When Bronco Mendenhall first started to get the Virginia football team turning in the right direction, little milestones became sort of checkpoints for progress along the way. End the road losing streak. Get to a bowl game. Post a winning record. Back to back bowl games.
The Hoos get a shot at the next possible positive step this weekend in Charlotte at the Belk Bowl. Saturday’s noon kickoff with South Carolina represents the second straight year of bowl play for the Cavaliers, but the program hasn’t won a bowl game since the 2005 Music City Bowl. That means the Wahoos have not entered the offseason on a win in 12 years.
That’s a long time without some positive vibes to push you into the next season. The seniors, who have helped right the ship the last two years, think a victory against the Gamecocks could be a big momentum builder if the Hoos can pull it off.
“With a bowl win, it would help the program a lot,” senior safety Juan Thornhill said. “This is a great opportunity to build this culture because wins bring in recruits. And the guys we have here – we have heck of players here, Bryce [Hall], Brenton [Nelson] coming back, [Darius] Bratton, we have a bunch of good guys coming back.”
“It would be really big,” senior linebacker Chris Peace said. “That carries the momentum into the next season. I said that was one of our goals early this year, not only to make it back to postseason but actually win that.”
Getting a win against South Carolina will be a challenge. The Gamecocks feature one of the nation’s top quarterbacks in Jake Bentley, who has thrown for 27 touchdowns this season, and an offense that averaged 32.6 points per game in the regular season. That sets up another offense vs. defense challenge for the Hoos, who rank 27th nationally in scoring defense by allowing 21.8 points per game.
Even with top receiver Deebo Samuel sitting out the bowl game, USC still has a lot of firepower to test the defense too. Bryan Edwards, Shi Smith, Josh Vann, and several tight end options will step in to try to fill in for the 882 receiving yards and 11 touchdown catches that Samuel put up in 12 games. Edwards posted 809 receiving yards and 7 touchdowns, while Smith added 597 yards and 4 touchdowns. Vann had 118 yards and a score too.
In the end, however, this game probably will boil down to line play more than the head-to-head matchups between receivers and defensive backs. In games where Virginia has been able to establish the run offensively, things have been balanced enough to produce some high-scoring performances. When the Hoos can’t establish the run, opposing defenses have managed to slow down the overall attack. For the defense, in games where the Cavaliers stopped or at least slowed the run, they frequently came out ahead. In games where the opponent could clip off rushing yards, the D wasn’t as successful.
South Carolina, with its roots in the SEC, may have the advantage up front even with some injuries. The offensive line has combined for 131 starts to set the tone on that side of the ball, while the defensive line is capable of disruption with 6.25 tackles for loss per game.
Virginia expects a tough test.
“It’s going to be a good challenge,” UVA cornerback Bryce Hall said. “We’re probably equal in each of our conferences so it’s going to be a good matchup. We expect it to be kind of like the last two weeks of our season have been right down to the wire. It should be a good matchup.”
Kris’ Keys To Winning
1. Stay In It Early
The Cavaliers are playing in consecutive bowl games for the first time since 2004 and 2005. They’ll need to get off to a better start than last season’s loss to Navy. After scoring on the opening kickoff, UVA trailed 14-7 after the first quarter and 28-7 at the half in that game. A similar hole against South Carolina might be tough to make up on the scoreboard or in the team’s psyche.
Starting fast has been part of South Carolina’s formula the last five games, which helped produce three wins. Over the last five games, the Gamecocks scored 66 points in the first quarter or 13.2 points per game. That included 17 in the opening quarter at Ole Miss, 14 on the road at Florida, and 14 against both Chattanooga and Akron as well.
2. Run Well
Virginia is most dangerous when the offense is balanced and that all starts with establishing the running game. That means getting the two-headed attack of Bryce Perkins and Jordan Ellis going. Perkins rushed for 842 yards and 9 touchdowns this season, which helped him produce 188 total points (22 passing TDs, 9 rushing TDs, 1 passing 2-point conversion). That ranked No. 2 in the ACC.
The threat of Perkins running to the outside opens up things for Ellis, the Hoos’ senior running back. With 920 yards entering the bowl game, he needs just 80 yards to become the 15th player in program history to rush for 1,000 yards in a season. The last Hoo to do that came in 2013 when Kevin Park hit the mark with 1,030.
South Carolina has showed some vulnerability against the run. The Gamecocks allowed 2,334 yards this season at a clip of 4.48 yards per carry and 194.5 yards per game, which ranked 94th nationally. They also gave up 28 rushing touchdowns, which ranked 101st nationally. If UVA can get some traction against that defense, it could have the added bonus of slowing down the USC offense and its preferred tempo.
3. Stay Even In The Kicking Game
Field position plays a major role for Virginia’s chances at success this season. In seven wins this season, the Hoos’ average starting field position was its own 37.7 yard line. In the five losses, that drops way down to the 26.4 yard line on average. That’s a difference of 11.3 yards.
If field position factors into the equation, UVA needs to stay even in the kicking game. USC will make that a challenge. Punter Joseph Charlton tallied 43 punts for an average of 44.8 yards. He’s forced a fair catch on 24 of the 43 kicks, while posting just two touchbacks. He’s pinned 16 kicks inside the 20. Against Texas A&M, he punted six times with an average of 50.7 yards so he’s capable of a big game. The Hoos counter with Lester Coleman, who averaged 42.06 yards per punt this season with 18 dropped inside the 20. He had 5 touchbacks and forced 11 fair catches.
Beyond field position, the kicking game on field goals factors in too. South Carolina’s Parker White has made 13 of 15 field goal attempts this season. He’s 27 of 40 in his career, which included a sterling 21 of 23 on kicks inside the 40. He’s hit three game-winning field goals in the fourth quarter in his career. UVA used three kickers this year, but settled on Brian Delaney for much of the way. He made 12 of 15 kicks, including 9 of 11 inside the 40.
Sabre Editor Kris Wright
I’ve waffled on what to do with this pick. The Hoos say they learned from last year’s bowl debacle against Navy and they claim motivation to end the season on a good note. South Carolina, meanwhile, has been tossing out SEC confidence in the build-up to the game. That’s understandable, perhaps, since the Gamecocks are 31-7 in their last 38 non-conference games. They’ve got some motivation too. A win would secure back-to-back eight-win seasons for just the seventh time in school history.
Motivation only goes so far, though, and the game will be decided by the most consistent execution. That’s where the concerns grow for me. South Carolina might be a little weak against the run, but UVA’s offensive line hasn’t shown the ability to push around an opponent and dominate a game. That means the Gamecocks might be able to neutralize the running game a bit and focus attention on Bryce Perkins and Olamide Zaccheaus. When teams have managed to slow down one or both of those players, that’s been troublesome for the Hoos.
USC’s O-Line, meanwhile, might be able to win the physical battle on that side of the equation. If it gets a running game going, then that might free up Bentley to do his thing. Then there’s the tight end factor – South Carolina tight ends have 431 receiving yards and 4 touchdowns this season and the Cavaliers’ scheme has shown some issues with strong tight end play at times in the past.
I just don’t know if the Hoos have enough in the trenches to win this kind of game yet. SOUTH CAROLINA 27, VIRGINIA 24. Regular Season: 7-5.
Sabre Associate Editor Chris Horne
South Carolina has taken some serious hits to its offense, specifically losing star receiver Deebo Samuel and All-SEC left guard Zach Bailey for the bowl game. Still, Jake Bentley and his receivers pose a serious challenge for the Cavalier defense. I like the matchup between the UVA defensive backs and the South Carolina passing game, but I hope the Hoos don’t undersell a capable stable of running backs.
South Carolina’s defense doesn’t create a lot of turnovers, but is very athletic. The keys for UVA are hitting big plays in the passing game and establishing the inside run game with Jordan Ellis. UVA must take pressure off of Bryce Perkins with a quality run game. Is the Cavalier offensive line up for the challenge? That’s my biggest concern right now, but we will find out Saturday.
In the end, I think this will be a close one that could go either way. Up until now, I’ve been leaning South Carolina’s direction, but a gut feeling has me picking the Hoos in a thriller. VIRGINIA 35, SOUTH CAROLINA 34. Regular Season: 7-5.