Through two weeks, it certainly seems like the Wahoos' defense is legit. Tied for 2nd in the country in forced turnovers, tied for 7th in sacks. Only given up 2 TDs, one of those was a garbage time TD this week. Yeah, they gave up a lot of yards to Richmond, but a lot of that came late in the blowout (over 60% of their total yards came in second half). And, as we all know, Jon Tenuta's defense is willing to give up some yards in exchange for game changing plays. Seven turnovers will do the trick.
Coming into the season, the projected strengths of the defense were the secondary, led by All-American Anthony Harris and the D-line, led by Eli Harold. But so far, the top players have been the LBs, Daquan Romero, Henry Coley and Max Valles. Valles is tied for 10th in the nation with 3.5 sacks. Coley is tied for 3rd in the nation with 2 forced fumbles and tied for 17th in the nation with 4 TFLs. And all Romero has done is record 20 tackles, 3 TFLs, a sack, an interception, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. Now that's filling up the stat line!
The secondary and the D-line are still doing their jobs, but the LBs have been better than anybody could've predicted. That is what is really bringing this defense together. We know that this defense could be good. I predicted before the season that they could be the third best defense in the ACC. But now we're looking at a ceiling of one of the top overall defenses in the country.
I know what you're saying. It's only two games, and one of them was Richmond. Well, UCLA just put up 540 total yards on Memphis, and Richmond put up 643 against Moorehead State. I suppose that being better than Memphis or Moorehead State isn't saying much. (Although as a Giants fan, I'm somewhat fond of Moorehead State, which produced Phil Simms.)
Maybe you're right. Maybe the defense is overrated. Maybe UCLA was out of sorts due to the early kickoff. Maybe forcing 7 turnovers against an FCS team isn't a big deal. But I don't think anybody could've asked for more from the defense than they've gotten. They've played about as well as possible, all things considered. And there's no reason to believe that will change as the season goes on.
The offense, of course, is another story. Sure, they scored 38 points (7 of the Hoos 45 came from Eli Harold). But they scored just 14 in the first half, despite being given excellent field position on 3 out of 6 possessions. One of those possessions was Khalek's fumble on a punt return. But since he received the punt successfully and fumbled while running, I'm still putting it on the offense.
The Hoos averaged under 4 yards per carry. And that average is boosted by a 10 yard Greyson Lambert scramble and a 12 yard Matt Johns scramble. If they can't average 4 yards per carry against Richmond, how do they expect to run against ACC opponents? Perhaps some deviation from the same old boring running plays would help. Maybe running the same inside handoff-over guard rush over and over again isn't the best offensive strategy. If you watched the game, you may have noticed that the most successful runs were outside the tackles, usually on trap players with a pulling OL. Certainly, against a team like Richmond, this isn't a surprise. Those same plays may not work against better, faster defenses, but at least by showing them, the defense has to spread itself out a bit, and that can provide more space inside.
Maybe the Hoos were playing it conservatively the past two weeks because of the opponents. Maybe they didn't want to take too many chances against a quality opponent like UCLA in the season opener, when the game didn't really mean much. And maybe the coaching staff knew they could beat Richmond without doing anything remotely interesting offensively. I would understand it if that was the case. But this isn't any different than what the Hoos did last year. And the year before. It's not a game thing, it's a system thing.
With such a good defense, maybe the coaching staff thinks they don't need much from the offense to win games. But that is the wrong attitude. They should be thinking that with such a good defense, they can take more chances with the offense, and trust the defense to bail them out. You can try an end around or even a flea-flicker, because you know that even if you lose a big chunk of yards, you can punt it and trust that you'll get another chance soon enough. There's just no reason to be so conservative.
Hopefully, the staff realizes that going toe-to-toe with Louisville and BYU over the next two weeks will require a bit more from the offense. More big plays. More different plays. More innovative plays. More, more, more. Except, not more inside handoff-over guard runs.
As always, some random thoughts:
- It didn't matter one iota, but David Watford looked very uncomfortable out there. You simply cannot take a sack on third down from the 26 yard line. That sack took the Hoos out of FG range. Again, it didn't matter because it was a 25 point game. But if Watford is ever forced into action due to injuries or whatever, I simply don't trust him at all. I guess I don't mind Watford getting some garbage time snaps, but I'll be perfectly happy to never see Watford play QB for the Hoos again.
- On the other hand, if Watford were to come in split out wide, that would give the Hoos some interesting options. Can Watford catch? We could run a double pass with Lambert/Johns and Watford. Of course, we could run it with just Lambert and Johns as well. Richmond ran several plays with both Michael Strauss and Michael Rocco in the game. They never did anything interesting with it, but it's one more thing their future opponents must worry about. Can Steve Fairchild come up with something like that? For some reason, I doubt it.
- When are we gonna stop sucking on punt returns? I'm beginning to think we should just send 11 rushers at the punter on every punt. The occasional roughing the punter penalty is still probably better than fumbling a punt every other game. And maybe we'll block a few punts while we're at it.
- Those KR sure were a thing of beauty. Finally looked like our returners were running with purpose. I'm sure Darius Jennings agrees with me when I say that he needs to score on that long one. He's too fast to be caught from behind. He slowed to let his blockers do their jobs, but it wasn't necessary.
- I think Tim Harris is going to be a very good CB. But right now, he struggles on deep balls. Better teams are going to pick up on this and attack him deep. He doesn't get turned around, and he doesn't pick up the ball quickly enough. He got beaten a couple of times this week, and he's only going to face better WRs as the season goes on. To be fair, this is a common thing for young CBs. But Harris and the defensive coaching staff need to work on it.
- While we're on the subject, why do we continue to give such a big cushion to WR on the outside? How many times did Richmond throw quick passes to the WRs and pick up 5 or 6 (or more) yards? Obviously, it's to prevent getting beaten deep. But if you play press coverage, those short passes aren't there. And by the time the WRs might be getting open deep, hopefully Eli Harold, Max Valles and the rest of the pass rushers have gotten to the QB. I'm not saying we should play press coverage on every play. But once in a while would be nice.
- Wil Wahee and Divante Walker really impressed me. I'm a lot more comfortable with the projected secondary for next season now. With as many seniors as there are in that unit, it was a big concern going forward. Maybe Nicholson will redshirt, which would help as well. Along those lines, Micah Kiser also looked better than expected, which alleviates some concerns about MLB next year.
- I've been intentionally avoiding the QB debate. I could very easily make a case either way. Lambert had his moments, highlighted by the 29 yard pass to Canaan Severin, which may have been the prettiest throw I've seen a UVA QB make in 5 years. Completing 87% of your passes is impressive. But Lambert is currently 112th in the nation in yards per completion (at 7.38) and is actually lower than Watford was last year (9.02). Johns got more playing time, and let the team to more points, but threw only 7 passes. Both his yards per completion and yards per attempt are higher than Lambert on the year. And Lambert is the guy with the big arm. So, is it a difference in playcalling? Is it a difference in style? If Steve Fairchild is going to continue calling games the way he is a calling them, I like Matt Johns. He's a more flexible player, which gives Fairchild more options. And the benefit of having Lambert's big arm isn't relevant when every pass you throw only goes 5 yards. Plus, for some reason, Johns seems to generate more big plays. That said, if Fairchild opens up the playbook past page 3, then Lambert should be the guy.
- I am disappointed that Ian Frye missed a FG. But, he didn't miss by much. What makes me happy is that his 46 yard FG hit the upright a good 10 yards above the crossbar. This makes be believe that Frye has enough leg to make a 56 yard FG if needed. Obviously, his consistency isn't great. But if we're down 2 at the end of a game, it's nice to know we have a kicker with that kinda leg.
- Year in and year out, I am amazed at how the players handle the heat in these early season contests. It was miserably hot in the stands, especially early in the game. And I can only imagine that the heat was worse on the field. I give kudos to the players on both sides of the field for being able to play with high energy in those conditions. And I give kudos to both training staffs for keeping the players hydrated, and in playing shape. I don't think we saw more than 1 or 2 players leave with cramps. And in those conditions, that's impressive. Thankfully, it is going to be much cooler next week.