Most fans are aware that the Cavaliers are a heavy underdog in Saturday’s game against TCU. The consensus odds in Vegas have TCU favored by 19 points. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t things to be hopeful for on Saturday. Here are five things I’d like to see.
1) Some semblance of a consistent rushing attack. The Virginia run game struggled mightily in the first three games of 2012. Likely causes for the poor performance include a retooled offensive line, injuries to Cody Wallace and (per rumors) Morgan Moses, and a lack of north-south running from starter Perry Jones.
Whatever the cause, Virginia has to reestablish the run in order to have a successful season. The passing game isn’t consistent enough to carry the load offensively, and the defense has been hit or miss so far. Much of Virginia’s success in 2011 came from a ball control offense anchored by the running game. Future success in 2012 will depend on the same.
2) Mike Rocco making the throws he should make. Part of the optimism surrounding Virginia’s 2012 campaign focused on an expected uptick in quarterback play. A good quarterback can compensate for a number of team weaknesses, and so there was hope that improved play from junior quarterback Mike Rocco would mask troubles elsewhere.
So far, the returns on Rocco have been mixed, with a main concern being his struggles on intermediate and downfield passes. Rocco has underthrown a handful of open Cavaliers in 2012, and those poor throws finally hurt him against Georgia Tech. Improved play from Rocco would make me feel better about Virginia’s chances going forward.
3) Solid defensive line play. The arrival of heralded freshmen Eli Harold and Mike Moore likely obscured the fact that Virginia’s defensive line underwent a significant reconstruction after 2011. Replacing Matt Conrath, Nick Jenkins and Cam Johnson won’t happen overnight, especially given the weak defensive line recruiting Virginia saw from 2008-2010 (remember, Johnson was recruited as a safety).
It will be a while before guys like Harold, Moore, David Dean and Vincent Croce step into full-time roles. Billy Schautz and Ausar Walcott have looked solid in the meantime, but the unit on the whole hasn’t impressed. More quarterback pressure and better run defense are necessary to help Virginia’s baby-faced secondary. If Virginia can force TCU’s quarterback to make some hurried decisions Saturday, it will be a good sign.
4) Quicker decisions from the linebackers. The linebackers were late on a number of blitzes against Penn State and looked like they were wearing ankle weights against Georgia Tech. Against the Jackets, at least, Coach London said the problem wasn’t linebacker foot speed as much as it was decision-making speed. Steve Greer and co. were hesitant in their decisions, which left them a step slow in tackling. The linebackers need to improve their play quickly. They’re the most mature unit on a defense that has a razor thin margin for error.
5) Some fire in the Cavalier belly. Virginia got pasted against Georgia Tech. A similar loss this week would set off alarm bells inside an already-fickle Cavalier fan base. But if the ‘Hoos come to play, take TCU’s best punch, and keep the game competitive, it could have a positive effect on the atmosphere surrounding the program. Remember how much optimism there was after Virginia took USC to the wire in Los Angeles? A similar effort is important for this team’s confidence as the season progresses. To be sure, the TCU game isn’t a "must-win." But must-win games are coming shortly, so every chance this team has to build confidence is crucial.