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Virginia Cavaliers vs. UCONN Huskies game preview

We break down the matchups and what UVA needs to do to win

NCAA Football: Holy Cross at Connecticut David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Do you remember last year’s UCONN game? I have very little recollection of it. Maybe we all removed it from our collective memories. It certainly wasn’t worth remembering. It was an awful game played by two awful teams. The Hoos actually led for nearly the entire game, opening with a first quarter FG and holding a 10-3 advantage at halftime. But Virginia would not score in the 2nd half, and that disaster of a field goal try sent the Hoos home without the win they ALMOST earned.

Fast forward to 2017. Despite the ugly loss last week, the Hoos are, almost undoubtedly, better this year. That remains to be seen for UCONN. They opened the season against Holy Cross, and trailed 20-7 before rallying to win 27-20. Holy Cross finished 4-7 last year, but did manage to win at Bucknell this past week. UCONN’s 2nd game (USF) was cancelled because of Hurricane Irma. It will be made up in November as part of a large schedule restructuring that the AAC has undertaken.

Virginia totaled 381 yards in the UCONN game last year, gave up just 277—and lost. That is hard to do. Two first quarter drives for UVA gained 179 yards. The final two drives totaled 124. In between those, seven drives tallied only 73 yards. Hopefully, the Hoos can be more consistent this year.

Let’s take a look at the matchups.

Hoos on Defense

As noted above, Virginia pretty well shut down the Huskies’ offense last year. UCONN’s lone TD came on a short field following a Kurt Benkert INT. That drive was 9 plays and 36 yards and included two 3rd down penalties by the Hoos which gave UCONN first downs that they likely would not have earned on their own.

Last year, UCONN WR Noel Thomas had 6 receptions for 91 yards. That was nearly half the team’s receptions and 60% of the passing offense. Thomas is gone, currently on the Lions’ practice squad. That will help make UVA’s job easier. Behind Thomas last year was Hergy Mayala, who had 2 catches. On the season, he had 23. This year, he had 9 catches for 106 and a TD against Holy Cross. He probably isn’t going to have those kind of numbers against a talented group of Virginia DBs, but he’s still a tough matchup.

The offense, though, is entirely new. It is led by former Auburn OC and popular UVA head coach target Rhett Lashlee. He’s been considered one of the top assistant coaches in the nation for the past few years. It was a big surprise when he left Auburn to take this job. He has a lot more freedom at UCONN, where he is working under a defensive head coach. He, apparently, has complete control over the offense, something he couldn’t say at Auburn where head coach Gus Mahlzan is also an offensive coach.

The Auburn offense was based on the read-option with a mobile QB, and a lot of misdirection. Auburn led the nation in rushing in his first season as OC and was annually among the nation’s leaders. Though we haven’t seen much from UCONN’s offense yet (both because of the cancelled game and because UCONN was behind for much of the game against Holy Cross), it appears to be a similar offense.

Before the season, there was a QB battle between redshirt senior Bryant Shirreffs and JUCO transfer David Pindell. Pindell is a true dual-threat guy with good legs. Shirreffs is mobile (as we saw last year) but is a better passer. Pindell won the battle and started the Holy Cross game. However, down 20-7, he was benched for Shirreffs. All Shirreffs did was complete 9/13 for 124 yards and a TD while leading a comeback victory.

Heading into the USF game, Shirreffs was named the starter. Of course, that game didn’t happen, but the UCONN depth chart hasn’t changed. Most likely, we’ll see both QBs. Shirreffs was decent last year against the Hoos. He completed 13/24 for 154 yards and also had 33 yards rushing and a TD. He made some big plays late in the game to get UCONN into position for the win.

Shirreffs had just 1 carry against Holy Cross, and Pindell had 6. Redshirt freshman Nate Hopkins had 20 for 131 yards and a TD. Senior Arkeel Newsome, the leading rusher a year ago, had 8 carries for 1 yard (though he did have 2 receptions for 44 yards). The 2 RBs are listed as co-starters on the depth chart. For what it’s worth, Newsome is listed ahead of Hopkins and he started against Holy Cross. They are completely different players. Hopkins is 6’1” 212 and is a powerful, between the tackles runner. Newsome is 5’7” 180 and excels in open space. Newsome had 77 yards on 13 carries in last year’s contest against UVA. Newsome is also the leading returning receiver for the Huskies.

UCONN, like most college teams these days, lines up with at least 3 WR on most plays. Next to Mayala are redshirt freshman Quayvon Skanes and junior Tyraiq Beals. Skanes is a small, shifty guy. He’s just 5’11 175, but he can be dynamic with the ball in his hands. He’s an option on both PR and KR. He had a number of offers from Power 5 programs, including Illinois and Northwestern. Beals is taller and probably has a bit more straight line speed. He had just 7 catches for 96 yards last year, but that includes a 59 yard TD against Cincinnati. Skanes had 2 catches for 13 yards and Beals had 5 for 21 yards in the opener. Keyion Dixon, a 6’3” redshirt freshman, was actually the 2nd leading receiver, with 5 catches for 38 yards. Also chipping in 3 catches for 36 yards was 6’5” Aaron McLean.

In other words, the Huskies have quite a few options in the passing game. Indiana certainly had more talent at WR, but they had less depth. The Hoosiers struggled to really get anything going with the pass, outside of hitting 2 big plays for TDs. While UCONN’s WRs may not be capable of making those kind of plays against the Hoos CBs, they could go 4 or 5 wide and try to get McLean or Dixon in a favorable matchup against a safety or even a LB. TE Alec Bloom is also a capable receiver and had 15 catches for 142 yards and a TD last year. Bloom doesn’t have much speed and isn’t much of a YAC threat. But he’s 6’6” and has a big body and good hands and is a good possession receiver. Something to watch on third downs for the Wahoo defense.

Regardless of which QB is in the game, the Hoos need to be wary of the read-options. Most plays are going to start with a read-option look. Even on obvious passing downs, the play may begin with a read-option fake. Tracking the ball is key. If you focus on the RB, the QB keeps the ball and picks up yards. Vice versa if you focus on the QB. Communication is key and penetration is key.

This offense is nowhere near as good as Indiana’s offense. And the Hoos did a pretty good job of shutting down Indiana’s offense. The Hoosiers scored off short fields and on some big plays. The Huskies do not have a big play offense.

Once again, Virginia faces a team that has a strong left side of the OL. The LT, LG and C all return from last season. The right side of the line is brand new. This means that where the RB is lined up can be a key. If UVA can get consistent penetration against that inexperienced right side of the OL, it will be difficult to run a read-option to that side of the field.

Key Matchups

1) Bryant Shirreffs vs Jordan Mack

The Hoos have struggled with QB runs this year. That included some read-option against both W&M and Indiana. Slowing that down will be the key to this game. If Shirreffs (or Pindell) are able to get going running the ball, it could be a long day for the Wahoo defense.

Even in passing situations, it will be important to keep a watch on QB runs. Even Richard Lagow—by no means a running QB—was able to pick up 13 yards and a first down on 3rd and 10 early in the game. That play did not end up costing Virginia (other than field position), but it is a sign of the problem. On any key third down, the Hoos would be wise to have somebody keeping their eye on the QB as the play breaks down. That somebody is likely to be Mack. Micah Kiser has other responsibilities, plus he’s the superior pass rusher. Mack is actually ideal for the role, as a former safety, because he plays well in space and he runs very well. Mack had a big game last week and could be in line for another big game this week.

2) Hergy Mayala vs Juan Thornhill/Bryce Hall

Mayala is, by far, the biggest threat the Huskies have in the passing game. He’s tall and fast, and he spent 2 years learning from a very good WR in Noel Thomas. Mayala has the potential to go deep, but he’s also dangerous on intermediate routes. He’s not nearly as good as Simmie Cobbs, but he might be as good as Donavan Hale, who caught a 32 yard TD last week. If the Hoos can keep Mayala in check, they’ll go a long way towards keeping UCONN’s offense down.

3) Nate Hopkins vs Andrew Brown and the Hoos’ DL

So far this year, UVA has been pretty good against the run. Indiana ended up with 111 yards rushing, which isn’t bad. But a good deal of that came late in the game, and also included some QB runs. W&M had 92 yards rushing, but most of that was from the QB. Obviously, Micah Kiser and company have something to do with that, but the Hoos’ DL has actually been very good against the run.

Early in the game against IU, Andrew Brown really made his presence felt. He had a tackle on the first play of the game, and ended up with 6 tackles, including 2 TFLs. His numbers weren’t as good in the opener, but his presence still made things difficult for the Tribe. Against the read-option, you simply have to get penetration into the backfield. The read-option is, by definition, a slow developing play. If you get penetration, you rush the QB and that leads to mistakes. It also gives the QB or RB less running room.

Hoos on Offense

You probably think we’re getting repetitive, but it sure would be nice to see Virginia develop a running game. Through 2 games, the Hoos have thrown 105 passes and run 57 times. That is before accounting for sacks or QB scrambles (6 total). Yes, Benkert and the offense were behind last week and were forced to throw. But they were also unable to run the ball at all. The longest run UVA has this year is just 16 yards. And, as a team, they average just 2.6 yards per rush.

UCONN has only played one game, against an FCS opponent. But they gave up 89 yards rushing to Holy Cross (though that includes 11 yards lost on a fumbled snap). So it is difficult to gain any real knowledge of their run defense. A year ago, their run defense was pretty good. But their pass defense was atrocious. They were 41st in the nation in run defense, but 107th in pass defense. And 98th in pass efficiency defense. And 110th in sacks. And 115th in TFLs. And 120th in turnovers forced.

Along with a new OC, the Huskies also have a new DC. This is Billy Crocker, formerly the DC for Villanova. Unlike Lashlee, Crocker took an obvious promotion.

Crocker brings a 3-3-5 defense with him. This is a change from the 4-3 defense that UCONN played last year. The scheme is new, but the players are not. The entire front 6 is made up of seniors, and 5 of them started in last year’s contest. The new starter is Cam Stapleton and he played in last year’s contest as a reserve and on special teams. (Stapleton is actually listed as co-starter with junior Chris Britton.)

The backfield is also full of veterans. They lost leading tackler Obu Melifonwu at safety, but still return 2 starters from last year. CB Jamar Summers and S Anthony Watkins are the returners. The newcomers are Tyler Coyle, Marshe Terry and Tre Bell. UCONN doesn’t denote a difference between CB and safety, calling all 5 of them DBs. Bell and Summers, both seniors, are the CBs. Coyle (Redshirt freshman) and Watkins (junior) are the safeties, with Terry (sophomore) as the nickel.

As you can see, it is a very experienced group. The loss of Melifonwu can’t be overstated though. He was a 2nd round draft pick by the Raiders and ran a 4.4 40-yard dash—while standing 6’4” and weighing in at 224 pounds. He is a beast and he was the one guy UCONN counted on to make a play on defense when they needed it. He led the team in tackles last year by a wide margin, and also led them in INTs with 4. He had 7 passes defended, 2.5 TFLs and a fumble recovery. The Huskies simply can’t replace that kind of production with one player.

In the opener, Summers and Watkins led the team in tackles (Coyle was tied for second but trailed in solo tackles). No surprise there as those are the returning starters. What was surprising is how far down the LBs are. Junior Joseph was knocked out of the game in the third quarter and did not return. He is not on the injury report this week. Joseph played outside last year, but has moved inside with the graduation of MLB Matt Walsh. Vontae Diggs was the other starting OLB in last year’s contest, but he missed the Holy Cross game with a knee injury suffered during camp. He is expected to return. He was the 2nd leading tackler last year (just 3 ahead of Joseph), but was also 2nd in TFLs. Britton and Stapleton were effective against Holy Cross, totaling 11 tackles (3 for loss) and a sack. That duo will both see time alongside Diggs and Joseph.

Up front, the trio are all familiar faces. All 3 had a TFL in last year’s contest, but only DE Cole Ormsby could do anything against Holy Cross, registering a sack. DT Foley Fatukasi had a sack last year, but was ejected early in the Holy Cross game for targeting. He apparently fired up the team with a halftime speech, which helped spur them to the comeback win. Fatukasi is suspended for the first half this week because of that penalty. (A benefit for the Hoos, as he was supposed to be suspended for the USF game.) In his stead will be sophomore Kevin Murphy. Murphy is undersized for playing DT in a 3-man front, but he’s got a high motor and he’s talented. Luke Carrezola is the other DE, and he’s the best pass rusher on the team. The DE duo combined for 19.5 TFLs and 7 sacks last year. That was, of course, from a 4-3 defense. Their roles have changed.

Virginia has a big advantage over the Huskies’ DL, especially with Fatukasi suspended for the first half. Each UVA offensive lineman has a big size advantage over the UCONN DL, who check in at just 260 pounds on the ends and 280 in the middle (Fatukasi is 305). In other words, UVA should be able to run the ball. Make no mistake, the Hoos are still a passing team, but they could use the pass to open things up in the running game. A couple of good runs would really help Benkert’s case.

It will be interesting to see how the UVA OL shakes out. The starting lineup is projected to be the same as last week, but by the end of the game last week, Jake Fieler was playing LG and Dillion Reinkensmeyer was playing center.

The Hoos also have a big advantage at WR. Though Jamar Summers is a bigger CB, Tre Bell is just 5’11” 175. Bell was beaten for a TD by Holy Cross, and the Hoos’ WRs are better than Holy Cross’. A guy like Doni Dowling could have success on a slant or post route by using his body to shield Bell from the ball. These routes are likely to be open a lot this week. That, of course, could free Dowling to run a deeper route and beat Bell deep.

A deep shot here or there is necessary to keep the defense honest, but they work a lot better when they are complete. Benkert was way off on those balls against Indiana. Often, he overthrew his man by 5+ yards. The defense doesn’t respect those plays if you can’t give your WR a shot at the ball. Benkert has to be better on the deep balls if the Hoos are going to be successful this year.

All in all, UCONN’s defense is a work in progress. Holy Cross had 447 yards against it, and that was a home game for the Hukies. The Hoos, at home, should be able to match that with ease.

Key Matchups

1) UVA OL vs UCONN DL

Getting the ground game going is important and that begins up front. The Hoos’ OL has struggled and has taken a lot of criticism. Perhaps rightly so. But there is potential there, and this is the week for that to come together. UCONN’s defense is undersized for a 3-man front and with a 3-3-5 they are ripe for the pickings of a good ground game.

2) Doni Dowling vs Tre Bell

As mentioned above, Dowling should have a big advantage in this one. I’m assuming that Summers will be on Levrone more often than not. Levrone is the deep threat and is a bigger body. Dowling is the matchup the Hoos will look to exploit. He has been used mostly on quick hitters so far this year, with a lot of hitch routes along with ins and outs. I would like to see the Hoos get him the ball on the move more. His size advantage means he should be able to run a slant route pretty easily. Benkert just needs to find him and make sure he doesn’t take a pop from one of the LBs.

3) Robert Anae vs Himself

Anae has been dragged over the rails by the fans this week. His gameplan against IU was questionable, and he abandoned the run game very early. So far this year, Virginia is throwing a ton of passes laterally, and very few downfield. The emergence of Evan Butts shows how open things can be over the middle, especially if you consistently send your best receiving threats out wide. Anae might find more success on crossing routes and things like that.

And though the lack of a running game falls largely on the OL’s shoulders, there is also some blame to Anae. He hasn’t been willing to stick with the run game in any capacity, and his insistence on running the same dive plays and sweeps is making the Hoos predictable. How many times last week did we see Jordan Ellis line up one side of the formation, switch over the other side and then take a handoff back across to the original side? There needs to be more creativity in the play-calling, or we’ll end up seeing the same results.

Conclusion

Virginia basically laid an egg last week, with only the defense showing up. The Hoosiers are a better team than UCONN, but they were beatable. UCONN is, frankly, a bad team, which explains the Hoos being favored by anywhere from 8.5 to 11.

We all know that recruiting rankings don’t mean a whole lot once players arrive in college. But it is at least a reasonable assessment of talent level. The Wahoo football team, right now, is largely made up of 3 star recruits. The Hukies are largely made up of 2 star recruits.

The Hoos are not a particularly good team, but neither is UCONN. At home against this Husky team, the defense could dominate and the offense should do enough to win.

Prediction: Hoos 28, Huskies 6