Virginia Hopes Home Success Continues Against NC State

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Virginia is 1-1 this season.
Can UVA’s defense create some more pressure at Scott Stadium this week? ~ Photo courtesy Matt Riley/Virginia Athletics Media Relations

The Virginia football team typically plays in the ACC’s Coastal Division, while NC State usually resides in the Atlantic Division. As a result, while both are members of the same conference, they rarely duel on the gridiron. The schedule shift and dropped divisions due to the ongoing pandemic, however, has provided an unexpected meeting in 2020.

The two schools last met in 2018 so this is a much quicker turnaround than normal in the conference expansion era. Prior to that 2018 game, which NCSU won 35-21, the previous meeting in the series came in 2012 when both programs had different coaches. The current ACC outline for schedules has the next meeting set for 2023.

In other words, this preparation week is a little different than it is for many conference games.

“As much reading or as much as you know the head coach, or as much as you think [you know], until you play a team, their true identity, their true character, just kind of the culture of the program, you don’t see, you don’t feel and you don’t know up close and personal,” Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall said. “It might have been my first year or second year we played at NC State. But knowing that program then is still significantly different as coordinators have changed since then, and personnel have changed. And so, with that identities can change also. So it’s difficult. And there are certainly some unknowns, and certainly adjusting that happens, just as the game plays out. And even though they’re in our league, even though there’s exchanges and you see him on film on occasion, it’s not the same as preparing for when we’re playing them.”

While that unfamiliarity will present some challenges, the Cavaliers should remember two of State’s key players on offense.

Receiver Emeka Emezie earned co-ACC Receiver of the Week honors for his performance at Pittsburgh. He hauled in 7 catches for 102 yards and 2 touchdowns, including the game-winning score. In the 2018 matchup with UVA, he put up 90 yards and a touchdown on 5 catches. Running back Ricky Person Jr. also had a strong outing with 14 carries for 108 yards in that game (that’s still his career high). He’s rushed for 202 yards and 3 touchdowns so far this season.

With those two definitely on the scouting report, let’s look closer at the Virginia-NC State contest.

Essentials

Three Opponents To Watch

Quarterback Devin Leary, No. 13: He made a splash in his first start of the season last week at Pitt. He posted 336 yards and 4 touchdowns on 28-of-44 passing. That stat line included a game-winning drive in the final two minutes as he guided the team 75 yards for a touchdown without any timeouts on the board. Leary was named the ACC Quarterback of the Week. This contest’s outcome could hinge on which redshirt sophomore quarterback has the better day.

Linebacker Drake Thomas, No. 32: The Wolfpack has had to shuffle the starting lineup on defense through three games with only five players making the start in all three games. Thomas leads the team in tackles with 25 on the season, including 2 sacks. Fellow linebacker Isaiah Moore (No. 1) is a Virginia native with 21 tackles across three starts in 2020.

Tight end Cary Angeline, No. 6: An honorable mention All-ACC pick last season, Angeline leads the Wolfpack with 3 receiving touchdowns his season. At 6’7” and 250 pounds, he’s a big target and he runs well. NCSU moves him around and he could be a threat against UVA’s safeties in certain spots. Leary has thrown 5 of his 14 career touchdown passes to Angeline.

Three Quotes

Virginia offensive coordinator Robert Anae on UVA receiver Billy Kemp IV: “This game, players come in all shapes and sizes. Billy’s very productive in doing what he does. The biggest part is how hard Billy approaches every day to work and how intense he is to hone his craft and master not just what he’s doing, but to do it at a high level. So very impressed with the work ethic. If you combine that with talent, you’re going to have some pretty special things.”

NC State coach Dave Doeren: “They are very sound. They’re big. They remind you of a Big Ten team when you look at how big they are. They’re strong. I’m impressed with how they don’t beat themselves. They are a low-penalized team. They are a team that doesn’t give up a lot of plays in their backfield; they’ve only had six plays in their own backfield in two games, and obviously Clemson was one of those teams.”

NCSU quarterback Devin Leary: “I think they have a very good defensive scheme. They definitely try to show multiple different coverages, multiple different types of pressures as well. I think they have very long, athletic players that are very good. I mean it’s really up to us to come into the game with the best possible game plan to attack them.”

Three Key Questions

1. Will third downs be a significant storyline again?

Virginia’s defense held Clemson’s deep passing game in check and slowed down the running game, which helped force the Tigers into 15 third downs on the game. Unfortunately for the Hoos, Clemson converted 8 of 15 and that included 5 conversions of 9 yards or more. Duke, on the other hand, converted just 6 of 18 third downs in the opener.

Back in the 2018 meeting, NC State came through on 8 of 13 third downs and it got the 35-21 win in the end. Does Doeren’s scouting have a game plan that can duplicate that success against Mendenhall’s group this season? NCSU is 18 for 45 on third down conversions so far in 2020, good enough for 49th nationally.

2. Who controls the seams?

In the season opener, Virginia forced Duke into 7 turnovers and piled up 5 sacks too in a win. The only hiccups: the Blue Devils scored 2 touchdowns in the middle of the field on a 55-yard reception against busted coverage and an 8-yard catch in the red zone. Overall, QB Chase Brice connected on 11 of 23 passes for 222 yards, 2 TDs, and 3 INTs between the numbers.

Last week against Pittsburgh, NC State’s Devin Leary attacked that area of the field too on 8-11 passing for 103 yards and 2 touchdowns. In relief duty against Virginia Tech, he was 5-7 for 80 yards on throws between the numbers too. With the tight end being one of his favorite targets and Duke’s success with the tight ends, UVA should expect Leary to try the seams in this matchup too.

Meanwhile, opponents have had solid production between the numbers against NC State’s defense too. Wake Forest’s Sam Hartman went 12-15 for 152 yards in the opener, while VT’s Braxton Burmeister completed 3-3 for 54 yards in that matchup. Pitt’s Kenny Pickett really exposed that part of the field with 232 yards and 2 TDs on 7-11 passing.

Virginia can pose problems with its intermediate passing attack in the middle of the field. That’s an area where Terrell Jana, Billy Kemp IV, and Tony Poljan all have some catches this season and Brennan Armstrong seems to like the seams for certain throws as well.

3. What happens in the red zone?

NC State’s offense has made a habit of cashing in when it gets near the end zone this season. NCSU is one of 15 teams nationally to score on every trip inside the 20 this season and it is one of the best at maximizing the points down there too. The Wolfpack have scored touchdowns on 11 of 12 red zone possessions, good enough for fourth nationally in red zone touchdown percentage behind Florida International (1-1), Coastal Carolina (13-14), and Clemson (12-13). They have shown that they can run it in, find the tight end, or take advantage of the receiver matchup on the outside so the offense is a tough cover.

Virginia’s defense, meanwhile, hasn’t allowed many red zone trips in two games as Duke and Clemson created just 6 chances inside the 20 in the two games. The Cavaliers, however, gave up touchdowns on 5 of the 6 chances and the 83.3% red zone touchdown percentage is among the lowest in the nation in the early stages of the season. If the trends continue on both sides this week, that could be an issue unless the Hoos limit State’s chances near the end zone altogether.

On the other side, UVA’s offense has scored on 8 of 10 red zone trips with 6 touchdowns this season. NC State stuffed Pitt on the goal line last week, but has allowed 14 scores on 16 opponent red zone possessions, including 11 touchdowns. The Cavaliers need to take advantage if they can get any drives deep into Wolfpack territory, unlike last week’s first possession of the second half where Armstrong threw an INT from the Clemson 19-yard line that short-circuited any budding comeback hopes.

Three Picks

Sabre Editor Kris Wright

Both offenses have shown signs of explosiveness and the ability to threaten defenses in multiple ways. NC State put up 45, 24, and 28 points in its three games en route to a pair of wins. UVA scored 38 against Duke and then finished with 23 against Clemson (the most by an ACC team against the Tigers since 2018).

To me, that means this game comes down to defense and which team can make the other one dimensional. I think Virginia has a clear edge there. The Hoos have allowed just 96.5 rushing yards per game and 2.8 yards per carry so far this season and that includes the game against the Tigers with star running back Travis Etienne. NCSU relies on its running game with two backs having more than 200 yards rushing already in 2020 so it won’t be easy, but it looks like the Cavaliers can slow down the run. UVA, meanwhile, has an experienced offensive line that’s helped get Wayne Taulapapa going in week one and Brennan Armstrong going in week two on the ground. The Wolfpack allow 185 rushing yards per game and 4.4 yards per carry through three games.

Long story short: the Hoos bottle up the run and turn up the pass pressure heat on Leary and a State O-Line that’s allowed 9 sacks already this season. That will lead the way as the Wahoos continue to get wins at home. VIRGINIA 38, NC STATE 24. This season: 2-0.

Sabre Associate Editor Chris Horne.

NC State comes in with a confident quarterback in Devin Leary, who has completed 40 of 60 passes (66.7%) for 501 yards with 5 touchdowns and 0 interceptions in the last two games against Virginia Tech and Pittsburgh. Leary played in the second half of the blowout loss to Tech and the entire game in a 1-point upset win over Pitt. He looks comfortable in the pocket and has quality receiving options, including a pair of big receivers in Emeka Emezie and Devin Carter, plus a good tight end in Cary Angeline. Running backs Zonovan Knight and Ricky Person Jr. can run the ball and have shown the ability to catch the ball coming out of the backfield, so UVA’s defense has its hands full with a Wolfpack offense that can spread the wealth.

That being said, for the most part I think Virginia’s defense matches up well here. Cornerbacks Nick Grant and De’Vante Cross are big corners, and so far this season they have both covered well. Angeline could give the Hoos some problems, and UVA’s defense will also have to account for the short passes to running backs and screens. This is an experienced Cavalier defense, though, so I’m confident they will be able to handle what NC State throws at them. Pressuring Leary will be crucial, though, so as not to let him remain comfortable in the pocket.

Offensively, Virginia needs to start well and be more consistent. NC State has given up large chunks of yards – Virginia Tech dominated them with the run game, while Pittsburgh passed for 400-plus yards. The offensive line will have to continue to play well, and if it does, quarterback Brennan Armstrong and company should have success against an NC State defense that has some talent up front but had major blown coverages against the Panthers. Armstrong needs to start fast and cannot turn the ball over deep in UVA territory, as he has done in each of the first two games.

NC State has been penalty prone in the first three games, committing 25 penalties in total. If UVA can play a clean game and stop the turnovers, the Hoos should be able to take care of business at home. VIRGINIA 34, NC STATE 24. This season: 2-0.

Sabre Message Board Fan Thurston1743

The Hoos must limit Devin Leary to under 275 yards passing, and must be better on 3rd-and-long defensively. Brian Delaney needs to keep his perfect streak going as well in the kicking game. It could be a big day for Tony Poljan and my favorite new Hoo Lavel Davis Jr.

Charles Snowden and Noah Taylor are both due for huge games and they could come up large for Virginia. Would love to see UVA with 6 or 7 sacks Saturday …

Hopefully Virginia will not have anymore Covid positives this week and the 7 guys and one coach are asymptomatic and feeling better. Also, hopefully Virginia will have a first-half timeout left when the second-quarter begins! Go Hoos. Virginia wins this game at home. HOOS 33, WOLFIES 27. This season (last week wahoobrian05): 2-0.

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