Virginia Looks For Road Rebound At Wake Forest

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Virginia is 1-2.
Richard Burney and the Hoos hope to get back on track this week. ~ Photo courtesy Matt Riley/Virginia Athletics Media Relations

The Virginia football team fell to 1-2 on the season with a disappointing loss at Scott Stadium to NC State, 38-21, on Saturday. That snapped a nine-game home winning streak for the Hoos and left them in bounce-back mode with Wake Forest up next.

One thing on the mind of the Cavaliers as they prepare for the Demon Deacons: slow starts. Of the 76 teams that have played a game so far this season, UVA is one of just four without a single point in the first quarter so far in 2020. Virginia and Louisiana-Lafayette have played three games, while Florida Atlantic and Temple have played just once. Opponents have outscored the Hoos 34-0 in the first quarter so far this season.

In Bronco Mendenhall’s previous four seasons at UVA, the Cavaliers have averaged 5.8, 4.3, 8.3, and 6.5 points on average in the first quarter. The team is trying to find a solution to those slow starts as it prepares for the fourth game of the season.

“We actually addressed it [Monday] morning,” Mendenhall said. “To be clear, we’ve been outscored 34-to-nothing in the first quarter this year. That’s atypical for teams that I’ve coached, but we’re winning the second and fourth quarter. And so, what’s happening, for whatever reason – and we started to address it last week in practice that was kind of a theory, but it kept going – is we’re playing with more urgency and more focus once we’re behind. It can’t take us to be behind to play with that urgency and focus. Certainly, we’re demonstrating capability because we’re doing so in the second and fourth quarters. The biggest discrepancy is in quarter one. And so, it might be inexperience at quarterback and just facing the different looks and getting acclimated. There might be other factors as well, but it’s making it difficult right from the beginning to have the kind of start that we want. So, we’re addressing it and considering the best ways to address it moving forward.”

Perhaps, the Hoos can find their footing against a Wake Forest team that allowed 14 points in the first quarter against both Clemson and NC State. A closer look at the matchup in Winston-Salem is on deck.

Essentials

Three Opponents To Watch

Quarterback Sam Hartman, No. 10: Hartman is back as the Deacons’ starting quarterback this season. He started the first 9 games of his true freshman season in 2018 before suffering an injury and played in just 4 games in 2019 to take a redshirt year. So far in 2020, Hartman has passed for 584 yards and 2 touchdowns while completing 63% of his passes (46-73). He has not thrown an interception this season. Hartman passed for 1,984 yards and 16 TDs in 2018 plus 830 yards and 4 TDs in just 4 games in 2019. He’s currently on a streak of 112 passes without an interception.

Defensive Lineman Carlos Basham Jr., No. 9: A Roanoke native out of Northside High School, Basham will take on a team from his home state this week. He holds the longest active streak in the country with 21 consecutive games with a tackle for loss – he’s the only player in the country with a streak longer than 12 games! During this 21-game streak, Basham has 27.5 tackles for loss for a total of 102 lost yards. The redshirt senior has a sack in 10 of the last 12 games, which includes every game of 2020. He has 18.5 career sacks. Basham projects as a top three round NFL Draft pick potentially.

Receiver/Returner Taylor Morin, No. 83: Another Virginia native out of Westfield High in Centreville, the redshirt freshman is off to a good start in 2020. He leads the team with 14 receptions and 2 touchdowns. He has 165 receiving yards, which is second on team. Morin is also a threat as a punt returner. He’s averaging 15.2 yards per return with 76 yards on 5 returns; that’s good enough for fourth nationally. He averaged 12 yards per return in the opener against Clemson.

Three Quotes

UVA coach Bronco Mendenhall on Wake Forest’s program: “I think Wake Forest collectively as a football team is really, really well coached. I think they’re so methodical in their design. I think they’re so clear on their identity. I think there’s a purpose for everything that they do, not only as a football team, but in the setting they are at Wake Forest. I think it makes complete sense. So I just, I think their program model is architected, designed and coached really well from Dave [Clawson] and his staff. So I’m just impressed with their use of resources and, and the way they go about running a program with the schemes especially that they used, including their defense.”

Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson on Virginia: “They have high-end skill at the running back, tight end and receiver position. The receiver [Billy] Kemp is from the same high school as Greg Dortch, and reminds me of Greg in terms of his ability to get in and out of cuts. They target him a lot. Their running back never goes down on the first hit. It’s a veteran offensive line, with over 150 games played and 115 starts between them. Defensively they have several players who are as good as anybody in the ACC. They have a lot of veterans on defense. This might be the most experienced team we’ve played in my entire time here. This is a good, experienced, well-coached football team that is the defending Coastal Champion right now.”

Demon Deacon receiver Taylor Morin: I would like the conference to know that we belong here. I feel like a lot of teams look down on us, like we are in the bottom tier of the league, but I think we can come out on Saturday and make a statement against a well-coached football team.”

Three Key Questions

1. Who wins the turnover battle?

If you listened to TheSabre.com Podcast already, you know that turnovers could be one of the key factors in this matchup. The two teams are on the opposite ends of the turnover spectrum. Wake Forest enters this game as one of four FBS teams without an interception this season and the only member of the ACC. The Demon Deacons have finished in the top 25 nationally in turnover margin in three of the last four seasons and they own a +25 edge in that category since the start of the 2016 season. This season, they’ve committed just 1 turnover and they have 6 takeaways, from which they’ve scored 5 touchdowns. That includes two 45-yard interception returns for touchdown. (Of note, Wake had an INT return for touchdown in its last game against the Hoos in 2016 too.) Under coach Dave Clawson, Wake Forest is 44-12 when it wins the turnover battle.

Flip it to the UVA side of the equation. The Cavaliers have 9 turnovers in three games, but thanks to a 7-takeaway day against Duke, they’re just -1 in turnover margin. The turnovers have been a trend in the Bronco Mendenhall era with 26 in 2016, 19 in 2017 and 2018, and 21 in 2019. Obviously with a rate of 3 turnovers per game right now, this year’s team is on pace to be in the 30’s before season’s end. Opponents have scored 4 touchdowns and 3 field goals after UVA turnovers so far this year. Under Mendenhall, Virginia is 17-3 when winning the turnover battle and 3-20 when losing it.

2. Who establishes the run?

Virginia could be without its starting quarterback Brennan Armstrong, pending his progress with concussion protocols during the week. He was knocked out of the NC State game in the second quarter. That could press pocket passer Lindell Stone into action and that will put an added emphasis on getting rushing yards from somewhere other than the quarterback spot. Getting something going on the ground would also take some pressure off Stone and the air attack to come up with all the production, which was the case for most of the contest against NCSU. (Editor’s note: After publication, UVA announced that running back Ronnie Walker Jr. received a waiver to play this season.)

Wake Forest, meanwhile, has been a consistent top 50 rushing attack over the past 3 years and that’s continued into the early stages of 2020 (currently 45th at 161.67 rushing yards per game). The Demon Deacons helped those numbers with a big game against Campbell that produced 299 rushing yards and 6 rushing touchdowns. Christian Beal-Smith posted a career-high 130 yards and 3 rushing touchdowns.

These teams met in Mendenhall’s first season at Virginia and Wake won 27-20. A big story in that game: the Deacs ran for 226 yards.

3. Will big plays make the difference or is this a game where the most sustained drives win?

Entering the game, Wake Forest has tallied 8 plays of 30+ yards, while Virginia has just 3. Both teams have allowed 8 plays of 30+ yards. Looking beyond the chunk yards plays, however, you won’t find many long scoring plays for either team. The Demon Deacons have 3 touchdowns on runs of 11, 12, and 13 yards but nothing longer this season. UVA has passing touchdowns of 18, 26, and 23 yards and one 10-yard TD run. That means both teams need to work the ball down the field to get into the end zone, often from a goal-to-go situation.

Defensively, that means allowing a big scoring play could be a game-deciding issue. Wake Forest gave up a 30-yarder to NC State and a 26-yarder against Campbell. Virginia has allowed one long scoring play in each of its games, a 55-yard pass against Duke, a 27-yard pass against Clemson, and a 32-yard trick-play pass against NCSU. If both teams hold serve and force sustained drives, the game could come down to special teams or red zone defense. Wake has a kickoff return touchdown and the solid punt return work mentioned above, while UVA has gotten nothing from its return units so the edge there goes to the Deacs. In red zone defense, Wake Forest has allowed 10 touchdowns on 12 possessions in the red zone (that’s in the bottom 10 nationally in red zone TD percentage), while Virginia has allowed 7 touchdowns on 9 possessions (that’s tied for 42nd nationally out of 76 teams in red zone TD percentage).

Three Picks

Sabre Editor Kris Wright

One game probably shouldn’t have that much impact on consumer confidence, but I admit that the NC State performance rattled my expectations a bit. This year’s team suddenly looks a lot like the 2016 and 2017 versions of UVA football, where play around .500 is possibly the ceiling and worse is possibly the floor. That would fit the outsider narrative that Bryce Perkins carried the Hoos to unexpected heights sooner than anyone thought likely and now that he’s gone, the Cavaliers have to recalibrate to sustain success.

Of course, that all could be an over-reaction too. The Cavaliers played poorly for a half and lost their starting quarterback and still hung around with the possibility of a comeback win until early in the fourth quarter. Obviously, UVA fans have seen stinker performances before, including during the last two years with Perkins in the fold. The Hoos got back on track and played more to their own expectations after those games the past two seasons.

To me, that makes this week sort of a gut check game for the 2020 Wahoos. To uphold the self-proclaimed “Standard” for the program, there is no room for another penalty-heavy, turnover-laden, and poorly played game. Win or lose, the team needs to raise its level of play and intensity to match its own expectations. That won’t be easy against a program that carries the same expectations of clean and well executed football in order to be competitive and win in the ACC.

So do the Hoos have that in the tank? I think a lot of that depends on the offensive line (regardless of the starting quarterback) and the linebackers to be tone setters. We’ll see if they’re up to the challenge. For now, I’m going to default to my optimistic tendencies and pick the Wahoos to win a close one. I’m not super confident in the pick, though. VIRGINIA 30, WAKE FOREST 28. This season: 2-1.

Sabre Associate Editor Chris Horne

I have to admit, last week was puzzling. Not the fact that NC State won the game. Although I picked Virginia to win, the Hoos have their share of questions, NC State’s offense was playing well, and the Pack was coming off a big come-from-behind win over Pitt. The outcome didn’t shock me. UVA’s lack of focus and energy in the first half did. Add a few turnovers and big plays by the NC State offense, and suddenly the Hoos were down 24-0. I feel like we haven’t seen that type of performance in a while.

From the NC State performance, more questions have arisen. How much confidence does this team have? If Brennan Armstrong can’t go, how will seldom used Lindell Stone perform? He did well under the circumstances against NC State, but can he lead the offense to put up enough points against a Wake Forest offense that, despite losing star receiver Sage Surratt, has two running backs who have performed well, a capable quarterback, and some pop at receiver? Can the traditional run game do what it needs to do to take pressure off Stone? Will the Virginia defense be disciplined against a unique offense? Can they create havoc?

I think the defense will respond well. I think UVA has the edge at placekicker and punter, but the return and coverage units need some work and Wake Forest returned a kick for a touchdown in its game against Campbell. Maybe give UVA a slight edge on special teams. This leads me to the offense, and again I’m just not sure what to expect out of this group. Wake Forest’s defense has not played well against better teams this year, but still, do the Hoos have enough firepower?

With Miami and UNC up next after this week, this game is a big one for UVA. This is a tough call, but I’ll say Virginia’s defense comes through with some havoc and the offense does just enough in a tight one. VIRGINIA 27, WAKE FOREST 21. This season: 2-1.

Sabre Message Board Fan Lile Hancock

It is difficult to get a good read on either team in this strange season. Wake has only played one competitive game, which it lost to NC State, 45-42. Wake’s loss to Clemson and victory over Campbell don’t tell us much.

The Demon Deacons fared better versus NCSU than UVA, but I don’t put much stock in the comparison. The Hoos played one of their worst games in recent history against State.

I expect a much better performance from Virginia in all three facets of the game this week. I do not expect Brennan Armstrong to play, so the keys to the game will be whether UVA can run the ball effectively and not turn the ball over. I think that the Hoos will do just enough on offense to win with assistance from a strong defensive effort. VIRGINIA 28, WAKE FOREST 20. This season (last week Thurston1743): 2-1.

Remember When …

Virginia rolled in 1984.

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