It’s hard to believe, but Virginia is in a must-win situation only two weeks into the 2017 season. This week, the Cavaliers host the Connecticut Huskies. UConn isn’t anywhere near as strong of an opponent as Indiana. The Huskies sport a bit of a quarterback carousel with Bryant Shirreff and David Pindell. Saturday’s game should be an opportunity for the Virginia defense to continue it’s stellar play. But will the Cavalier defense get enough support from the offense and special teams?
Here are my three keys to watch.
- Maintain the D - This team won’t win games if the offense and special teams don’t improve. But they won’t even have a chance unless the defense continues to play at a high level. That’s a lot of pressure to put on one unit, but it’s undeniable that defense is the strength of the team. The D boasts strong leadership from Micah Kiser and Quin Blanding. Malcolm Cook has exceeded my expectations coming off his injury. Andrew Brown has been disruptive anchoring the line. And Juan Thornhill has done it all in the secondary. I think when we look back at the end of the season, the 308 yards Virginia surrendered to Indiana will be one of the, if not the lowest, outputs the Hoosiers amass all season. The only thing that could be better from the Wahoo defense would be a score. Is that too much to ask?
- Move the Line, Move the Pocket - The UVA running game was brutal against Indiana, and we covered the problems with it earlier in the week. The offensive line has gotten little to no push off the ball this season. That’s going to limit the availability of straight ahead runs and off tackle plays. In my opinion, the Hoos need to move the line and get the playmakers in space, whether that is Olamide Zacchaeus, Daniel Hamm, or Jordan Ellis. But no other player would benefit from a mobile line more than Kurt Benkert. He is a much better passer when he’s outside the pocket. Look no further than this 82-yard touchdown pass to Zaccheaus in last year’s win over Central Michigan.
That’s a thing of beauty, a 45-yard laser perfectly thrown. Last week, from the pocket, his deep throws weren’t coming within 15 yards of his intended receiver. That’s not a slight on him as a quarterback. Despite last week, I am still very high on Benkert. From watching him over the last two years, it’s just clear to me that he is much more comfortable when he’s on the move making plays.
- Flip the Field - Virginia’s punting game was at the root of the loss to Indiana. We highlight the impact of those punting woes in this video on “Hidden Yards.”
"Hidden yards" tell the story of Virginia's loss to Indiana
"Hidden yards" tells the story of Virginia Cavaliers' loss to Indiana Hoosiers Football on Saturday...Posted by StreakingtheLawn.com on Monday, September 11, 2017
This week the kick coverage will be just as key. In last year’s loss to the Huskies, Virginia had an 8-yard field position deficit per drive. There were 12 drives in the game, which equals a 96-yard total field position deficit. Using Bill Parcell’s conversion of hidden yards to points, 96 yards is worth just a shade under 7 points. Virginia ended up losing...by 3.
It may seem like grasping at straws, but of Virginia’s 12 games a season ago, the close loss to UConn was one of only three games where the Hoos were at at field position disadvantage. With such a small margin for error, every minor disadvantage can prove costly. Unfortunately, Nicolas Conte isn’t walking out of the Scott Stadium tunnel, so the Virginia special teams will have to make a vast improvement in just a one week span.
Kickoff is at Noon on Saturday and the game will be televised by ESPN2. Be there or tune in and follow along in the game thread. And as always, Go Hoos!