Greg’s Grades 2020: Abilene Christian

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Virginia is 4-4.
Virginia tight end Tony Poljan runs to the end zone for a touchdown. ~ Photo courtesy Matt Riley/Virginia Athletics Media Relations

For the 16th time in its last 18 homes games, the Virginia football team left Scott Stadium with a victory. The Hoos’ 55-15 win brought their season record to .500 (4-4). With another W in the books, did the grades continue to rise?

Before we get to that, this win marked the third time in the Bronco Mendenhall era that the Hoos have scored more than 50 points. All three have been in the last two seasons and 55 ties the Mendenhall era high score set against Liberty in 2019. Prior to last season, the Cavaliers last scored over 50 points against Temple in 2005.

Obviously, the UVA offense had a good day. The Hoos netted 49 points, went 3-3 in red zone possessions, and converted 8 of 13 (61.5%) of their third and fourth down chances. Quarterback Brennan Armstrong set several personal best marks with a career-high 383 passing yards and a career-high four passing touchdowns. Among those scores was a 90-yard touchdown pass to freshman wideout Lavel Davis Jr. Armstrong also recorded a career-high passer rating of 266.8. Do you know the last time a Virginia offense surpassed the 200-point passer rating mark? Check the offense’s quick takes below.

Overall, the Hoos averaged 11.8 yards on first down, including 4.9 yards per carry and 18.5 yards per pass. Virginia averaged 8.4 yards per play and 0.79 points per play.

Defensively, I unofficially charted the Cavaliers with 31 havoc plays including great pocket pressure havoc with 4 sacks, 8 quarterback pressures, and 7 quarterback hits. The defense limited the Wildcats to 1.9 yards per carry rushing and 4.4 yards per play. Virginia’s 7 tackles for loss averaged 6.14 yards lost and 3 of 4 sacks came on first down, putting Abilene Christian behind the sticks early in those series.

For the third time in four weeks and the fourth time this season, UVA’s defense held an opponent to under 2.82 yards per carry. That’s a good thing to keep in mind with a trip to Tallahassee this weekend to face FSU. The Seminole rushing attack has been the strength of the offense. The Noles averaged 197 yards per game on the ground in their first six games but have dropped to just 146.5 in their last two outings against NC State and Pittsburgh.

This was Virginia’s worst special teams grade since the Wake Forest and NC State games. Four of the five operations posted grades of C or lower, but to be fair, four of the operations also posted above average marks. Overall, there was just not anything spectacular about the play of the special teams. They didn’t make any big errors and they didn’t produce any earth-shattering moments.

Let’s take a look the grades.

Greg’s Grades

Superlatives

  • Top performing unit (non-special teams): Wide receivers & tight ends
  • Needs work unit (non-special teams): Running backs
  • Top special teams’ unit: Placekicking
  • Needs work special teams’ unit: Punt return

Offense – Grades

  • Total Offense: 91.34 (A-) +7.42
  • Quarterback: 90.24 (A-) +8.03
  • Running backs: 84.94 (B) +6.27
  • Wide receivers & tight ends: 98.17 (A+) +7.5
  • Offensive line: 92.01 (A-) +7.85

Offense – Quick Takes & Notes

  • The Hoos 63.64% is the highest third down conversion percentage since the William & Mary game last fall (21 games).
  • 71% of UVA’s yardage came on 11 explosive plays. Last week against Louisville, the Hoos also had 11 explosive plays but only gained 205 yards (59% of the offense).
  • The last time a Cavalier team broke the 200+ passer rating mark was when Michael Rocco and running back Perry Jones combined for a 209.48 rating in a 28-21 win over Miami in 2011. In case you might not recall that game, Jones threw a 37-yard TD pass to wide receiver Tim Smith and ended the day going 1-1, a touchdown pass, and a 740.80 passer rating. If that’s not enough nostalgia for you, Jones also scored on a 78-yard play on a pass from Rocco.
  • During UVA’s three-game winning streak, the Hoos have scored on all 12 red zone possessions. That includes 10 touchdowns and a pair of field goals.
  • For Davis Jr., 8 of 14 receptions this season have gone for 20+ yards and 3 have gone for 30+ yards. All 13 of his receptions have gone for a first down or a touchdown.
  • QB Keytaon Thompson has been 100% successful obtaining a first down when rushing on third or fourth down. He is 4-4 on third down and 2-2 on fourth down.
  • The Cavaliers finished with 518 yards of total offense against the Wildcats. It was the first time they accumulated 500+ yards of total offense since the 2019 UNC game. It was the sixth 500+ yard game during the Mendenhall era. The previous five years, there were eight 500+ yard games.

Defense – Grades

  • Total Defense: 91.54 (A-) +10.99
  • Defensive line: 90.24 (A-) +6.25
  • Linebackers: 94.54 (A) +6.51
  • Secondary: 89.84 (B+) +20.2

Defense – Quick Takes & Notes

  • Only 22% of opponent runs have gone for 10+ yards this season, while 63.5% of pass plays have gone for 15+ yards.
  • Abilene Christian is the fourth team this season the Cavalier defense held to under 2.82 yards per carry rushing and the second it held under 2.0 yards per carry.
  • Linebacker Charles Snowden recorded a combined 22 tackles, 9.0 tackles for loss, and 6.0 sacks over his final four games of the season.
  • Virginia is sixth in the NCAA with 28 sacks. The Cavaliers have recorded 18 combined sacks over the last four games.
  • The UVA defense is ranked 28th nationally allowing a 53% touchdown scoring rate in the red zone. Over the last six games, the Hoos have allowed a 46% TD rate, which would rank 13th nationally. In the last two games, FSU has had just two red zone possessions.
  • Linebacker D’Sean Perry made his collegiate debut against and did not disappoint, closing out the game on an 84-yard interception return for a touchdown, the fifth-longest return in program history.
  • Virginia’s defense returned an interception for a TD for the second consecutive week.

Special Teams – Grades

  • Total Special Teams: 78.1 (C+) -2.71
  • Placekicking: 96.6 (A) +2.9
  • Kickoff coverage: 79.3 (C+) +12.27
  • Kickoff return: 78.3 (C+) -3.13
  • Punt coverage: 75.2 (C) +-15.34
  • Punt return: 61.1 (D-) -10.26

Special Teams – Quick Takes & Notes

  • The punt coverage operation had its worst net number since the NC State game at 37 yards.
  • UVA’s punt return crew netted just 3 yards on 4 returns. Following a 14-yard gain on the first return of the afternoon, the Hoos’ last two efforts included a 5-yard loss, a 1-yard loss, and a 10-yard holding penalty to drop the net by -11.
  • After posting its worst two grades of the season against Miami and UNC, the kicking game is back on track with back-to-back championship level grades.

Team Quick Takes & Notes

  • Entering the UNC contest, the Hoos faced a -5 gap in average starting field position. Virginia had an ASFP of the 23, while its opponents had an ASFP of the 28. Over that last three games, there has been a dramatic shift in these numbers. Virginia has average an ASFP of the 36, while limiting the opponents to the 26. That’s a 5% drop for the opposition and a 37% increase for UVA.

One More Thing

There’s no doubt the loss of Jowon Briggs and Charles Snowden over the past week is sobering for Virginia fans. But I think there are valid reasons to be confident in the defense’s ability to play well over the remaining three games.

The run defense is improving. Even though Louisville gained 317 yards on the ground, that does not alter my belief. The Cardinals netted 478 yards against the Virginia defense but scored only 17 points. But that’s because Virginia basically played eight men deep and challenged Louisville to score running the ball. The Cardinals did not.

The Hoos made the decision to shut down the North Carolina running game and held a team averaging 249 yards per game and 5.73 yards per carry to 2.83 yards per carry and 93 total yards on the ground. In the two games since, the Heels have averaged 6.23 yards per carry and 265 yards per game.

Excluding the Louisville game, the Cavaliers have held Abilene Christian, Miami, and North Carolina under 2.82 yards per carry. In the first four games of the season, Virginia opponents averaged over 4.0 yards per run.

Against the pass, yes, the Wahoo defense has given up a lot of passing yards, especially against UNC. But over the last two games, Virginia has had its best two games in terms of defensive passing efficiency since Wake Forest. What has made a big difference has been an improved pass rush and some very creative and effective pressure packages. In the Cavaliers’ first four games, they recorded 10 sacks, while they have 18 sacks in the last four games. They’ve scored on a pair of pick-6 interceptions.

But the biggest key to Virginia’s defense has been simply keeping the opposition from scoring. After giving up 34.8 points per game in the opening half of the season, the Hoos have allowed just 23 points per game in the last four – that’s against a schedule that included two teams ranked in the top 15 at the time.

The biggest indicator of how effective the defense has been over the last four games comes from the the numbers when opposing offenses get inside the plus 40-yard line.

Here are the key numbers for plus field drives inside the 40 from the Duke through Wake Forest games:

  • Total drives that reached inside the UVA 40 – 29
  • Touchdowns scored – 12
  • Field goals scored – 9
  • No score – 8

Now here the numbers for plus field drive inside the 40 from the Miami through the Abilene Christian games:

  • Total drives that reached inside the UVA 40 – 22
  • Touchdowns scored – 7
  • Field goals scored – 4
  • No score – 11

Look at the difference by percentages:

  • First four games TD% on +40 drives – 41%
  • Last four games TD% on +40 drives – 32%
  • First four games FG% on +40 drives – 31%
  • Last four games FG% on +40 drives – 18%
  • First four games No score % on +40 drives – 27%
  • Last four games No score % on +40 drives – 50%

Over the last four weeks, Virginia opponents are getting beyond the UVA 40-yard line less, they are scoring fewer touchdowns when they do, and scoring fewer field goals when they do. Opponents are not scoring almost 23% more often.

Add all that to the fact Virginia’s remaining opponents all seem to be headed in the wrong direction offensively and it’s possible for the UVA defense to put together a solid stretch performance.

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