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Virginia vs. Central Michigan Big Preview: Can Benkert finally put it all together?

The Chippewas will score lots of points, this much we know. Will Virginia’s offense be able to answer?

Central Michigan v Oklahoma State Photo by J Pat Carter/Getty Images

OK, let’s get this out of the way early. If you haven’t seen the end of the Chippewas’ win over Oklahoma State from 2 weeks ago, you're missing out. Here are the highlights:

CMU should not have had a chance to win because the officials screwed up after the intentional grounding call, and the officials have admitted as such. The game should’ve ended with Okie State up 27-24. Still, they made the best of the chance they were given and they scored one of the most amazing TDs we’ll ever see. So kudos to them. Now back to this week's matchup.

These two teams have only faced once, a 55-21 Virginia victory in Scott Stadium. That was the opening game of the 1996 season and the first game of my first year. I remember it vividly. After a 3-and-out by CMU, Tiki Barber had a big punt return that he followed up with a TD on the very next play. The Hoos also had a kick return TD and a blocked punt TD scored by the same guy (Joe Rowe).

Ah, to be back in the days when games against directional Michigan schools were easy wins. These days, the 0-3 Hoos are 3.5 point underdogs at home against 3-0 CMU. CMU beat UNLV 44-21 last week, though they were down 21-14 early after giving up a blocked punt TD and an 85 yard TD run.

Here is the game information:

Who: Central Michigan Chippewas
Where: Scott Stadium
When: 12:30 PM ET
TV: RSN (Regional Sports Network) – Comcast SportsNet in the DC Area

CMU on Offense
QB: #10 Cooper Rush
RB: #25 Devon Spalding
WR: #3 Mark Chapman, #88 Jesse Kroll

After facing a running team last week, the Hoos now must turn around and face a passing led by All-American QB Cooper Rush. Last year, Rush was 16th in the nation in passing yards per game. As a team, they were 19th in the country in passing. Despite all that success through the air, they were just 63rd nationally in total offense, largely because they were 124th in rushing. So far this year, Rush has been ever better. He’s 10th in the nation in passing yards right now and the team is 37th in total offense.

The playcalling tells a similar story. Last year, Rush threw 489 passes and the team had 420 rushes. Rush had 63 rushing attempts and was sacked 28 times. Without watching every play of every game, it is impossible to know how many of those other rushes were scrambles (as opposed called QB runs). So the Chippewas had no more than 392 running plays called and no fewer than 517 pass plays. That’s nearly 60% pass plays (which is actually less than the Hoos have called this year, but the Hoos have been behind so much they’ve been throwing to catch up).

Last week, CMU ran the ball on their first 3 downs. And then they punted. On their next drive, they threw on 12 of their next 15 downs, scoring two TDs. When the game was out of reach, CMU ran the ball on 12 of their last 14 plays. Before that, they'd thrown 33 passes and run the ball just 22 times. All told, Rush completed 20/33 for 352 yards and six TDs.

On the season, Rush has passed for nearly 1,000 yards already (957) and 11 TDs against just three INTs.

Like any good QB, Rush really spreads the ball around. CMU doesn’t really have a true “go-to” WR, though Mark Chapman leads the team with 13 receptions. Jesse Kroll has 12, Corey Willis has 11 and TE Tyler Conklin has 10. RB Devon Spalding has eight. At 6’3” 210, Kroll is the biggest of the WRs. It is no surprise that he was the recipient of the Hail Mary pass against the Cowboys. Willis is the smallest and the quickest and he took the pitch and scored. Kroll, a senior, was the leading receiver last year, with Chapman finishing 3rd. Chapman has a younger brother, Winslow, who is a starting safety and an older brother, Jarret, who played safety for the Chippewas from 2011-2014 and is now in the CFL.

Spalding is an interesting player. For one thing, he’s listed on ESPN’s recruiting site as Devon “Spaulding.” And he’s listed as a TE. And he’s listed at 6’4”, 230, rather than 5’11”, 205 as is listed on the CMU roster. Maybe they’ve mixed up two people. He had no offers other than CMU and was, at most, a 2 star recruit. As a true freshman, he was the backup RB, and last year had moved up as a starter before missing 8 games with a broken collarbone. Now he’s the primary RB, though the Chippewas will use multiple backs. Jahray Hayes is the biggest of the backs, and will get some short yardage looks. Jonathan Ward is a true freshman that the team is very high on who comes in for a series here and there.

The Hoos secondary is going to be focused on slowing down the WR corps and the passing game. That means the front 7 is going to have to stop the run. Though they are a passing team, CMU would love to be able to pick up big yards in the running game. That, of course, helps Rush and the passing game. Andrew Brown and Donte Wilkins will need to win their battles up front. Get consistent penetration into the backfield and CMU will give up on the run. CMU’s offense can be very dangerous even without running the ball, but shutting down the ground game at least makes things tougher on Cooper Rush.

When Rush does go back to pass, the Hoos are going to need to get pressure without bringing extra defenders. Rush was sacked 28 times last year, and he’s been sacked 7 times so far this year. But, I assure you that Rush wants to be blitzed, because if he’s being blitzed, that means single coverage. That means his WRs are going to be open. Blitzing in certain situations has value — on first downs, for example. But the Hoos have been bringing extra defenders far too often on obvious passing downs (such as 3rd and long). And they have been repeatedly burned on these plays. Rush will be the best QB the Hoos have faced so far this year. If Dakota Prukop and Bryant Shirreffs torched the secondary on 3rd and long, imagine what a future NFL QB will do. Yeah, scary.

CMU on Defense
DL: DE #45 Joe Ostman, DT #98 Kelby Latta
LB: MLB #8 Malik Fountain, WLB #42 Nathan Ricketts
DB: CB #14 Josh Cox, S #18 Tony Annese

A year ago, CMU was 16th in the country in total defense, though they were just 33rd in scoring defense. That is due to a lack of big plays by the defense. They were 123rd in sacks, 111th in TFLs and 84th in turnovers forced. They play a pretty standard 4-3 defense and they were one of the best teams in the country at getting off the field on 3rd down (27th nationally). They were equally good against the pass and rush, finishing 24th in the former and 29th in the latter. This year has been more of the same. CMU is 12th in the nation in total defense and 25th in scoring defense. They are 16th in rushing defense and 18th in passing defense. They are, though, 49th in sacks and 12th in TFLs and 25th in turnovers gained. They are 2nd in the nation in 3rd down defense, allowing just 44% conversions on 3rd down.

This is a veteran unit, with just 2 players who hadn’t started a game prior to this year. They don’t do anything crazy. Not a lot of blitzing. They play some nickel in obvious passing downs, but that’s about the extent of their formation changes. You don’t even see all that much stunting or anything else up front. The DEs crash off the edge. The DTs collapse from the middle. What they do is play their roles. Everybody understands where they are supposed to be and what their role is. They stay in rush lanes. Nobody tries to do too much. This is what happens when a team runs the same scheme for nearly 10 years.

Like many 4-3 defenses, the majority of tackles are made by the LBs and safeties, and the pass rush mostly comes from the DEs. The top 2 tacklers for the Chippewas are Fountain and Ricketts. Strong safety Kavon Frasier was the top tackler last year, but he’s on the Cowboys now. Annese was 2nd. Fountain and Ricketts were 3rd and 4th, respectively. Cox is 3rd this year and was 5th last year.

Ostman has taken over the spot formerly held by Blake Serpa. Serpa led the team last year with 9.5 TFLs and 3 sacks. Ostman has 4 TFLs and 2 sacks already this year, leading the team in both categories. Opposite Ostman is Chris Kantzavelos, who was 2nd last year with 6.5 TFLs despite only starting twice.

The DTs aren’t expected to make a ton of plays. They help to collapse the pocket from the inside, and help to occupy blockers. But any tackles or sacks they generate is icing on the cake. However, considering the problems the Hoos has last week dealing with the interior of UCONN’s DL, Latta and fellow DT Jabari Dean could be a big part of CMU’s defense. Latta was originally recruited as an OL, and is one of the highest rated recruits on the team. He was recruited by the likes of Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State.

The DBs are all veterans, with over 60 starts between them (although half of those are from Annese at FS). SS Winslow Chapman, replacing Frasier, was primarily a special teams player prior to this year. Both safeties have very good size for DBs. Cox and fellow CB Amari Coleman aren’t as big though both are physical CBs who come up well to make tackles in front of them. As mentioned above, Cox was 5th in tackles last year. Coleman was 7th.

Though they have generated more sacks this year, they still really aren’t a pressure defense. Benkert will likely have time to throw the ball. The Hoos offense struggled last week once UCONN backed off the pressure and started playing tighter coverage. We’re likely to see something similar this week. The short quick passes may not be there, but Benkert may have some success with the deeper routes. He was able to generate some bigger plays in the 2 minute drill last week, with a deep ball to Doni Dowling as well as one to Keeon Johnson. Those are the types of routes that could be available again. Watch for the seam route to the TE this week. That was open last week, but Benkert missed Evan Butts for what should’ve been a big gain. Of course, as always, missing the seam route can lead to an INT (missing high on any ball over the middle could cause an INT, but the seam route is notorious for it).

The Hoos have been up and down in the ground game. They crushed Oregon with nearly 200 yards rushing, but overall are ranked just 109th in the country. CMU may have the best run defense of the 4 opponents, so the Hoos aren’t likely to have success on the ground. Still, the attempts must be there. Anything the Hoos can get on the ground keeps the pressure off Benkert, keeps CMU’s offense off the field and wears on the CMU defense. Though CMU’s defense is very good, it isn’t a particularly deep unit, with a lot of underclassmen on the 2-deep.

I realize I’ve been harping on this for 3 weeks now, but it is time we saw more use of Benkert in the ground game. This could be read-option, or it could be more rollouts and run/pass options. Keeping Benkert in the pocket is making things to easy on opposing defenses. We heard all summer about how mobile Benkert is. Now that he’s on the field, he doesn’t run (unless there’s 17 seconds left in the game, obviously). Then Benkert will run. (To be honest, I did not mind the 3rd down play call. I minded the 1st down play call. UVA had the Huskies D on their heels. That was the time to go for the jugular. That was the time to throw the ball into the endzone.)

CMU doesn’t generally give up a ton of big plays. But UNLV was able to come up with an 85 yard TD run. These are the kinds of plays the Hoos are going to need. As we’ve seen far too often this year, the Hoos make too many mistakes to keep trying to dink and dunk their way up the field. Virginia needs to generate big plays in order to get points on the board. A long TD play could very easily turn the outcome of this game. The Hoos have struggled to generate big plays, though they managed to come up with a couple late last week. Maybe that’s a sign of things to come.

There is also the question of Kurt Benkert’s health. He seemed to be suffering from a left arm or shoulder injury late last week. If he’s not 100%, could we see Connor Brewer (who appears to be the backup)? Hopefully, it doesn’t matter and Benkert is healthy. He was up and down last week, hitting some very nice passes, but also missing a couple of open guys. He did the same against Oregon, overthrowing a few balls. Maybe he’s just suffering from too much adrenaline. After all, he hadn’t played a meaningful snap in 4 years. He’s shown he’s capable, now it’s time for him to show more consistency.

If the Hoos come out on top this week, it is going to be on Benkert and the offense. CMU is gonna score some points. The Hoos can absolutely outscore them, if they put it all together.


I was close to picking the Hoos last week. Had they been at home, I would’ve. Even on the road, the Hoos were close to coming away with the win. Clearly, CMU is better than UCONN. But the Hoos are improving week in and week out, a line you’re probably tired of reading and hearing. And with so many young guys playing, especially on defense, the home crowd support is going to be very important.

Yes, the Hoos have struggled. But they’ve also been a bit unlucky. They’ve had fumbles bounce the wrong way. They’ve had numerous calls go against them that could've gone either way. A few of those bounces start going the other way, and the Hoos will be rolling.

We’ve seen Wahoo teams play completely differently at home than on the road before. Breakthroughs nearly always happen at home. This week will be Bronco Mendenhall’s breakthrough.

Prediction: Hoos 34, Chippewas 30