Perhaps it is not surprising that this season is a(nother) disaster for the Hoos. However, the manner in which the season has played out is a bit of a surprise. Last year, after all, the Hoos finished 5-7 and several of those losses were close games to good teams (for example: 28-20 to UCLA, 20-13 on the road against a 9 win Duke team, and 24-20 to Virginia Tech).
Last year's defense was, at times, dominant. They piled up sacks (20th in the country in sacks) and turnovers (17th). They finished 28th in total defense and 32nd in scoring defense. Despite the departures of some top players from that defense, fans expected at least a competent unit this season. Then, through the first 4 games of the season, the Hoos defense was one of the worst in the nation. They couldn't even shut down William and Mary. And though they were still generating some sacks, they hadn't forced even a single turnover.
The offense last year was largely a disaster. They finished 87th in total offense and 85th in scoring offense. The ground game was terrible (97th) and the passing game was inefficient (87th). Then, early on, the Hoos offense was looking solid. Matt Johns was in the top 40 in the nation in passer rating. The Hoos gained over 400 yards against Notre Dame, Canaan Severin was one of the top WRs in the nation and even the ground game was showing signs of life.
Last year's special teams were a disaster. Aside from the KO units (7th in the country in returns, 22nd in coverage), the units were all among the nation's worst. Punting (115th), punt returns (114th) and punt coverage (102nd) were all ranked in the bottom fifth in the nation. This has changed some as well. The Hoos currently rank 1st in the nation in punt returns. They are also 47th in net punting, due to Nicholas Conte's 6th ranking in punt average. The KO teams are still terrible.
So, fans expected a good defense, a bad offense and awful special teams. What they've gotten is a terrible defense, a decent offense and mediocre special teams. So the only thing that isn't surprising is the 1-4 team record.
This week, we saw a different team. At times, the defense looked like last year's unit. They forced 2 turnovers, they pressured Nate Peterman all game long. Though they continued to give up far too many big plays in the ground game, they basically shut down Quadree Ollison.
The offense now looks way too much like last year's. The ground game had trouble getting into a rhythm and the passing game was poor. Matt Johns has regressed and now sits 58th in the nation in passer rating. He missed some passes this week that starting ACC QBs shouldn't miss. Twice the Hoos reached the red zone and ended up kicking short FGs. A TD on either one of those possessions completely changes the outlook of this contest.
Next week, the Hoos return home to face Syracuse. It is almost impossible the predict what UVA team will show up for that contest. Will the offense be stagnant again? Or will we see some imagination from Steve Fairchild? Will the defense continue giving up big play after big play without generating any big plays of their own? Or will we get another defensive TD?
As always, some random notes:
- Against Notre Dame, Canaan Severin had 11 catches. He caught nearly everything that was thrown his way. He beat zone coverage, he beat man coverage. He even beat double coverage on more than one occasion. Since then, he's been an afterthought in the offense. He has a total of 10 catches in the 3 games since Notre Dame. You'd think maybe teams are blanketing Severin. But that not appear to be the case. He's been open. At times, Johns has missed him. But far too often, it seems Severin is being used as a decoy. Which might work if other guys were making plays. But the passing game is Severin and Smoke Mizzell. If nobody else is going to step up, Matt Johns and Steve Fairchild need to start looking for Severin more often. 3 catches for 50 yards is not nearly enough for your top WR.
- Albert Reid had a 71 yard run in the first quarter. And 3 carries the rest of the game. Meanwhile, Daniel Hamm had 10 carries and Smoke had 7. Coach Fairchild, this isn't Pee Wee football. Everybody doesn't need to play. Find the hot hand and keep feeding it. If Reid had a big play, let's see if he can keep that up. If Daniel Hamm strings together a couple of nice runs (as he did in the 3rd quarter, keep him in the game for a while. It seems like just as a guy isn't getting into a rhythm, he is on the bench.
- The above is true for WRs too. The Hoos rotate in and out different packages which also includes different WRs. First of all, unless he needs a breather, there should never be a play when Severin isn't on the field. Second of all, guys can't get into a rhythm if they are constantly being subbed in and out. And third, teams are able to make educated guesses as to what type of play is coming based on the personnel. If Severin isn't in the game, it's probably either a run play or a screen to Smoke. Defenses are picking up on this.
- Richard Burney had his redshirt burnt this week. Why? He played just a handful of plays. And it's not like Steve Fairchild ever uses the TEs. Evan Butts and Charlie Hopkins have combined for 9 catches and 90 yards. Is Burney likely to be more productive than that? Waste of a redshirt.
- That makes 7 true freshmen who've played this year. By any measure, only 2 of those have had an impact on the field, WRs Olamide Zaccheaus and David Eldridge. Eldridge didn't even play this week and has just 1 reception on the year. And with the return of Doni Dowling, Eldridge becomes superfluous. Another waste of a redshirt.
- At 1-4, the Hoos now need to win 5 of 7 in order to make a bowl. Next week against the Orange is absolutely a must-win game. Let's see if the coaching staff realizes that and pulls out all the stops to get a win, or if they continue to act as if it's just another game.