After not getting off to the start fans and most certainly the team wanted to in the loss to Richmond, the Hoos travel west to Eugene to take on the Oregon Ducks. The Ducks are ranked 24th in the country and defeated UC Davis 53-18 in the opener last week. Oregon will give the Hoos all they can handle. This is a Virginia team left with many questions after the opening week and unfortunately, against an opponent as good as Oregon, I’m not sure we’ll get too many answers. Nevertheless, here is what we are looking for...From the Upper Deck.
1) Is Kurt Benkert the real deal? - While the benchmark isn’t very high, on Saturday, Kurt Benkert was the best quarterback I have seen (based on the eye test) in a UVA uniform since Marques Hagans. On the day, he was 26-34 for 264 yards with three touchdowns and one interception. He was ultra-efficient, though the game plan allowed for it and the coverage dictated it. I was particularly impressed with his 20 yard strike to Doni Dowling in the second quarter for a touchdown that would make the score 13-7 and get the Hoos as close as they would be all day. I just wish there had been more passing of the downfield variety. Of his 26 complete passes, only seven were longer than 15 yards, and three of those went for touchdowns (all three TDs on the day in fact). Hopefully Robert Anae opens things up a little more this week as I was very excited with what I saw when Benkert did let it rip. All that said, it was still an FCS team. This week will go a long way to showing us what Benkert is capable of.
2) Can the secondary tighten up? - 337 yards to Richmond. To Richmond. Last year at this time we were ready to crown UCLA QB Josh Rosen the second coming of Peyton Manning, and this year it is much of the same as Richmond’s QB Kyle Lauletta has his way with the Virginia secondary. Whether it was short or intermediate, the Spiders were playing pitch and catch out there. The Hoos never really got beat deep, but short throws turned into long gains due to poor tackling. The hardest part to comprehend is that the secondary figured to be one of Virginia’s more experienced position groups led by Quin Blanding, Kelvin Rainey, and Tim Harris. Oregon isn’t going to exploit the UVA secondary like Richmond did as the Ducks primarily beat teams spreading you out and running the ball, but they will look to strike over the top early and often. If the secondary can’t tighten up and keep receivers in front of them, this game could get out of hand before it even begins.
3) How does the team respond? - I’ll be honest, I drank the #HoosRising kool-aid. I figured the upgrade in coaching coupled with the talent already in house would be enough to give the Hoos another couple wins and the turnaround would be on. Boy was I wrong. However, the sky isn’t falling. For those of us who were all in, we were buying into the hype and ignoring what was actually being said. STL poster extraordinaire ChrisTheHoo reminded me this week of a statement from Mendenhall’s introductory press conference. In it, Coach Mendenhall said, “Skill will come along, the position mastery will come along, the execution will come along, but only after they learn to try hard. I don’t know how long that will take.” He literally had the team spend the first week of practice learning to get on and off the field. It’s hard to perfect your nickel defense when all you’re doing is counting U-V-A HOOS. But that is how you change a culture. This isn’t about giving false hope by promising playing time. This isn’t about showing up to play and hoping that the talent you have is better than the other guy on that given day. This is about creating something that will last, and they only way to do that was to take it down to the studs.
However—the team’s response will be truly indicative of whether or not they have bought in. It’s easy to gain the trust of your players when there are little victories offered, the privilege to practice, a number. But what about when they do everything you say, then get embarrassed in their home opener against an FCS opponent. While I don’t anticipate a win this week, I’ll be paying careful attention to body language. How do the Hoos react if things go south. My hope is that they will fight. They’ll fight for any victory, no matter how small. And that will show that they are ready for a change.
It’s going to be a late night for Hoos with the game kicking off at 10:30 P.M. EDT. Maybe that’s a good thing (just kidding?). The game will be televised by ESPN. Have a cup of coffee with dinner and join us in the Game Thread. Then check back Sunday and see how the Hoos did.