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Virginia Football vs. Richmond: The big preview

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The Bronco Mendenhall Era officially begins.

Richmond v Maryland Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

We’ll soon see if all the talk during preseason meant anything. We’ll see if the breakneck pace at practice will help the game slow down for the players. And we’ll see how far along the players are in learning the new schemes. Make no mistake, despite being a lower division team, Richmond can play. They are a team of veterans who aren’t trying to learn and institute any new schemes. They have no reason to fear the Hoos and they believe they can win.

Virginia opened as about an 11 point favorite, though the line has since been taken off. The last time these two teams played, in 2014, the Hoos won 45-13. That was a different Richmond team. All time, the Hoos are 28-2-2 against Richmond, in a series going all the way back to 1893. They haven’t lost to Richmond since 1946 and only one game since then was even close (a 17-16 win in 2001 in Al Groh’s home opener).

Here’s the game details:

Day: Saturday, September 3
Time: 3:30 p.m. ET
Where: Scott Stadium
TV: ESPN3/WatchESPN

Richmond On Offense

QB: Kyle Lauletta
RB: Gordon Collins
WR: Brian Brown, Tyler Wilkins, Jamaal Bevels

The Spiders have a new offensive coordinator this year, and he’s a familiar name to Virginia fans. Former UVA assistant coach John Garrett is now the OC at Richmond, after Charlie Fisher left to take the head coaching job at Western Illinois. We do not expect this change to dramatically alter the Richmond offense.

They’ll still be running the same pro-style offense led by Kyle Lauletta. Lauletta was recruited by Duke, NC State and UCONN but apparently didn’t actually get any FBS offers. At Richmond, he played as a true freshman and looked good on paper, completing 16 of 21 for 108 yards and 2 TDs, though this was largely in garbage time, playing behind former Wahoo Michael Strauss. Then he redshirted the following year before starting every game as a sophomore. He threw for nearly 3600 yards, with 19 TDs and 15 INTs. He also ran for 116 yards and 7 TDs. He’s not particularly fast, but he has good vision and makes good decisions with the ball. They’ll run some read-option here and there, but it’s a change-up look as opposed to a feature of the offense. This is something to look for in short yardage and goal line situations where the misdirection could be enough to get the necessary yards.

Lauletta is a big play guy who averaged almost 15 yards per completion and over 9 yards per attempt. Those numbers were both among the FCS leaders. He throws a great deep ball, and he can extend plays with his legs then beat you after the play has broken down. On the shorter routes, he’s not always the most accurate because has had a tendency to rush those throws (now a year older and more experienced, this problem may fix itself, as it often does for younger QBs.)

Last year’s starting RB, Jacobi Green, rushed for almost 1600 yards and 21 TDs, again both near the top of the FCS. Green, however, is gone. Replacing him is probably going to be a group effort, at least at the beginning of the season. The primary ball carrier will likely be Gordon Collins, a big bruising back who rushed for 5.7 yards per carry last year on 27 carries. He was Green’s backup, and is the only RB on the team with experience. He’s not nearly as explosive as Green was, so expect to see other RBs in the mix. One to watch is Deontez Thompson, who was a high school track star and has good size as well.

Brian Brown is the big weapon in the passing game. He had nearly 1100 yards as a freshman in 2014 and nearly 1500 last year. He’s already over 150 career receptions and he’s averaging close to 20 yards per catch. He’s the guy the Hoos need to find on every play. Expect to see coverage shaded his direction. The other WRs do not have the same gamebreaking skill that Brown has. Wilkins and Bevels, though, are good possession WRs. Both are big and strong and can make plays (Bevels is 6’4” 200 pound sophomore who the Spiders are very high on). The Spiders also play a TE, Garrett Hudson, who had 11 receptions for 220 last year. For a TE, he runs well and he can make big plays if he is given the chance. We may see more 3-WR sets than the Spiders have shown in the past because they have more depth there than at RB and because they will live and die on Lauletta’s arm.

Most Wahoo fans are familiar with the concepts of the 3-4 defense, as the Hoos ran it under Coach Groh from 2001-2009. Though this defense is similar, there are distinct differences from Groh’s version. For one thing, Groh tended to favor bigger LBs, while Bronco favors smaller, quicker players. Some of that is due to changes in college football. With the prevalence of spread offense, linebackers need to be able to run and handle pass coverage at various levels.

Bronco’s defense is also going to be more aggressive than Groh’s was. Groh’s defense generally had designated pass rushers. The SAM LB was going to rushing the passer on most plays. (Think Darryl Blackstock and Clint Sintim.) Coach Mendenhall will be bringing pass rushers from all over the field, including all of the LBs. With a pair of pass-rushing OLBs (Chris Peace and Cory Jones), expect to see the pass rush come primarily from those two.

Over the past couple of years, the key to stopping the Spiders has been to shut down the ground game. The passing game mostly relied on play-action and the threat of Jacobi Green. With Green gone, that probably changes. Lauletta is the man now. The offense will probably rely more on his arm than on the ground game. That may also mean more read-option. But keep an eye out for a fake-read option leading to a bootleg and passing opportunity for Lauletta. Again, he’s good at throwing on the run, and his receivers are good at coming back to the ball in those situations. If the Spiders can keep the Hoos pass rush at bay, watch for double moves and other ways to get the ball downfield. They would love to hit a big play here and there. They know they aren’t as big and strong as the Hoos, but a long TD can very quickly turn the game in their favor.

The Spiders OL returns almost in tact. All that’s missing from last year is LT Nick Ritcher. That unit was very good last year, with nearly 5 yards per carry rushing, and 21 sacks allowed. Of course, in their one FBS matchup (Maryland), they allowed 4 sacks and just over 2 yards per attempt on the ground (remember, sack yards count as rush yards in college). That’s gotta be the game plan for the Hoos. Get on Lauletta early and often. That doesn’t mean all out blitzing. Jon Tenuta is gone. It means responsible pass rushing, disguising coverages and generally making Lauletta have a bad time. Sacks would be nice, but not worth giving up big plays in the passing game. Make Richmond work for it, and the Hoos talent advantage will win out.

Richmond on Defense

DL: Andrew Clyde, Kieran Gregory
LB: Omar Howard
DB: David Jones, Jarriel Jordan

So this is really what everybody wants to see. Defense is fun, but Wahoo fans have been waiting for the Hoos to enter the 21st century of college football. That’s why so many of us were rooting for an offensive-minded head coach. Well, we got another defense guy, but he brings along a spread-offense guru in Robert Anae.

We know Kurt Benkert is going to be the QB. We know Smoke Mizzell is going to be the primary RB, but we’re going to see a handful of guys, especially this week. And though we know there’s depth at WR, we don’t exactly know how that is going to shake out.

Anae had two stints as the OC at BYU. He left in the middle to go to Arizona and work under Rich Rodriguez. So the Rich Rodriguez offense is a decent approximation of what we’re going to see. Of course, there will be differences. For one thing, RichRod has often had running QBs. That means a QB who can regularly beat a team with his legs. Though Benkert is decently mobile, he is not a running QB.

There will still be a heavy dose of read-option. Expect defenses to focus on the RB on those plays, especially when Smoke is back there because he’s so dangerous with the ball in his hands. That means Benkert is going to have to make plays. Anae will use the read-option as play-action, and get Berkert out of the pocket. That’s one way to avoid the pass rush.

Beyond the read-option, expect to see a lot of different formations, a lot of moving parts and a lot of misdirection. We’re going to see WR screens thrown to inside receivers (often called a bubble screen) and WR screens thrown to the outside WRs (generally just called a WR screen or a quick screen). Those are plays designed to get the ball into a playmakers hands quickly. We’ll see the bubble screen used a lot with Smoke lined up in the slot.

The other thing you’re going to notice is speed. Not the speed of the players, which is still lacking all around, especially in comparison to the teams RichRod has had, and the teams Bronco had at BYU. But the speed of the offense. Gone are the days when we’ll see multiple delay-of-game penalties. We’re going to see the ball snapped almost as soon as it is placed. That puts a lot of pressure on the defense, but it also puts a lot of pressure on Benkert to make the correct reads and on the rest of the offense to all be on the same page.

Statistically speaking, Richmond’s defense was not nearly as good as the offense a year ago. They were 51st in the FCS in total defense (371 yards per game) and scoring defense (24.6 ppg). But Richmond’s defense is successful, in part because they run a very interesting scheme. They don’t try to generate big plays, but they also don’t give up big plays. They were dead last in the FCS in the tackles for loss, and 112th in sacks. But they were 1st in interceptions and 7th in total turnovers forced. They basically create a wall across the line of scrimmage and try to stop the ball from crossing that line, especially on the ground. That is going to be their #1 goal, shutting down the running game.

With a new QB who hasn’t seen extensive action since high school in 2012, Richmond’s best plan is to force him into action and then hope that he makes mistakes. The Hoos are going to be a run-first offense, so the Spiders want to shut down that running game. The Hoos, though, have a lot of playmakers on offense, from Smoke Mizzell and Jordan Ellis at RB to Olamide Zaccheaus and Keeon Johnson at WR. This is how the Hoos want to beat you. They want to get the ball quickly into the hands of the playmakers and let them run wild.

With a team that doesn’t blitz much and doesn’t generate much pass rush, Benkert should have time to throw. That means that we may see a different game plan this week than we’ll see during the rest of the season. Instead of a lot of quick passes - WR screens and things like that - we may see more deep balls and more complicated pass routes. The offense is still going to predicated on speed and misdirection. You’ll see WRs coming in motion, you’ll see RBs moving out into a slot position and you’ll see a lot of combination routes. That means inside receivers and outside receivers running complementary routes. For example, an inside receiver running a quick in and an outside receiver running a deep out (though there are many other examples).

Richmond’s defense returns almost all of last year’s starters. They run a 4-3 defense and all 4 DLs return from last year along with 2 of the LBs. The top players on the defense are a pair of senior DBs, CB Jarriel Jordan and WS David Jones (WS is essentially just Richmond’s name for a FS). Jones was 3rd in the nation in interceptions with 9. He also led the team 2 fumble recoveries and was 2nd in tackles with 97 and also returns punts. MLB Omar Howard led the team with 136 total tackles (44 of those of the solo variety).

Though they aren’t a great pass rushing team, what pass rush there is will come from the inside. Sophomore Andrew Clyde led the team with 6 sacks and 8.5 TFLs. He and fellow DT, Winston Craig, are a formidable duo in the middle. Running up the middle will be difficult for the Hoos, especially considering the inexperience that the Hoos have on the interior of the OL. Passing over the middle will have similar problems because of Jones playing CF. He’s so good back there, reads plays well and makes a great break on the ball. He is the guy that Benkert needs to find on every play. Expect the Hoos to spend much of the game attacking the edges. This will make it easier for the speed of Smoke Mizzell and company a chance to get into space and make plays. One of the problems over the past few years has been a lack of big plays from the Hoos offense. While that would be great this week, Richmond’s defense doesn’t give up a ton of big plays. The Hoos need to be patient and take what Richmond gives. Avoiding turnovers is probably the #1 thing for the Hoos this week.

Conclusion

The Hoos have a talent advantage. That is obvious in any game between FCS and FBS. However, the Hoos are not a deep team, and Richmond is. The Spiders are a very good FCS team, and are certainly capable of hanging with the Hoos. However, between the talent advantage, the emotion of playing their first game for Coach Mendenhall, and the benefit of playing in front of the home fans should be enough for the Hoos to come out on top. It probably won’t be as easy as most fans will expect though. Richmond’s offense is legit and the Hoos defense, even in week 1, isn’t at full strength.

Prediction: Hoos 42, Spiders 30