Virginia Football Week 4: Southern Miss Preview

The Hoos return from back to back road games, for a 4 game homestand, encompassing well over a calendar month. The next time the Hoos will leave Charlottesville will be October 27th. This bodes well for a team that has historically played better at Scott Stadium than on the road.

Coming to town this week is the Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles, a team that beat the Hoos in Hattiesburg, in 2009, 37-34. In that game, the Hoos took a 17 point lead into halftime, but then fell apart in the 2nd half, in part due to special teams errors. That game (or at least the first half) was one of the highlights of Jameel Sewell's career, as he threw for over 300 yards. Several of our WRs also had big games, including Kris Burd and Tim Smith. Back then, we didn't have much of a running game. Now, we're a team that relies on the run. Things change I guess.

The Golden Eagles come in at 2-1, having beaten Louisiana Tech and Southeastern Louisiana, while losing at Marshall.

Will this years' game be different from 2 years ago? Will the Hoos get back on track?

Virginia on Offense

The Hoos racked up 468 yards of offense last week, yet came away with just 17 points. I touched on this earlier this week, but that is the kind of thing that shouldn't happen consistently. Teams that can move the ball against a quality defense like UNC generally will score points. Southern Miss has a good defense, but they aren't as talented as UNC. The Hoos should have success.

That success will, as usual, begin up front. The Hoos OL had a very good game last week, and in fact have been fantastic all season long. We have been playing 7 OLs pretty consistently all season, with OT Sean Cascarano and OG Matt Mihalik spelling the starters here and there. We have the 32nd ranked offense in the country, and that simply does not happen without strong OL play.

The Golden Eagles play a weird, sort of hybrid defense that is basically a 4-2-5, except one of the linemen is called a "bandit" and is a DL/LB combination. In that role is junior Jamie Collins, and he will play all over the field, depending on the situation. At times, Collins will have his hand down. At times, he will line up on the edge, kind like a 3-4 OLB. And sometimes, Collins will even line up on the perimeter. Last year, Collins was 2nd on the team in tackles and sacks plus he threw in 2 picks and a forced fumble. Collins wears number 8, which is weird to see on a down lineman. This year, Collins has 6 TFLs in just 3 games. Behind Collins is junior Brandon Francesconi, but I don't expect Collins to come off the field much.

The rest of the DL generally lines up in a normal formation, with senior DE Cordarro Law on the side opposite from Collins. The two DTs are senior Terrance Pope and sophomore Khyri Thornton. Law is the leading sacker on the team, with 3 already this year. He had 6 all of last season. Pope and Thornton are both big guys who will take up space, but neither are really bigtime playmakers. Pope and Thornton have combined for 11 tackles and 1 sack (Pope's) so far this season. Senior Deddrick Jones missed the end of last year after being shot at an off campus party, but he is healthy now and will see time on the DL.

The LB duo is a good one, with seniors Korey Williams and Ronnie Thornton (as far as I can tell, Ronnie and Khyri are not related). Williams led the team last year in tackles and TFL, and he has gotten off to a quick start this year with a team leading 31 tackles already to go along with 2 interceptions. Thornton has 18 tackles and 1 interception.

The 5 DBs that Southern Miss plays include a "spur" position, which is manned by senior Cameron O'Neal. The Spur is a hybrid SS/OLB, who will come up in run support, and also cover TEs and RBs. At 6'0" and 220 pounds, O'Neal is a perfect fit for the position. Sophomore Jerrion Johnson will also see time at the Spur, and in fact started the opener against Louisiana Tech.

The other two safeties are junior Kendrick Presley and sophomore Jacorius Cotton. Presley will man what they call the boundary safety, which is similar to a traditional SS. Presley is tall and rangy and will be the main player to watch in the secondary. Cotton will be the free safety, but he is still getting his feet wet on defense, after seeing time almost exclusively on special teams a year ago. Cotton has looked good in pass coverage thus far this season, but he has struggled making tackles.

The defense the Eagles play labels the CBs as a field corner (FC) and boundary corner (BC). The FC is senior Marquese Wheaton and the BC is sophomore Deron Wilson. Both are small, which could mean more opportunities for Matt Snyder and other bigger WRs. Wilson is young, but has the potential to be a dynamic CB. He is currently 2nd on the team in tackles, and has shown shutdown potential as a CB. He will likely spend a lot of time across from Kris Burd. Junior Marcal Robinson will also see time at CB, as he provides a bigger presence than the other two.

The Hoos will face a defense unlike what they've faced thus far. One each play, they have to be wary of where the Bandit and the Spur are. These players are wildcards, and allow the Southern Miss defense to drastically change their defensive alignment without changing personnel. Collins is a playmaker who can do everything from rush the passer to cover a slot WR. The real star of the defense though, is LB Korey Williams. Williams will be the man to watch against the run. Making sure he gets blocked will be a big part of any successful running play.

Much like last week, the strength of our opponent is their defensive front (7 last week, 6 this week). The secondary, while talented, has struggled. If the OL can give QB Michael Rocco time to throw, he should be able to find open guys. USM will play a lot of zone, which helps explain why their LBs have combined for 3 INTs. This probably makes it tougher to get the swing passes to Perry Jones and Max Milien, but should open up some opportunities downfield for Tim Smith and our other speedy WRs.

Obviously, we are going to focus on the run game. The thing about the hybrid defense the Eagles play is that they sacrifice some size for speed with the combo players. This gives our blockers an advantage in man to man blocking situations. Due to the presence of Williams, we may not have as nuch success running up the middle, but edge runs should have success. This is also aided by the small stature of USM's DBs. Again, this is a good matchup for our RBs, who are better edge rushers. I expect a big game on the ground from Jones and Kevin Parks.

USM hasn't played a team with the offensive talent that we have. They shut down a pretty solid Louisiana Tech offense, but Marshall was able to move the ball on them, and Marshall's offense is near the bottom of the FBS rankings. I see our offense having a good deal of success moving the ball. We need to eliminate the turnovers and other mistakes that hurt us last week.

Virginia on Defense

Fans who watched the 2009 game will see a similar look from the Golden Eagles. It is head coach Larry Fedora's offense, although Offensive Coordinator Blake Anderson calls the plays. It is an up-tempo offense that lines up quickly and then signals the play in from the sideline. In some ways, it isn't all that different from what Indiana ran.

Their QB is still Austin Davis. Davis was a sophomore in that 2009 game, and while he threw for only 130 yards, he had a TD and he didn't make any mistakes. Davis is a better QB now than he was then, and he has broken many of Brett Favre's school marks. Davis is also a threat on the ground, and we've seen how much of a problem that can be for the Wahoo defense. The LBs especially will have to maintain their rush lanes, and keep Austin in the pocket. Davis rushed for 10 TDs last year, so watching him will be a key in the red zone.

Southern Miss will likely be without their #1 RB Desmond Johnson. Johnson rushed for 51 yards in the season opener before leaving with an injury. He hasn't returned yet, and isn't expected to return this week. In his stead, sophomore Kendrick Hardy and freshman Jamal Woodyard will split carries, with Hardy getting the bulk of them. Hardy actually led the team in rushing last year, with 902 yards. He likely would've been splitting time with Johnson. Woodyard is a similar RB to Kevin Parks. He stands just 5'8" but is listed at 202 pounds and he can bounce off tacklers in much the same way that Parks does.

Interestingly, USM lists 12 starters on offense, as they list 3 WRs, a TE and a FB. I am pretty sure that is not allowed, but I'll have to the check the rulebook. Despite a 4 year starter at QB, USM is primarily a running team, but they will often line up in a spread, 3-WR or 4-WR formation and run out of it. The starting FB listed is sophomore Bruce Johnson (USM has 6 guys named Johnson on their roster), but he hasn't touched the ball at all, and isn't much of a threat. He will, more than likely, not be on the field for the first snap. The starting TE is Ryan Hanks and he hasn't had a single catch either.

Senior WR Kelvin Bolden is a gamebreaker, but checks in at 6'0" and just 160 pounds. This is a different type of matchup for our secondary than the UNC WRs provided, and one that better matches the talent that we have at CB. Tra Nicholson has been victimized by bigger WRs the past couple of weeks, so he should be more comfortable this week. Bolden led the team with 722 yards receiving last year, but has just 4 catches for 33 yards so far this year.

The other two starting WRs are juniors Quentin Pierce and Tracy Lampley. Neither of them is appreciably bigger than Bolden. The leading WR for USM thus far has been senior Ryan Balentine, who started the first two games, but did not start last week and is not listed as a starter for this week. Balentine had just 1 catch last week, so I do not know how much impact he will have on this game. Another WR of note, senior William Spight, missed last week's game but is expected to play this week.

The USM OL is a big bunch, with two guys tipping the scales at 330 pounds. Both tackles are seniors, while the three interior linemen are juniors. The best lineman they've got is LT Lamar Holmes, a 6'6" 333 pound behemoth. Holmes is a mauler, a good run blocker, but susceptible to speed rushers, which bodes well for DEs Cam Johnson and Billy Schautz. All 3 interior linemen are new to their starting positions, and have struggled at times this season. They looked good last week, but that was against an overmatched FCS opponent. Against Marshall, they often had trouble in both run blocking and pass blocking.

USM is going to try to attack the edges of our defense. For one thing, it is the strength of their offense, and particularly QB Austin Davis. For another thing, the Hoos have shown that they are weak there. I expect heavy use of misdirection, and possibly some read-option with Austin Davis. Davis is a real threat to hurt us, and USM has a couple of very good backs.

One thing that we have going for us in this game is USM's WRs are nothing special. They are quick, but they are small. For a team to have success running on the perimeter, they need to get blocking from the WRs, and our DBs should be able to fight off blocks from 160 pound WRs. If the OLBs can maintain their positions and string out those edge runs, we should be able to stop them.

Our defense, particularly the LBs, has not looked great the past couple of weeks. This is another game where guys like LaRoy Reynolds and Steve Greer are going to be important factors. If USM can consistently run the ball, they will control the clock and have a chance to win the game. If we can force them into passing situations, we will be successful.

Conclusions

We all know that most football games come down to a battle of the trenches. But in particular, when you have two teams that want to run the ball and control the line of scrimmage, it is even more important to get solid play from both of your lines. The Hoos have gotten very good play from their OL, but suspect play from the DL the past couple of weeks.

USM provides a different look than we have seen, as they play non-traditional schemes on both sides of the ball. Their defense is good, but on the smallish side. We should have success running the ball on them, especially on the edges. I think we will score some points, but we have to start getting touchdowns, instead of FGs. I think our defense matches up reasonably well against USM, but we have to have better work by our OLBs against the run. Freshman Dequan Romero has looked good there, and  may see extended reps.

I foresee a breakout game for Chase Minnifield, and maybe even a defensive TD for him. Davis has 4 interceptions already this year, and Chase is about due. We are 3 point favorites, which is generally the advantage given to the home team. I think we're better than that.

Prediction: Hoos 31, Golden Eagles 20

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