Friday, October 30, 2015

game preview: Georgia Tech

Date/Time: Saturday, October 31; 3:00


Record against the Jackets: 17-19-1

Last meeting: GT 35, UVA 10; 11/1/14, Atlanta

Last weekend: UNC 26, UVA 13; GT 22, FSU 16

Line: GT by 6

Part of the reason I was bitching about following this football team, is that it's really stinkin' hard to come up with a narrative for anything.  This is the spot where I like to talk about What This Game Means, but what it means is the same thing every week anymore: either one more loss closer to the end of the season or a week-long reprieve.

This one means quite a bit to Georgia Tech - a team that was supposed to contend, now facing down the barrel of no-bowl-dom, but staving off execution by upsetting Florida State last week.  With their most loseable remaining game turned into a win, GT now cannot afford to completely reverse that equation, so while coming off an emotional big win is usually a good time to catch a team, that's less likely to be the case Saturday.

-- UVA run offense vs. GT run defense

Top backs:
Taquan Mizzell: 90 carries, 371 yards, 4.1 ypc, 2 TDs
Albert Reid: 37 carries, 163 yards, 4.4 ypc, 1 TD

UVA offense:
125.43 yards/game, 3.66 yards/attempt
111th of 128 (national), 13th of 14 (ACC)

GT defense:
164.88 yards/game, 4.73 yards/attempt
94th of 128 (national), 13th of 14 (ACC)

Could it be that UVA's running game is on a genuine upward trend?  The ground game surpassed 200 yards against UNC for the first time this season, and Smoke Mizzell picked up 117 yards; his previous career best was 66.  Daniel Hamm added 70 - mostly on one carry, but that makes two very long pickups in three games for the run game, and it gets harder to ignore them the more they're produced.

UNC had a pretty forgiving defense, but so does Georgia Tech.  Four of their opponents - all good ones - have reached that 200-yard threshold.  Alcorn State had 166.  Truth is, very few running backs have had unproductive days.  Adam Gotsis is a legitimate playmaking DT, but like David Dean, he's usually double-teamed and can't get the help he needs.  GT is most vulnerable on the outside, where the DEs are undersized and there's no playmaking linebacker to clean up.  (There's also no real nose tackle to be found; the defensive tackles are all better suited to the three-tech, but someone has to hold down the fort at the nose, usually Jabari Hunt, and he's not really up to the task.)  The team tackle leader is MLB P.J. Davis with just 54, and the next-most is 36, owned by strong safety Jamal Golden.

No doubt this team is setting me up for disappointment again, but there's reason to be more optimistic about the run game right now than at any previous point this season - including the very beginning.  Continuity along the O-line is certainly helping.  I think Jay Whitmire is finally rounding back into form.  Maybe the best sign is that I went "aw shit" when Jackson Matteo briefly went down during the UNC game - instead of just rolling my eyes at once again having to shuffle the O-line.  You can move the ball on Georgia Tech - and if the past two games can be an indicator, UVA just might do it.

-- UVA pass offense vs. GT pass defense

Matt Johns: 134/221, 60.6%; 1,580 yards, 12 TDs, 12 INTs; 7.15 ypa, 127.7 rating

Top receivers:
Taquan Mizzell: 41 rec., 466 yards, 3 TDs
Canaan Severin: 33 rec., 458 yards, 3 TDs
T.J. Thorpe: 10 rec., 187 yards, 1 TD

UVA offense:
230.6 yards/game, 7.0 yards/attempt
79th of 128, 11th of 14 (ACC)

GT defense:
194.8 yards/game, 6.8 yards/attempt
55th of 128, 9th of 14 (ACC)

On the flip side, the passing game has chosen this moment to hit a downslide.  While the running game hit 200 yards last week, Matt Johns missed that mark for the first time this year, and by a lot, too.  A lot of that's on him.  Not every INT was his fault last week - but the one he lofted ten feet over Canaan Severin's head sure was.  It goes without saying he needs to erase those turnovers.

Gotsis remains the primary threat in this area, as he's a solid up-the-middle pass rusher.  Otherwise, GT finds it tough to generate a pass rush without blitzing, and that's not something they do often.  DC Ted Roof prefers a zone scheme and has been known to throw six defensive backs out there more often than a lot of coordinators.  The top pass defender in the secondary is D.J. White, with two picks and five break-ups.

You often see it said about quarterbacks, "we just have to get some pressure on him."  This of course is a close cousin to "we need to not turn the ball over," but with Johns, he does seem like one of those quarterbacks whose performance suffers more than usual from being pressured too much.  And unfortunately the offensive line lets that happen more than it should.  But a bend-don't-break scheme is exactly the kind of thing Steve Fairchild game-plans against.  If the opposition wants to play zone and let you amass six-yard completions all day, Fairchild will greedily slop that up.  I could see that working out.

-- GT run offense vs. UVA run defense

Top backs:
Justin Thomas: 107 carries, 400 yards, 3.7 ypc, 6 TDs
Patrick Skov: 81 carries, 331 yards, 4.1 ypc, 6 TDs
Marcus Marshall: 57 carries, 508 yards, 8.9 ypc, 4 TDs

GT offense:
283.38 yards/game, 5.60 yards/attempt
16th of 128, 2nd of 14 (ACC)

UVA defense:
165.86 yards/game, 4.57 yards/attempt
87th of 128, 9th of 14 (ACC)

No need to overdo this.  By now you know what GT does.  You also know how to stop it: rigidly disciplined assignment football and stepping on, over, or around players who cut-block you.  Disciplined assignment football left this team a long time ago and never bothered with a forwarding address.  You can't stop this run consistently with half the team getting so easily redirected.  UVA hasn't successfully stopped the GT attack for a long time, and this team looks especially susceptible.

-- GT pass offense vs. UVA pass defense

Justin Thomas: 52/118, 44.1%; 915 yards, 10 TDs, 6 INTs; 7.75 ypa, 127.0 rating

Top receivers:
Ricky Jeune: 15 rec., 319 yards, 3 TDs
Micheal Summers: 8 rec., 120 yards, 2 TDs
Mikell Lands-Davis: 7 rec., 169 yards, 1 TD

GT offense:
120.9 yards/game, 8.0 yards/attempt
38th of 128, 4th of 14 (ACC)

UVA defense:
248.4 yards/game, 8.1 yards/attempt
109th of 128, 14th of 14 (ACC)

The Hoos will be without Tim Harris for this game, which is probably OK given Harris's propensity to give up the big play and GT's propensity to look for it.

For GT, Ricky Jeune is nicely filling the big-and-tall receiver role that they like to feature prominently in what little passing game they have.  Everything's pretty much as usual here too, except that Justin Thomas has been less accurate than most GT triple-option QBs, especially last year's version of Justin Thomas.  Defend the GT pass game by not getting suckered in by what looks like the 17th run in a row.  Also been difficult for our defenders.

-- Favorability ratings

Run offense: 4.5
Pass offense: 4
Run defense: 1.5
Pass defense: 3

Average: 3.25

-- Outlook

Can UVA stop the triple option?  No.  And that's basically what it boils down to.

I do expect an improved offensive performance, at least on the ground.  Or at least, for last week's success to continue.  But as with last week, the run game can be good but very unlikely enough to carry the team.  The run game almost certainly limited the UNC scoring opportunities in the very cliche way of controlling the clock and giving the defense rest etc. etc., but you can't hold that particular horde off forever.  Sooner or later you have to try and stop what you can't stop.  And GT is probably the best losing-record team in the country.  They're not as bad as their wins and losses show.  That'll out, too, and GT will be on the path to reviving their bowl hopes while UVA gets put in the position of having to win out to make it.

Final score: GT 35, UVA 17

-- Rest of the ACC

Byes: none

North Carolina 26, Pittsburgh 19 - Thu. - First game among the three heavyweights of the Coastal.

Louisville @ Wake Forest - Fri. 7:00 - Wake's last game against an unranked team.

Syracuse @ Florida State - 12:00 - Always bet on a team at home that just lost a really tough one - especially if their opponent lost to UVA.

Virginia Tech @ Boston College - 12:30 - Excellent chance - believe it or not - for BC to pick up their first ACC win.

Clemson @ NC State - 3:30 - Next two games mean the season for Clemson.  It's playoffs or bust this year.

Miami @ Duke - 7:00 - The Canes were embarrassed last week and Duke struggled to get past VT; watch for Miami to pull off the upset in this one.  Also, three decades of football just went "WTF" at that characterization of a Miami win over Duke.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015


What a drag this football team has become.  It's a drag to watch.  It's a drag to write about.  It's a drag knowing we lost last week, we lost this week, and we'll lose again next week.  And yes, I know that we didn't actually lose last week, but at 2-5, trudging our way through an unremarkable loss to yet another better-coached team, it sure has a way of feeling like that.

There are 128 teams in I-A football; 25 of them are currently out of legitimate bowl contention, which I define right now as being 2-5 or worse.**  Exactly one of those 25 is in the ACC.  That means more than 80% of the teams in the country remain interested in the proceedings.  And with 80 slots, most of those fans will take home some kind of prize.

This should be a terrific time of year.  These games only happen once a week - they should matter.  Well, they do for most people.  Most people are eagerly devouring details of Saturday's opponent, and when that day comes, well, it's one of only 12 all year so it's a big swing between winning and losing and your fortunes are either wonderfully uplifted or woefully downtrodden.  Until the next week when you get to do it all over again.

That hasn't been the case around here for four years.  Occasional smatterings of meaning have been tossed onto the canvas here and there like Jackson Pollock scooping from the bottom of the can, but in the end it's all come down to the same thing.  Lose, complain about coaching, repeat.  Saturday, I'll turn on the TV again, and I'll hope for a miracle, for some entertainment, for something good to happen, but certainly not expect it.  Nobody's hanging on every play wondering whether it's the difference between Good Times and Bad Times, because we already know which way we're headed.  We've already read the spoilers.

This is not interesting.  This is utterly, incomprehensibly, lame.  Football season has become a long slow walk to basketball season.  If ESPN were smart they'd have ponied up for the rights to UVA vs. Morgan State on November 13; a whole legion of UVA fans are going to be so desperate for a rescue from the grind of watching this football team that they'll paste themselves to the screen for hoops.

The whole rest of the ACC is still shooting for something.  Craig Littlepage, Jon Oliver, and Mike London have ensured that's not the case in Charlottesville.

**For the sake of expediency.  I'm sure there are some three-win teams whose fans are already telling the in-laws, yes, we can visit for Christmas, we're not taking that trip to Florida after all.

-- I didn't hate the offensive gameplan this week.  The run game worked - really, honest-to-God, properly worked.  Give the O-line a pat on the back.  Taquan Mizzell has never had a 100-yard game in college before; his next-best performance is barely half his new career high.

And I tipped my hat at those TE drag routes with the QB rollout.  You don't want to get too reliant on plays where you have to eat it if the one option doesn't pan out, but regardless.  (Tangent: that needs to be a goal-line play.  Rollouts away from the blocking, with a following receiver like that, are close to foolproof inside the 2.  Receiver open, throw it.  Receiver covered, sprint for the pylon and dive.  Even if your QB is fast and agile like Jared Lorenzen, he's still two yards tall.)

So yeah - whatever reason we lost the game, and it might've been the four interceptions, just guessing here - it mostly wasn't Steve Fairchild's fault.  That said, I still hate that his go-to third-and-long play is a screen pass.  That works never.

-- I also applaud the reasoning behind the attempted trick of waving off the "extra" player, because I'm just going to assume the coaches are self-aware of UVA's reputation for screwing up substitutions and figured if anyone could pull off a trick like that it would be UVA.  Then again, if anyone could forget that the 12-men rule takes effect when you break the huddle and line up, rather than at the snap, it would also be UVA.  The refs were nice and fooled, even if the UNC defenders can count to 11.

-- Nicholas Conte has a 46-yard punting average?  I did not realize that.  At least one of our players is earning an A+ for on-field play.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

game preview: North Carolina

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


Record against the Heels: 54-61-4

Last meeting: UNC 28, UVA 27; 10/25/14, Charlottesville

Last weekend: UVA 44, SU 38; UNC 50, WF 14

Line: UNC by 17.5

One of college sports' greatest advantage over the pros is the total lack of tangible benefit to losing.  (No, the potential firing of a fireable coach doesn't count; it's all hypothetical ether til that day actually arrives.)  In that sense, despite the complete debauchery that is the recruiting process (especially at oh say Louisville) and the golden handshakes we all pretend don't exist, and all the tattoo scandals and fake degrees and free shoes and everything, despite all that, there's still at least one absolutely pure aspect to the college level of football: it ain't for nuthin' but braggin' rights.  Nobody's lamenting the loss of draft pick status when you win, nobody's encouraging the team to lose, there's no such thing as tanking.  That's why the Syracuse game was great stuff.  Come what may in the end, there's at least one school in the ACC who can't lord it over us for a year.

Which brings us to the South's Oldest Rivalry - and the five game losing streak in this particular game that we currently wear.  Prior to that, UVA had won four straight, seven of eight, and ten of twelve, and in fact was very close to completely leveling the all-time series.  Plus we had that fun little streak where we hadn't lost to them at home since 1981.  Nice.  Bragging rights.

The Hoos are very unlikely to go bowling this year and very unlikely to save their coach's job, but losing accomplishes nothing and is always worse than winning - particularly in a rivalry with a name.  UNC is on a completely opposite trajectory from UVA, proving there is no such thing as sports-god justice given the two schools' vastly differing attitudes on classroom work, so bragging rights here are likely to continue to slip further away, but at least a win would be an unadulterated joy.

-- UVA run offense vs. UNC run defense

Top backs:
Taquan Mizzell: 66 carries, 254 yards, 3.8 ypc, 2 TDs
Albert Reid: 37 carries, 163 yards, 4.4 ypc, 1 TD

UVA offense:
112.17 yards/game, 3.35 yards/attempt
119th of 128 (national), 13th of 14 (ACC)

UNC defense:
213.83 yards/game, 4.52 yards/attempt
82nd of 128 (national), 11th of 14 (ACC)

It's amazing what a functional running game can do.  Matt Johns played well against Syracuse, but I don't think the passing game was all it could've been given the shitshow that is Syracuse's pass defense.  With our usual running game, that would've been another loss.  Instead the ball actually moved on the ground.  UVA managed about four-and-a-quarter yards per carry without sacks, which is basically mediocre.  I'll take it, after what we've seen so far.  It moved them off the bottom of the conference, at least.

Of course, that's half because UNC shut down Wake Forest last week.  Kind of.  This was in large part because 1) UNC kept the pressure on Wake's non-scrambly quarterback, John Wolford, and 2) Wake's punter felt it necessary to receive a snap with his knee on the ground.  Slick.  Anyway, UNC.  Normally, midseason analyses of opposing run defenses begin with "have they played Georgia Tech yet?" and if they have, take any poor standing in the rankings with a grain of salt, and the earlier the game, the bigger the grain.

But UNC actually stopped GT pretty effectively.  Then again, Delaware, a team even more run-wacky than GT, racked up almost 300 yards.  Illinois, outside the top 100 in rushing effectiveness, also had their way.  Even North Carolina A&T had some success on the ground.

With a little consistency on the O-line, something that's been entirely lacking this year, the Hoos might actually find some room to run. (?)  UNC has an inexperienced defensive line and has found it tough to get any disruption from the front.  Linebackers Jeff Schoettmer and Shakeel Rashad do pretty good work, but they also have to do most of it.  UVA will never run roughshod over anyone, but I'm comfortable saying this matchup won't be a disaster, either.

-- UVA pass offense vs. UNC pass defense

Matt Johns: 117/191, 61.3%; 1,432 yards, 11 TDs, 8 INTs; 7.5 ypa, 134.9 rating

Top receivers:
Taquan Mizzell: 35 rec., 409 yards, 3 TDs
Canaan Severin: 30 rec., 418 yards, 3 TDs
Olamide Zacchaeus: 9 rec., 48 yards, 0 TDs

UVA offense:
244.3 yards/game, 7.3 yards/attempt
62nd of 128 (national), 8th of 14 (ACC)

UNC defense:
135.5 yards/game, 5.5 yards/attempt
10th of 128 (national), 2nd of 14 (ACC)

You hear a lot about UNC's improved defense, and this is what they mean.  UNC was a wreck last year in pass defense, allowing 8.5 yards per attempt.  They've slashed three yards off of that, which is impressive.  Opposing quarterbacks are barely above 50/50 in completing their passes.

The linebackers are solid in pass coverage, and they pair up with a very solid secondary.  Carolina does a good job of limiting the YAC because their back seven or eight are sure tacklers.  Gene Chizik has taught them how to keep plays in front of them; UNC is tied for first in the country for fewest allowed pass plays above 20 yards with just 10.  That's a skewed stat when you've got two run-heavy teams on the schedule, but those teams also tend to produce big pass plays when they do bother trying.

The plus side is, Matt Johns should hopefully stay clean.  Junior Gnonkonde leads UNC's pass rush with two sacks - which is half the team total.  They both came against Wake Forest.  Even with a constantly shifting lineup, UVA has been respectable in pass protection, and Johns is good about not rooting himself to one spot.

Still, time to throw is one thing, but you have to find someone, and there's extra pressure on the playmakers this week - Mizzell and Severin, principally - to be the ones to create extra space and move the ball.  Johns is still being leashed to the pass-game-as-run-proxy strategy a little too much for my liking, and I expect guys like safety Donnie Miles to be in too many places at once, being as the pass game isn't big on subtle mental games.  I don't expect Johns to have a great day; the average per attempt could be as low as in the 4s.

-- UNC run offense vs. UVA run defense

Top backs:
Elijah Hood: 79 carries, 545 yards, 6.9 ypc, 6 TDs
Marquise Williams: 56 carries, 405 yards, 7.2 ypc, 5 TDs

UNC offense:
218.5 yards/game, 6.15 yards/attempt
5th of 128 (national), 1st of 14 (ACC)

UVA defense:
160.83 yards/game, 4.47 yards/attempt
79th of 128 (national), 10th of 14 (ACC)

Here's where it gets scary.  OK, let's be honest, here's why UVA is going to lose this game.  The Hoos could move the ball.  The run game has a chance to be respectable and the quarterback play is still solid.  That seems good until you see how an offense really operates.  There's a lot of experience everywhere on this side of the ball and Larry Fedora is a quality offensive mind.

Elijah Hood is in his sophomore season and now living up to the hype.  He's just shy of seven yards a carry, and capable of running people right over.  He gets a lot of running room from an incredibly experienced interior line; right guard Landon Turner in particular is a pro prospect, and all five starting linemen were also starters last year.  On negative plays, which are few and far between, Hood has only lost six yards all year.  By comparison, Taquan Mizzell lost seven on negative plays just against Syracuse.

Then you add Marquise Williams's legs, which not only have plays run specifically for them but can also carry him right out of trouble.  The UVA defensive line really stinks at maintaining containment in the pocket and this tendency is going to burn them like eight or ten times.  Not even a little bit optimistic about this.

-- UNC pass offense vs. UVA pass defense

Marquise Williams: 84/131, 64.1%; 1,127 yards, 9 TDs, 6 INTs; 8.6 ypa, 149.9 rating

Top receivers:
Quinshad Davis: 24 rec., 288 yards, 1 TD
Ryan Switzer: 19 rec., 265 yards, 2 TDs
Bug Howard: 17 rec., 281 yards, 2 TDs

UNC offense:
263.7 yards/game, 9.4 yards/attempt
12th of 128 (national), 1st of 14 (ACC)

UVA defense:
252.2 yards/game, 8.0 yards/attempt
109th of 128 (national), 14th of 14 (ACC)

And this is worse.  Williams has been awfully efficient, and not only that, but he spreads the ball around exceptionally well.  Four different receivers - the players above plus Mack Hollins - have a minimum of 265 yards.  Three of them are 6'4" or taller (Switzer is the only exception.)

There is no need to overanalyze this.  UVA's secondary has been horrendous this year at reading routes and communication and important stuff like making sure all the receivers are covered and not triple-covering some decoy route.  UNC has tall, fast receivers, running a system basically guaranteed to confound a very confundable secondary, and a quarterback that, should you succeed in getting pressure on him, will destroy you for losing contain, which this D-line does all the time.  UVA's best chance may be to run a 2-3-6 defense, put two defensive ends on one side, at least try to force Williams to operate in just half the field, and flood the secondary with defenders.

-- Favorability ratings

Run offense: 4
Pass offense: 3
Run defense: 1
Pass defense: 0

I considered a negative number for the pass defense.

Average: 1.5

That's not really the average, but we're tacking on a half-point penalty for special teams, because Fedora loves to mess with London, who has yet to figure out how to defend a fake punt.

-- Outlook

If only the ability to sometimes make chicken salad out of the run game could sustain a game.  At best I think UVA can use it to artificially pump up the time of possession and limit UNC's chances with the ball.  They have such an explosive offense it might not matter, and even when the Hoos do get a stop, who knows what might happen.  A popular sentiment on the boards this week, what with Syracuse running yet another successful fake punt on UVA's special teams, is that UNC will do the same thing when they get a chance.  That seems likely, unless Fedora is just holding things close to the vest.

Which he might do, considering the strong likelihood that his offense will make mincemeat out of this defense.  UVA under London has shown no propensity whatsoever to stopping a Fedora offense, or Marquise Williams in particular.  Except for most of the second half last year until they ruined it by giving up the game winning drive, allowing recovery of an onside kick, and then handing UNC a first down on 4th-and-1 by putting 12 men on the field.  Truly a Mike London Special.  This one's not ending well, either.

Final score: UNC 45, UVA 13

-- Rest of the ACC

Byes: none

Clemson @ Miami - 12:00 - This one might put a few more Fire Golden planes in the sky.

NC State @ Wake Forest - 12:00 - The Pack losing this one would make a mockery of the scheduling-for-success concept after their hideous OOC slate.

Pittsburgh @ Syracuse - 12:00 - Pitt can be the third ACC team to earn bowl eligibility; quite a first season for Pat Narduzzi.

Boston College @ Louisville - 12:30 - Battle of the Birdies.

Duke @ Virginia Tech - 3:30 - Michael Brewer returns to QB for the Hokies, but it's their once-vaunted defense that's bringing them down this year.

Florida State @ Georgia Tech - 7:00 - Raise your hand if you thought GT would start the ACC season 0-5.  Yup, that's nobody.

Friday, October 16, 2015

game preview: Syracuse

Date/Time: Saturday, October 17; 3:30


Line: UVA by 7

Record against the Orange: 2-2

Last meeting: UVA 27, Cuse 24; 9/17/05, Syracuse

Last weekend: Pitt 26, UVA 19; USF 45, Cuse 24

Ten years ago was the last time we played Syracuse - not even a thought of them ever being in the ACC - and I guess that's appropriate because this week (Thursday, in fact) was also the ten-year anniversary of what ESPN called "the wildest day in college football this century."  You'd almost never be off base in accusing ESPN of hyperbole, but in this case you might just have to admit they're right.

This is all apropos of nothing, of course, except that UVA got to take part in it so that was pretty sweet.  But that was then, when we were good.  This is now, when......(sigh).  UVA is actually favored in this one, which is certainly the last time they'll be favored in any game this season.  Which means that if you're some kind of whackjob who thinks we could get to watch a bowl game this year, this one is a must-must-must win.

-- UVA run offense vs. Cuse run defense

Top backs:
Taquan Mizzell: 53 carries, 196 yards, 3.7 ypc, 0 TDs
Albert Reid: 31 carries, 152 yards, 4.9 ypc, 1 TD

UVA offense:
102.8 yards/game, 3.27 yards/attempt
121st of 128 (national), 14th of 14 (ACC)

Cuse defense:
137.8 yards/game, 3.81 yards/attempt
50th of 128 (national), 8th of 14 (ACC)

Syracuse's defense is basically crap.  The pass defense is mega-crap and the run defense is just your basic average crap, but it's an overall crapshow.  Against even crappier offenses, though, Cuse has managed at least to keep teams from running the ball.

The Orange started the season 3-0 in large part because they kept lousy opponents from moving the ball on the ground.  Rhode Island netted four yards.  But Rhode Island is a 1-5 I-AA team.  Wake and CMU had slightly better luck - slightly.  Those teams are 119th and 126th in rushing offense this year, so stopping them isn't a major accomplishment.  On the other hand, Cuse got steamrolled by LSU and USF, allowing 268 and 281 yards on the ground, respectively.

All well and good, but you know as well as I do where UVA stands.  The Hoos would be worse than CMU if not for Reid's 71-yarder against Pitt.  That run added almost half a yard to the team's season average.  Cuse's defenders don't look that scary on the stat sheet.  The front seven doesn't have any big-time run stuffers.  Safety Antwan Cordy is the only player with any significant number of run-game TFLs.  But Syracuse can stop crappy run offenses, and UVA's is just about as crappy as it gets.

-- UVA pass offense vs. Cuse pass defense

Matt Johns: 93/154, 60.4%; 1,198 yards, 9 TDs, 7 INTs; 7.8 ypa, 135.9 rating

Top receivers:
Canaan Severin: 26 rec., 348 yards, 2 TDs
Taquan Mizzell: 25 rec., 340 yards, 3 TDs
T.J. Thorpe: 6 rec., 145 yards, 1 TD

UVA offense:
246.4 yards/game, 7.6 yards/attempt
53rd of 128 (national), 7th of 14 (ACC)

Cuse defense:
255.8 yards/game, 8.3 yards/attempt
114th of 128 (national), 14th of 14 (ACC)

On the other hand, this has possibilities.  Anyone who's bothered to try passing the ball on Cuse has found success.  (Except Rhode Island, which doesn't count.)  Good, bad, or indifferent, the four I-A teams the Orange has faced have all torched them through the air.  Wake rolled up 373 yards; Central followed that with 430.

It's not the pass rush.  Defensive ends Ron Thompson and Luke Arciniega have five and four sacks, respectively.  Bad news for UVA, because Michael Mooney is sidelined and Jack English is going to have to deal with Thompson all day long.  Mooney isn't all that great of shakes and is probably out of place at LT, but English is probably gonna be toast on a stick.

Still, the Syracuse secondary is just bad.  Cordy is a run defender, period.  The cornerbacks can barely cover; opposing wide receivers are constantly having big days and spitting out huge gains.  Even when the line gets pressure, QBs are completing 56.7% of their passes, not far off the 64.9% they give up overall.

I'm always saying that if UVA is ever going to be successful, Matt Johns has to do it.  Here's his chance.  As long as he's not getting blindsided, he should be able to have a big game.  With the state of the run game, there's basically no excuse for not throwing the ball 50 times.

-- Cuse run offense vs. UVA run defense

Top backs:
Jordan Fredericks: 42 carries, 236 yards, 5.6 ypc, 2 TDs
Eric Dungey: 41 carries, 137 yards, 3.3 ypc, 2 TDs

Cuse offense:
165.2 yards/game, 4.35 yards/attempt
64th of 128 (national), 8th of 14 (ACC)

UVA defense:
156.2 yards/game, 4.51 yards/attempt
84th of 128 (national), 10th of 14 (ACC)

The Syracuse running game is very multifaceted, so the Hoo defenders will get a lot of practice at staying on their toes.  They don't do the full Paul Johnson, but there's a healthy dose of triple-option game involved.  Rather than run it from under center, they'll go from the shotgun, so it's more like the Rich Rodriguez read-option combined with the old-fashioned Nebraska option pitch if the QB keeps on the first handoff.

But that's a play in the playbook rather than the whole run offense.  An often-used play, but a play nonetheless.  The Orange are also known to line up in the pistol, for example.  Or just hand the ball off regular.  They do a bunch of different stuff.

It doesn't work all the time.  In non-URI games, the Cuse is averaging about 3.9 yards a carry; not pitiful like some run games I know, but not too amazing.  Jordan Fredericks and George Morris split most of the time at running back and they've both been inconsistent this year.  Fredericks is a freshman and can be tough to bring down when he has some room, but almost all of his yards were against URI and CMU.  Morris, on the other hand, ran for a whopping -1 yards against Central and 7 yards on 5 carries against USF, but had a productive if lightly-used day against LSU.  The most consistent producer is actually the quarterback, Dungey, whose non-sack running stats are pretty OK.

It sets up to be a tricky day for UVA's defense, which already has been publicly scaled back on the assignment complexity.  Defending the option is all about complex assignments, hard enough when you know it's coming.  From a personnel standpoint, Syracuse doesn't scare, and they're not going to run completely amok on the defense, holey though it's been.  It's just a question of whether these still-raw linebackers and frankly rather undisciplined defensive ends can execute against the surprises.

-- Cuse pass offense vs. UVA pass defense

Eric Dungey: 42/70, 60.0%; 660 yards, 7 TDs, 1 INT; 9.4 ypa, 169.3 rating

Top receivers:
Steve Ishmael: 14 rec., 218 yards, 2 TDs
Ben Lewis: 10 rec., 89 yards, 1 TD
Brisly Estime: 8 rec., 197 yards, 2 TDs

Cuse offense:
176.4 yards/game, 7.2 yards/attempt
65th of 128 (national), 10th of 14 (ACC)

UVA defense:
272.6 yards/game, 8.2 yards/attempt
111th of 128 (national), 13th of 14 (ACC)

For the second year in a row, Syracuse's quarterback Terrel Hunt went down with an early season-ending injury, this time an Achilles.  Tough news for him; for Syracuse, it helped them find their QB of both the present and future in Eric Dungey.  Dungey's a freshman, so just put him under pressure, you think, and maybe you're right but he's been basically a revelation for Cuse all the same.  He was injured and missed the LSU game; had he played, it might've meant an upset because third-stringer Zack Mahoney wasn't real good.

Dungey has some very respectable weapons around him.  Slot receiver Brisly Estime is a YAC machine and has an 89-yard touchdown this year, that against Wake Forest.  Steve Ishmael had a very good season as a freshman last year and is on his way to a better one yet.  The passing game focuses on them and H-backs Ben Lewis and Ervin Phillips, plus tight end Josh Parris.  Lewis and Parris are the center of the short passing game (there's barely any usage of the running backs) and Phillips can make some stretch plays out of the backfield.

As UVA's incredibly disappointing pass defense has yet to show it can stop anyone consistently, the best defense here is Syracuse's run game.  They lean heavily toward the ground attack, with less than 40% of their plays being pass attempts.  That's good for UVA; Dungey hasn't turned the ball over but once, so heavy use of the pass game would make things that much harder.

-- Favorability ratings

UVA run offense: 2.5
UVA pass offense: 7.5
UVA run defense: 4
UVA pass defense: 2.5

Average: 4.13

-- Outlook

Both these teams need this one badly, because both these teams are facing the worst team left on their schedule.  Syracuse's bowl aspirations would be a lot easier if they can win this one; UVA's, too, which is to say that a sliver of hope exists with a win and zero with a loss.

I'm about to do something crazy here and I don't know why; probably, it's because I think Syracuse's pass defense is so bad it overshadows everything else.  And because the game is at home.  Syracuse fans think the short-pass defense is of particular badness, which probably has Steve Fairchild rubbing his hands with glee.  If that's really true, Taquan Mizzell could have a monster day.  I think Canaan Severin will have a good one.

And I think we might actually be in better shape if we're losing after three quarters.  You'd like to see Syracuse shut down their pass game and UVA open up theirs, and the best way to get the coaches into that mode is to be losing.  So let's just say that's what happens, and Mike London gets another chance to praise his team's resilience and stick-to-it-iveness.

If we lose this one I'm never again predicting another Mike London team to win so much as a game of Candy Land.

Final score: UVA 37, Cuse 34

-- Rest of the ACC

Byes: Duke, NC State

Louisville @ Florida State - 12:00 - I'd be willing to call this a dangerous trap sort of game for FSU if it wasn't in Tallahassee.

Pittsburgh @ Georgia Tech - 12:30 - With FSU coming to town next week, GT is at risk of carrying a six-game losing streak into the UVA game.

Virginia Tech @ Miami - 3:30 - Battle to shake out some pecking order in the middle of the Coastal.

Boston College @ Clemson - 7:00 - BC has a great defense and nothing to show for it because the offense might actually be worse than UVA's.

Wake Forest @ North Carolina - 7:00 - Wake Forest is weirdly good sometimes and awful some others, and probably not enough of the former to win this one.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

top secret

Very exciting you guys.  I got my mitts on the game script put together by the coaching staff for next weekend.  Not play script like they lay out the first 20 plays.  The whole game.  It's pretty boilerplate, not much difference between this and past scripts as far as I can see.  All about execution, gotta nail down the details, etc.  The team does a pretty good job of following this pattern.  Enjoy.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

game preview: Pittsburgh

Date/Time: Saturday, October 10; 12:30

TV: ACC Network, ESPN3

Record against the Panthers: 3-4

Last meeting: UVA 24, Pitt 19; 10/4/14, Charlottesville

Last week: UVA bye; Pitt 17, VT 13

Injury report: (italics - out for season)


OUT: LB Malcolm Cook, OG Sean Karl, OT Sadiq Olanrewaju, OG Ryan Doull, OT Jake Fieler, WR Andre Levrone, LB Jahvoni Simmons, OG Eric Tetlow

DOUBTFUL: CB Divante Walker




OUT: WR Tre Tipton, WR Chris Wuestner, RB James Conner, RB Rachid Ibrahim, OL Jaryd Jones-Smith, OL Alex Paulina



PROBABLE: RB Darrin Hall, FB Colton Lively

The UVA game notes point out that this is UVA's latest conference opener since 1968.  So on the plus side of that, we got to keep a zero in one of our loss columns for quite a while.  This is the third year of ACC expansion as a result of the recent conference merry-go-round, and in each of them UVA has opened with an expansion team; 2013 and 2015 with Pitt and last year with Louisville.  Most of Mike London's teams have opened the ACC season 0-1 - last year being the only exception - and it'll be tough to start a streak in that regard as Pitt has a new growly defense run by defensive wizard Pat Narduzzi.  The Panthers held VT to 100 yards last week, the second-worst performance of the entire Frank Beamer era.

Last year, after beating Pitt, UVA was 4-2, 2-0.  The game column was about the fact that fanhood is perpetually about the good feelings that come from potential, and that team, at the time, still had a lot of potential.  They won, of course, one more game the rest of the year.  This team could conceivably - not likely, but conceivably - start 2-0 again.  If they're going to pile up wins, these next two games are their best chance.

-- UVA run offense vs. Pitt run defense

Top backs:
Taquan Mizzell: 46 carries, 157 yards, 3.4 ypc, 0 TDs
Albert Reid: 27 carries, 78 yards, 2.9 ypc, 1 TD

UVA offense:
93.75 yards/game, 2.98 yards/attempt
124th of 128 (national), 14th of 14 (ACC)

Pitt defense:
71.25 yards/game, 2.46 yards/attempt
8th of 128 (national), 2nd of 14 (ACC)

That looks like a really nasty matchup.  Oh, don't get me wrong - it is, because UVA's "power run game" is like repeatedly throwing yourself at locked doors up and down the neighborhood.  You might break through one or two of them, but mostly you'll just bash yourself around and people who watch you think you should be locked in a nuthouse for trying.

Point is, Pitt's stats look really, really good, but the secret to them is that most of that success is the result of putting nuclear pressure on opposing quarterbacks.  No, that's not good either, but if you take out all the QB rushing stats from Pitt's first four games, you get about 4.25 yards a carry.  Weirdly, the quality of competition has gone up from game to game (except that Iowa would almost definitely beat VT) but the run defense has gotten stingier and stingier.  Youngstown State's Jody Webb gashed the Panthers for 127 yards on 17 carries - that's 7.5 yards each time.

Fast forward to the VT game, where Pitt gave up a total of nine yards on the ground.  Tech barely tried to run the ball.  Brenden Motley had more carries than all of Tech's backs combined, some of which he even intended to do when he broke the huddle.  Motley had a carry of 22 yards and netted -14, so... damn.

With five linemen out for this game, three of them for the season, the cavalry isn't coming.  Mike London announced that Jay Whitmire would start, which is all you get for a ray of hope.  The season trend so far suggests that Pitt's defenders are getting more comfortable with what Narduzzi is asking of them.  Linebackers Nicholas Grigsby and Matt Galambos are racking up tackles, and Pitt has a weapon in 335-pound nose tackle Tyrique Jarrett.  Between Jarrett and Galambos the middle will be closed to UVA all day long.  UVA has to hope to break a few on the edge, or not at all.

-- UVA pass offense vs. Pitt pass defense

Matt Johns: 76/121, 62.8%; 989 yards, 8 TDs, 6 INTs; 8.17 ypa, 143.4 rating

Top receivers:
Canaan Severin: 23 rec., 298 yards, 1 TD
Taquan Mizzell: 22 rec., 292 yards, 3 TDs
Evan Butts: 6 rec., 63 yards, 1 TD

UVA offense:
255.8 yards/game, 7.9 yards/attempt
36th of 128 (national), 2nd of 14 (ACC)

Pitt defense:
172.5 yards/game, 5.7 yards/attempt
21st of 128 (national), 5th of 14 (ACC)

Matt Johns had kind of a crap day against Boise State, but he's still among the ACC's stat leaders.  And even that lousy game gave him a single-game passer rating higher than Greyson Lambert's full season rating last year and David Watford's in 2013.  That connection with Canaan Severin is turning out really well.

But the laundry guys had better get the grass-stain bleach out.  Pitt has averaged more than four sacks a game, including seven against VT, and quarterbacks have had it miserable against them even when not getting dragged down with the ball in their hand.  Only Iowa's C.J. Beathard did not go backwards on the ground, and only Beathard completed more than half his passes.  Motley got picked off three times.

VT's O-line is horrible, and UVA is at least acceptable in pass protection.  Seven sacks allowed in four games - not bad.  Not wonderful, but it at least puts you in the top half of the country.  Narduzzi is expert at bringing pressure, though, so this is a big test to see if the line can at least hold their own long enough to let Johns make some plays.  As with every single game this year, it's UVA's only chance at victory.

-- Pitt run offense vs. UVA run defense

Top backs:
Qadree Ollison: 60 carries, 427 yards, 7.1 ypc, 3 TDs
Darrin Hall: 29 carries, 90 yards, 3.1 ypc, 1 TD

Pitt offense:
168.25 yards/game, 4.15 yards/attempt
78th of 128 (national), 10th of 14 (ACC)

UVA defense:
160.0 yards/game, 4.64 yards/attempt
94th of 128 (national), 11th of 14 (ACC)

I, you, and everybody thought that when James Conner went down for the season, Pitt lost most of what made them any good.  Qadree Ollison says otherwise with his 427 yards through the first four games of the season.

True, most of them came against Youngstown State.  And outside of him and Conner's YSU output, Pitt's run offense hasn't been much.  Darrin Hall has piled up his 90 yards in completely boring fashion, no more than nine at a time.  Nathan Peterman is even less of a running QB than the usurped Chad Voytik, which is saying a lot.  Pitt's running game is 100% bread and butter.

Still, it works - because like Conner, Ollison is a massive load to take down.  Weighing in at 230 pounds, he gives linebackers a very hard time because he's as big as they are.  He's been a workhorse, save for the Iowa game when he had only four carries - and that's probably as big a reason as any why they lost because he was still more effective than Hall.

Pitt isn't real tricky, which works in UVA's favor as one of the problems so far this year has been communication breakdowns.  That's been more of a pass-defense issue, but UVA's chances improve when they can just try and win some one-on-one battles.  Ollison will be trying to plunge straight ahead, so this is a really good benchmark kind of game for UVA.  If they can stop the Pitt attack, great - they can stop something.  If not, and if Ollison is allowed to gain momentum before crashing into the second level, it'll be hard to see what the Hoos can stop if the opponent brings any kind of O-line.

-- Pitt pass offense vs. UVA pass defense

Nathan Peterman: 43/66, 65.2%; 538 yards, 4 TDs, 3 INTs; 8.15 ypa, 144.5 rating

Top receivers:
Tyler Boyd: 26 rec., 274 yards, 1 TD
J.P. Holtz: 7 rec., 102 yards, 2 TDs
Darrin Hall: 5 rec., 30 yards, 0 TDs

Pitt offense:
162.5 yards/game, 7.3 yards/game
T-58th of 128 (national), T-8th of 14 (ACC)

UVA defense:
285.3 yards/game, 8.0 yards/game
108th of 128 (national), 14th of 14 (ACC)

Pittsburgh started the season with a bit of a quarterback competition between incumbent Chad Voytik and Tennessee transfer Nathan Peterman.  The last two games have made it abundantly clear: Peterman it is.  Voytik has been dumping it off too much and his numbers don't look horrendous, but the team doesn't move down the field.

Tyler Boyd has dominated the receiving stats for Pitt, as he's done the last two seasons.  Still one of the ACC's best.  Boyd isn't a huge big-play threat and hasn't scored yet this year, but he's open all the time and easily one of the toughest covers in the league.  Nobody else has double-digit receptions for Pitt, and the only one even close is tight end J.P. Holtz, a solid blocker with a bit of a receiving streak.  He's got seven catches, Darrin Hall has five, a few guys have four.  As with UVA's Severin, Boyd is the guy.

Peterman isn't very mobile, and UVA should be able to get to him a few times, but really they'll need to do more than they have been.  Coverage breakdowns (which have been frequent) will be deadly if they involve Boyd, because Peterman will always be looking in that direction.  This secondary is too talented to give UVA the worst pass defense in the league, and they've got to figure out their problems fast.

-- Favorability ratings

Run offense: 2.5
Pass offense: 4.5
Run defense: 3.5
Pass defense: 3

Average: 3.38

-- Outlook

On the one hand, the natural thing to ask here is: if the coaching staff is so lousy, what good is an extra week of practice?  The answer is that UVA is 4-2 after bye weeks in the London era (there were two last year.)  Pitt is not a bad opponent to start with, too.  The coaches are talking about simplifying things up and getting less scheme-y and more react-y.  That's a little annoying considering the defense is loaded with veterans who should've had plenty of time to learn the schemes, but Pitt brings kind of a Big Ten approach in stark contrast to Boise State.  That could help the defense get its footing back.

Another plus: likely low-scoring game combined with a UVA quarterback that can strike big at times.  It's the most natural thing in the world to be down on the Hoos' chances because of the last two games, because those games sucked donkey dong.  Rationally speaking, though, UVA has a shot in this one.

Rationally speaking, though, Pitt is also the better team, playing at home, and a Pat Narduzzi defense against a Steve Fairchild offense is what we're staring at here.

Final score: Pitt 20, UVA 10

-- Rest of the ACC

Byes: Louisville, North Carolina

NC State @ Virginia Tech - Fri. 8:00 - The Pack started 4-0 with four games against Fluffycakes the Kittycat and need to prove they can beat a legit team.  Problem is, that actual test might have to wait a week.

Duke @ Army - 12:00 - Good news for Army: their four losses are by a combined 16 points.  Bad news: one of them was to Fordham.

Wake Forest @ Boston College - 3:00 - The 8-point loss to FSU might've been Wake's high-water mark this season.

Georgia Tech @ Clemson - 3:30 - Once hailed as an outside playoff contender, GT is still very talented but at serious risk of not going bowling this season.

Syracuse @ South Florida - 3:30 - On the other hand, Syracuse could very well get there, which would be very weird.

Miami @ Florida State - 8:00 - Miami hasn't won this game since 2009, which is one of Al Golden's greatest sins, but FSU has been unconvincing in victory these past couple weeks.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

2014-2015 Cavalier of the Year: Morgan Brian

I have been trying and trying to put together the usual ugly photoshop of the FOV COY winner, and I've got a perfect record of failure so far.  That explains some of the delay in honoring the winner.  There just isn't a just-right picture out there like usual.  This is probably because women's soccer gets about 1/1000th the coverage of the sports that usually produce the winner.

Pity, because Morgan Brian is probably - not, not probably, definitely - the top UVA athlete of his or her sport of the illustrious FOV era.  Brian becomes the second Hoo after Danny Hultzen to be a two-time winner, and she came within three votes of winning last year as well.  It can be tough for a non-revenue athlete to overcome a revenue one - or more specifically, a baseball or men's basketball player, as one of them has won the award in four of the previous six years of this thing (including the year Brian shared it with Mike Scott.)  This year was no different; Brian had to overcome a surge of support for Josh Sborz, what with leftover warm happy feelings from baseball awesomeness.  This was no small feat because national championship.

But then, World Cup.  That sat on top of the pile of trophies that Brian hauls around in a dump truck.  She didn't just soak up the atmosphere from the bench, either, she was in for 353 of 630-ish possible minutes.  That's the kind of talent UVA had on its side for three seasons.  It's only fitting that UVA's best athlete in a very long time caps off UVA's best season ever.  Both Morgan Brian and the 2014-15 athletic season will be very, very tough to top.

For posterity, the final results and number of votes:

Morgan Brian - 57
Josh Sborz - 40
Ryan Shane - 13
Malcolm Brogdon - 2
Courtney Swan, Tara Vittese - 1
Eric Bird, Quin Blanding, Denny McCarthy, Leah Smith, Nick Sulzer, Jordan Young - 0