted a 153.62 passer rating after completing 223 of 349 passes (63.9%) for 2,953 yards, 27 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions.
Overall, NC State’s offense ranked sixth in passing yards per game at 327.7, while South Carolina ranked 24th at 277.4. The Gamecocks had a better rushing attack, ranking 72nd at 162.75 yards per game, while the Wolfpack finished 98th at 143.67 yards per game. NCSU allowed just 9 sacks all season, which ranked No. 4 nationally, while USC tied for 30th by allowing 20 sacks.
Of course, one game in particular really jumped out on film. Bentley threw for 510 yards and 5 touchdowns with only 1 interception against College Football Playoff participant Clemson late in the season. The Gamecocks lost that rivalry game 56-35, but the fact that Bentley managed to put up such a big performance while his team gave up three sacks against a strong Tiger defense, got the attention of UVA’s defense when the coaches told the team about it.
“It kind of shocked me,” Thornhill said. “I was like ‘woah’ so I started watching that game, just watching every pass play and every run play so I can know what’s going on when I’m out there.”
Bentley won’t have one of his top targets in the Belk Bowl, though. Receiver Deebo Samuel will not play against Virginia. He finished the year with 62 receptions for 882 yards and 11 touchdowns so that’s a big target no longer in the lineup. Still, the next two receivers were plenty productive. Bryan Edwards hauled in 52 receptions for 809 yards and 7 touchdowns, while Shi Smith tallied 39 catches for 597 yards and 4 touchdowns.
Plus, Thornhill noted that USC liked “to use their tight ends a lot more than most teams” so players like Kiel Pollard and K.C. Crosby could be involved too. Pollard had 15 catches for 181 yards and 2 TDs, while Crosby had 11 for 101 yards.
The biggest challenge in keeping tabs on the weapons may be tempo. The Gamecocks want to get drives going with rhythm and quick plays.
“Their tempo is especially high paced so it’s going to be a lot of 50-50 balls and a lot of short, quick throws just trying to get the offense going,” Hall said. “Then every once in a while once they think they have you lulled to sleep, they’re going to take some shots over the top. That’s kind of how I’ve been viewing it so just trying to stay ready on every single play.”
The NC State vibes extend to the running game, too. Ultimately, that’s where the game in September got away from the Hoos. Finley completed 22 of 32 passes for 257 yards and 3 touchdowns, but the Wolfpack also put up 176 rushing yards. Ricky Person did the most damage with 108 rushing yards on 14 carries. Most of that came on runs to the perimeter.
UVA linebacker Chris Peace said that South Carolina showed a lot of the same style runs on film.
“Real similar to I’d say NC State,” Peace said. “They do a lot of stretch runs. Lot of cutbacks, lot of stretch runs. Like I said, if you’re not careful, they can gash you real easy.”
Certainly, Virginia hopes the deja vu feelings stay on film instead of making the trip to Charlotte. The Hoos take on South Carolina in the Belk Bowl on Saturday at Noon. They’ll have a chance to end the season with a win for the first time since 2005 when UVA toppled Minnesota in the Music City Bowl.