Friday, September 23, 2011

game preview: Southern Mississippi

Date/Time: Saturday, September 24; 3:30


History against the Golden Eagles: 0-1

Last matchup: USM 37, UVA 34; 9/19/09; Hattiesburg, MS

Last week: UNC 28, UVA 17; USM 52, SE.La. 6

Line: UVA by 3

Opposing blogs: none

Injury report: N/A

Last time we played this game - hard to believe that was two years ago - I had a party to go to and stopped watching at halftime.  There was nothing to worry about, really, since UVA had a 17-point lead and Southern Miss looked like a bumbling set of fools.  However, I had written this in the game preview:

The deciding forces here have nothing to do with whether our offensive line can handle their blitz or whether their offensive coordinator has the right game plan for our 3-4. The forces at work here are beyond our purview, and we will see on Saturday afternoon whether the football gods will smile once again on Al Groh, or if they are busy ushering him into a quiet retirement.

The football gods did not smile.  I dutifully but reluctantly gave up on the Al Groh era after the game.  This year, nearly everything has changed; the biggest difference is that instead of telling us whether or not it's time to fire the coach (or telling me, anyway), the Southern Miss game will tell us whether or not a bowl game is in the future.

-- UVA run offense vs. USM run defense

Top backs:
Perry Jones: 42 carries, 173 yards, 4.1 avg.
Kevin Parks: 41 carries, 249 yards, 6.1 avg.

UVA offense:
190.7 yards/game, 4.73 yards/attempt
39th of 120 (nat'l), 6th of 12 (ACC)

USM defense:
74 yards/game, 2.16 yards/attempt
11th of 120 (nat'l), 1st of 12 (C-USA)

For the second week in a row, UVA faces a run defense with some impressive rankings and stats.  I'm going to get cocky in here, though, and say that USM hasn't faced a run offense like ours.  It's deep enough into the season now that it's useful to look at the opponent's opponents, and none of them do much in the run game.

Southern Miss has a new defensive coordinator who is working on installing a 4-2-5 permanent nickel lineup.  Because of the extra defensive back, it's less useful to point out what a large percentage of the tackles have come from DBs; still, it's a large number relative to the line, which really has only one playmaker to be concerned with.  Defensive end Cordarro Law is effective against the run (and a good pass-rusher besides.)  Linebacker Jamie Collins operates on the other side; Collins also has a nose for the backfield, and plays something of a bandit position that makes the 4-2-5 resemble a 3-3-5.

With its playmakers on the edges, USM will want to flow the UVA run plays that way.  That will be fine by UVA; the run game has earned our trust in its ability to dictate terms to the defense.  North Carolina had a legitimately nasty defense, not only on paper but in the makeup of its personnel, and UVA ran more than effectively against it.  UVA ran for 170 yards and five yards a carry against the Heels; at home against a less talented defense I certainly expect that to improve, which would give UVA a huge edge in this department.

-- UVA pass offense vs. USM pass defense

Mike Rocco: 58/95, 61.1%; 652 yards, 1 TD, 4 INT; 6.86 yds/attempt

Top receivers:
Kris Burd: 13 rec., 162 yards, 0 TD
Perry Jones: 11 rec., 111 yards, 0 TD

UVA offense:
250.7 yards/game, 7.0 yards/attempt
67th of 120 (nat'l); 8th of 12 (ACC)

USM defense:
228.3 yards/game, 5.8 yards/attempt
24th of 120 (nat'l); 3rd of 12 (C-USA)

Again, the level of competition clouds our ability to make a decent judgment about USM's ability to defend things.  They've so far beaten Louisiana Tech and SE Louisiana (a lousy I-AA team) and lost to Marshall.  (The helmet picture above is inaccurate on this point.  I'm not fixing it.)  It's worth keeping an eye on the linebackers, though.  The aforementioned Jamie Collins leads the team in pass breakups, and linebacker Korey Williams has two picks.

USM has five picks on the season, which ties them for ninth in the country, so: not bad.  But they have those five starting defensive backs, and none of them have intercepted anything.  This presents a little bit of a dilemma for Bill Lazor; he's preferred to call routes mostly under 10 yards, which runs them right into the teeth of where Southern Miss is strongest in pass defense.  I've already called for a big edge in the run game; this is where I'd like to see a solid dose of play-action to get some of those linebackers out of the equation and isolate our outside receivers on USM's secondary.  Starting DB Deron Wilson is second on the team in tackles and led Southern Miss in INTs last year with just three; that's an equation that suggests the defensive backs can be taken advantage of.

You do have to watch out for Cordarro Law on the pass rush.  USM has been relatively successful here and this defense (more of a 3-3-5 in practice) can, if it wants to, present some odd looks on the pass rush.  (I say "if it wants to" because I watched Greg Robinson operate Michigan in a 3-3-5 the last two years and never rush more than three.  This was frustrating.)  Law will present a tough matchup for the offensive tackles; the rest of the line will have to watch for goofy blitz packages.

Prediction for this segment of the game is that Mike Rocco gets at least 13 yards per completion this week.  His average is a little over 11; 13 would represent an opening up of the passing game, which I think will be the recipe for success.

-- USM run offense vs. UVA run defense

Top backs:
Kendrick Hardy: 37 carries, 221 yards, 6.0 avg.
Jamal Woodyard: 26 carries, 153 yards, 5.9 avg.

USM offense:
187.67 yards/game, 4.73 yards/attempt
39th of 120 (nat'l), 3rd of 12 (C-USA)

UVA defense:
139.33 yards/game, 4.10 yards/attempt
71st of 120 (nat'l), 8th of 12 (ACC)

This is where Southern Miss will draw most of their optimism.  Desmond Johnson went down with an injury in the first game of the season, and it was something of a blessing in disguise because his replacements have been improvements on his production.

Southern Miss has a big, veteran offensive line - and a Morgan Moses equivalent in 333-pound left tackle Lamar Holmes - that will test UVA's run defense.  Early-season returns on the run defense have shown a decent improvement in the middle, but a constant inability to defend the edges.  It's true that most of those gaudy-looking stats are the result of the SE Louisiana game; still, Kendrick Hardy and Jamal Woodyard are exactly the type of back UVA has trouble containing.

Woodyard, especially, will be a handful.  He's small but built, similar to Kevin Parks, but shiftier.  He looks like the kind of guy that will kill overaggressive defenders.  I think Woodyard has a big game.  Probably runs for at least 100 yards, and it would be more but the Southern Miss offense tends to feature Hardy.  Still: tailor-made to frustrate UVA fans.  Until the UVA defense shows us something outside the hashmarks, you have to give the edge to the offense here, as they've shown themselves beyond capable of carving up bad run defenses.

-- USM pass offense vs. UVA pass defense

Austin Davis: 62/109, 56.9%; 678 yds, 4 TD, 4 INT; 6.22 yds/attempt

Top receivers:
Ryan Balentine: 12 rec., 141 yards, 0 TD
Tracy Lampley: 12 rec., 125 yards, 0 TD

USM offense:
226 yards/game, 6.2 yards/attempt
89th of 120 (nat'l), 7th of 12 (C-USA)

UVA defense:
157 yards/game, 5.4 yards/attempt
13th of 120 (nat'l), 2nd of 12 (ACC)

There's something of a mystery here; Austin Davis is a senior quarterback that had an excellent year last year: over 3,000 passing yards, 20 touchdowns, and just six INTs.  So why is his completion percentage down six points, and why has he already thrown four picks?

I dunno, man.  But Southern Miss's pass offense hasn't been completely functional.  Davis is throwing for just over 10 yards a completion, which is a small number, and not only that but the line has been a little bit porous.  Southern Miss has given up seven sacks this year.  Last year they leaned heavily on the tight end, all Al Groh-style; this year, tight ends have accounted for exactly one catch.

A really bad game against Marshall accounts for three of those four picks.  Davis broke Brett Favre's school yardage record in that game, so it was only fitting he threw a bunch of interceptions, too.  Still, there's some danger here.  Francisco Llanos got free on a deep post route for a 90-yard touchdown in the same game; this is pretty much the only truly big play the pass game has generated all year.

I wouldn't discount the abilities of Davis, but the UVA pass defense has been stout even without much of a pass rush.  This week, I expect it to be stout with a pass rush.  Cam Johnson will likely work on that big tackle of theirs, and Johnson's speed and athleticism will give him the breakout game we've been waiting for.  Look for multiple sacks out of Cam and a frustrating day for Davis, who won't complete more than 55% of his passes.


I expect both teams to want to run the ball and both teams to do it well.  UVA's defense hasn't shown it can stop a decent run game, but the offense hasn't shown it can be stopped.  The difference will be in the air.  So far, neither team has shown a tremendous willingness to look deep in the passing game, mostly preferring to operate short and methodical.  This is the game for Bill Lazor to change that.  I think UVA can and should find some success in a more open field, especially if they're able to run some decent play-action.  UVA's defense will struggle against the run as usual, but as the game moves on and (hopefully) UVA establishes a lead, things won't look as good for Southern Miss when they are forced to move through the air.  This is still probably the most difficult OOC matchup, near-collapse against Indiana notwithstanding, but UVA is still the more talented team.

Prediction summary:

(Fewer predictions this week because Southern Miss is a bigger mystery than the other teams we've faced.  Tough to feel them out because of the competition they've gone against, and they're not ACC so I haven't exactly studied them.)

- UVA runs for more than 170 yards and more than five yards per carry, which were the numbers against UNC.
- Mike Rocco averages better than 13 yards per completion.
- Jamal Woodyard carries for more than 100 yards.
- Cam Johnson picks up at least two sacks.
- Austin Davis's completion percentage is held to less than 55%.

Final score: UVA 31, USM 20.

Rest of the ACC:

Cincinnati 44, NC State 14 (Thu.) (WTF, Wolfies?)
North Carolina @ Georgia Tech - 12:00
Maryland vs. Temple - 12:30
Boston College vs. Massachusetts - 1:00
Virginia Tech @ Marshall - 3:30
Florida State @ Clemson - 3:30
Duke vs. Tulane - 3:30
Miami vs. Kansas State - 3:30

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