For any of you who were asleep for all of Labor Day weekend, Virginia picked up a 28-10 victory over William and Mary to start the 2017-18 season. Virginia’s week two opponent, Indiana, didn’t fare as well as they lost to #2 Ohio State. Certainly no shame in that. They actually looked pretty good and even held a 21-20 lead early in the second half. The lead was short-lived as OSU scored just 18 seconds after the Hoosiers took the lead and the Buckeyes cruised to a 49-21 win.
(Let this also be a lesson to never chant ‘overrated’ ever, as Ohio State scored 28 straight points on the home team after the student section busted out that gem.)
The Hoos and Hoosiers last played a home-and-home in 2009 and 2011 with the good guys sweeping the series. The home game (2009), was a 47-7 win with Mikell Simpson rushing for four touchdowns. That game was also notable for Vic Hall’s lone career touchdown reception (he also had three rushing touchdowns and one interception return touchdown).
Those were different times for Virginia football.
Let’s take a look at the matchups for this one.
Hoos on Defense
Indiana had 437 total yards last week. Against Ohio State. The Buckeyes had the #6 defense in the country last year, giving up just under 300 yards per game. Indiana had 281 total yards a year ago against OSU, in Columbus.
So, is OSU’s defense that much worse than last year? Is Indiana’s offense that much better? Did OSU overlook the Hoosiers?
Following Indiana’s touchdown that gave the Hoosiers a 21-20 lead, they gained just 82 yards on 23 plays. And 67 of those yards came on IU’s final two drives after OSU had opened up a three touchdown lead. In other words, when OSU needed to get stops, they did.
A year ago, Indiana’s offense ranked 56th in the nation. But they were 88th in scoring offense. That was largely due to turnovers. They ranked 123rd in turnovers, with 29 (18 passes intercepted and 11 fumbles lost). Some of that is poor luck, and some of that is poor execution. There were also red zone issues, and although they were 28th in the nation in passing, they were just 92nd in rushing.
That passing attack is led by senior quarterback Richard Lagow. Lagow threw for over 3300 yards last year, with 19 touchdowns and 17 interceptions. He also rushed for two touchdowns and even caught another. Lagow has had an unusual career. He started at UCONN, but left after just a couple of weeks of practice and transferred to Oklahoma State as a walk-on. After a redshirt year, Lagow departed and played two years of junior college ball at Cisco Community College before transferring to IU.
He certainly looks like a quarterback at 6’6” and 240 pounds. He has a really big arm and is reasonably athletic, but he’s not going to run like W&M’s Tommy McKee did last week. The Hoos will have to keep him contained, but rather than run downfield, Lagow is going to use his legs to buy time to make a throw. He’s a gunslinger, and sometimes struggles to go through his progressions, which contributed to the 17 interceptions he threw last season. Lagow has good mechanics, but a little bit of a slow release due, in part, to his very long arms. He does a good job of getting rid of the ball, so he doesn’t generally get sacked much, though Ohio State got to him five times last week.
The big weapon for the Hoosiers is wide receiver Simmie Cobbs. Big, in this case, is a literal term as well as a figurative term. Cobbs is 6’4”, 220, and missed just about all of last season after suffering an injury in the season opener. As a sophomore, Cobbs had 60 catches for 1035 yards and four touchdowns. He had 11 for 149 and a touchdown against OSU. He also did this:
But Cobbs isn’t the only wide receiver on the team, of course. Nick Westbrook is the leading returning receiver, having put up 54 catches for 995 yards and six touchdowns. Westbrook, though, tore his ACL on the opening kickoff last week and will miss the season.
After Cobb, the leading receiver last week was Luke Timian, a walk-on transfer from Oklahoma State. He had 10 catches for 72 yards last week after having just 19 catches all last year. Tight end Ian Thomas also got in on the action, with five catches - including two touchdowns - both totals which surpassed his prior career output . Thomas is a junior college transfer and at 6’5” 250, he can be a tough matchup.
The Hoosiers will line up with at least three wide receivers on almost every play. They run an up-tempo, no-huddle offense and will often snap it with 20 or more seconds remaining on the play clock. Their up-tempo style means that substituting can be difficult and that defenses often get worn down. Look for Virginia to spend a lot of time in the nickel package against Indiana, which would allow them to get more speed on the field with just two defensive lineman. That speed can also wear down the offensive line, though. OSU was unable to get much pressure on Lagow early in the game, but they knocked him around over the last 20 minutes of game time. The Hoos do not have the talent on the defensive line that OSU has (who does?), but they could still have success late in the game, especially if the defensive linemen are able to rotate a bit earlier in the game to stay fresh.
At running back, the Hoosiers used a bit of a committee against OSU. The starter was Mike Majette out of Woodbridge, Virginia, while their leading rusher was true freshman Morgan Ellison (seven carries, 24 yards, almost all of which came on the final drive). Majette had seven carries for just 12 yards, although he also had four catches for 22 yards. Redshirt freshman Cole Gest and sophomore Devonte Williams also received caries.
A season ago, Majette rushed 39 times for 190 yards (4.6 yards per carry), most of which came early in the season or in garbage time. Divine Redding, last year’s starter, is now with the Kansas City Chiefs. The second leading rusher last year was backup QB Zander Diamont (who has quit football due to concussions), coming in from time to time in a “wildcat” formation. The current backup quarterback, Peyton Ramsey, came in for a series against OSU and rushed three times for 10 yards and went 1-for-2 passing for six yards.
Truth is, Indiana couldn’t run the ball at all against OSU. Is that because OSU’s defense is so good? Or is that because IU’s offensive line is so bad? That remains to be seen. Lagow threw 65 passes, completing 40 of them for 410 yards and three touchdowns. That probably isn’t what Indiana head coach Tom Allen wants, but it was effective. We’ll see if they change up the game plan now that they aren’t facing such a dominant defense.
1. Simmie Cobbs vs Bryce Hall/Germane Crowell
As mentioned, Cobbs is huge. There’s actually a chance he’ll be forced to move to tight end in the NFL. He’s strong after the catch, in part because he’s so tough to bring down, but also because he has very good straight line speed. He’s not shifty and isn’t the sharpest in his routes, so they don’t really use him on a lot of different type of routes. He runs stop routes, go routes, and things like that, and really excels on balls thrown up high that he has to go get. So look for him to get a lot of jump balls and back shoulder throws.
The Hoos have big cornerbacks, even with Germane Crowell somehow losing three inches between last week and this week (seriously, he was listed at 6’3” last week but the roster has him at 6’0” right now). However, the loss of Tim Harris hurts a lot. Tim isn’t only a big, physical corner, but he’s also the most experienced cornerback on the roster.
The Hoos will probably not run a ton of man coverage on Cobbs, but they’ll probably keep a defender across from him on the line more often than not. A bump at the line isn’t going to bother Cobbs very much, but it could help upset the timing of his routes.
Cobbs is going to get the ball. He’s too good. But keeping him from making big plays is key. When he catches the ball, the tackle need to be made before he can get a head of steam, and physical coverage downfield will be necessary to ensure that he doesn’t get big plays downfield.
2. Indiana Offensive Line vs Andrew Brown
I noted this as a key matchup last week, and Brown didn’t have a single tackle. That doesn’t mean Brown wasn’t effective. Brown was double-teamed constantly, and the Tribe largely ran away from Brown. He was still in the backfield providing pressure a few times and was able to occupy his blockers, giving the rest of the defense a chance to make plays.
That said, Brown has to be better. He’s immensely talented and is a perfect fit as a 3-4 defensive end. He is going to continue to see double-teams, but that is always the case with talented defensive ends. He needs to be able to beat the double-team and get to the quarterback. Zero tackles is unacceptable for a guy with his talent.
IU has a strong offensive line on the left side, but the right side is inexperienced. Hunter Littlejohn (a great Charlottesville name), at center is also quite inexperienced. Considering Indiana’s multiple wide receiver looks, the Hoos figure to be in nickel a lot, which means Brown will have a chance to taken on Littlejohn. That’s a battle he needs to win.
3. Majette/Indiana running backs vs Micah Kiser and Jordan Mack
As I have mentioned several times, Indiana couldn’t run the ball at all against OSU. That made them one dimensional, and led to three turnovers. Lagow had a big game, but late in the game OSU really shut down the IU offense. If the Hoosiers are able to run the ball this week, the Hoos job becomes much more difficult.
Nobody on the Indiana roster is as talented as Redding was. Majette is a bigger back, but he isn’t nearly as dynamic. Ellison is also a bigger back. The Hoos struggled early on last week against Noah Giles, W&M’s big back. Both Majette and Ellison are bigger than Giles, but both have similar running styles. If either of them get going early, the Hoos could be in trouble.
Making Indiana one dimensional is key. But, at the same time, you can’t focus too much on the RBs because Lagow will pick you apart. Even OSU struggled to keep the passing game in check when they were focused on the ground game as well. Once OSU had a lead, and IU was forced to throw pretty much constantly, the OSU pass defense picked up.
Obviously, it isn’t just on Kiser and Mack to stop the run. The defensive line plays a big role there as well. As do the safeties. But with such a big threat in the passing game, the secondary needs to be focused on stopping Cobbs and company, and the defensive line is going to have Lagow in their sights.
Hoos on Offense
The Hoosiers play a nickel as their base defense, running a 4-2-5. They call the fifth defensive back the “Husky”. I have no idea where that comes from, but that’s what the depth chart says (shrug emoji). That extra defensive back is a guy that needs to be able to cover and also tackle. It is a hybrid position, not that different from a weakside linebacker or strong safety, but necessitates one player being able to both cover and come up to help in the run game (think Virginia’s Chris Moore).
Not surprisingly for a team with five defensive backs, that is the strength of the unit. The “Husky” is Marcelino Ball, who finished third on the team in tackles as a true freshman last year. Virginia fans may recall Reggie Ball (former quarterback at Georgia Tech), Marcelino’s big brother. Another brother (Marcus) is a defensive back for the 49ers, and yet another brother (Raeshon) played defensive back for Tennessee-Chatanooga. Marcelino was not all that highly recruited, with many of his offers coming from FCS schools. IU’s offer has already paid off with Ball posting 75 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, two picks, and eight passes broken up last season. Against Ohio State, Ball recorded 10 tackles, including 0.5 tackles for a loss last week.
The other two starting safeties are Chase Dutra - who splits time with Tony Fields - and Jonathan Crawford. Dutra is bigger and is a better tackler, but Fields has better cover skill, while Crawford is a good cover guy and rarely comes off the field. Dutra will probably be on the field on early downs, especially early in the game, but you may see Fields more in passing situations. The Hoos ran a lot of plays last week with a running back running parallel to the line of scrimmage, the type of play that Dutra feeds on. Those plays largely didn’t work against W&M and aren’t likely to do a whole lot better this week.
At cornerback, the guy to watch is Rashard Fant, who had 17 broken up passes last year and three interceptions. He also had 33 tackles, 29 of which were solo. He’s not big, so the Hoos bigger wide receivers have an advantage there, but Fant is quick and he’s strong and he’s one of the options to return punts for the Hoosiers.
At linebacker, Tegray Scales is the man. He’s their Micah Kiser. He led the team in tackles last year by a wide margin and was also tops last week with 12 stops. In addition to leading the team with overall tackles last season, he also led the team with 23.5 tackles for loss (also tops in the nation) last year and seven sacks. Scales was a second team All-American last year (and second team All-Big Ten). He might be a bit undersized (6’0” 230) to play inside linebacker in the NFL, but if he runs well at the combine he should be an early draft pick next year.
His counterpart at linebacker last year was Marcus Oliver. Oliver decided to enter the NFL Draft after his junior year, but went undrafted and is currently a free agent. In his stead is former quarterback Chris Covington. Covington is also a former defensive back, and his pass coverage is stronger than his pass rush. That’s a big difference from Oliver, who had four sacks, and five forced fumbles last year. Covington hadn’t played very much prior to this year, but looked solid against OSU with seven tackles (five solo) and a pass break up.
The Hoosiers front four is pretty similar to the Tribe’s front four. One defensive end is a senior and returning starter, and one defensive tackle is a senior and returning starter. The other two are inexperienced and not particularly effective. Greg Gooch, the senior defensive end, had 5.5 tackles for loss last year, but just one sack. He was recruited as a linebacker but outgrew that position. Last year was his first on the defensive line, and he looks bigger and stronger this year. He’s a physical, high motor guy who had two tackles and two QB hurries last week. On the inside, the veteran is Nate Hoff, who has been a starter since his freshman season. He led the defensive line with 38 tackles last year, including six tackles for loss. At 6’2” 310, he is a tough man to block inside against the run. The Hoos struggled to generate a lot of push inside against W&M and Hoff is better than Isaiah Stephens (which is not a knock on Stephens).
OSU ran the ball almost at will against the Hoosiers last week. Of course, OSU runs the ball at will against most teams. Their offensive line is great, and their true freshman running back was the #5 back in the nation. Virginia does not have that type of talent at either position, but they do have a talented running back duo and getting Jack English back at left tackle will help the ground game. Being able to run the ball is an absolute necessity against a 4-2-5 defense. Even with Scales patrolling the middle of the field, the Hoosiers are not a great run defense. They gave up 160 yards per game on the ground last year, and that was with both Scales and Oliver. OSU rushed for 301 at almost six yards per carry. If the Hoos can come anywhere near that yards per carry figure, they’ll win this game.
As far as the passing game goes, the Hoosiers did a solid job against Heisman hopeful J.T. Barrett. Though Barrett ended up with 310 yards and three touchdowns, a lot of that was short passes turned into long gains by a speedy wide receiver corps. The Cavaliers have a good wide receiver corps as well, and also like to throw short passes. A big play here and there from a Joe Reed or a Doni Dowling could be the difference in a game like this.
1. Hoos Offensive Line vs Hoosiers Defensive Line
As I mentioned, running the ball is a must. If IU is going to play five defensive backs on every snap, the Hoos have an advantage on the ground. Getting a hat on Scales will be key. He’s good enough to almost single-handedly shut down a running game.
Just as important, though, is keeping Kurt Benkert upright. IU generates a lot of pressure on the quarterback with the linebackers and defensive backs. Though the defensive line as a unit had 10 sacks a year ago, none of the defensive linemen are particularly good pass rushers, with Hoff leading the way with 2.5 sacks. If the Hoos are going to throw a lot, which they probably are, Kurt Benkert needs time to throw. If Indiana isn’t able to get pressure with just the defensive line, then they have to blitz. That means sending Scales, which weakens the run defense and it means sending the defensive backs, which should provide some good matchups on the outside. Neither situation is good for the IU defense, but they probably can’t afford to sit back and let Benkert pick them apart.
2. Andre Levrone/Hoos Wide Receivers vs Indiana Defensive Backs
Indiana has some good defensive backs. Rashard Fant is a very good cornerback with speed and quickness, but he’s not big. Virginia has a number of bigger wide receivers who will be a tough matchup for Fant and company. Opposite Fant is Andre Brown, who at 6’0” 190 is bigger than Fant but still not nearly as big as Andre Levrone.
Last week, the UVA receivers largely had their way with Aaron Swinton and Raeshawn Smith to the tune of 27 receptions for 262 yards and two TDs. IU’s cornerbacks are bigger than that duo, but I’m not sure they’re really all that much better. The Hoos will need that kind of production from the strongest unit on the team if they are going to come out on top.
3. Kurt Benkert vs Tegray Scales
Scales is such a major part of the IU defense that he gets included by himself here. He’s the one guy that Benkert needs to find on every play. He’s the read. If Scales is coming on a blitz, Benkert either needs to get rid of the ball quickly or change the play to a run (preferably away from Scales). If Scales is sitting back in a zone, Benkert needs to read that and look him off. On typical plays, Scales isn’t going to be showing anything. He’s going to read the play and then react to stop it.
When the Hoos are going to run the ball, Kurt needs to find Scales and direct the play away from him. If Virginia tries any of those lateral run plays like they did last week, Scales will eat it alive. Simply put, if Scales has a big game, the Hoos aren’t going to win. And conversely, if the Hoos keep Scales in check, they probably win.
This isn’t a great matchup for the Hoos. The Hoosiers like to play fast and have a potentially high powered offense. They put up well over 400 yards against OSU, and the Hoos defense isn’t on the same level as the Buckeyes.
That said, Indiana goes from a home game on ESPN in front of 52,000 people to a road game on ESPNU in front of 35,000 people. In other words, they may be due a let down. The key will be big plays. A lot of what gave OSU the win over IU was big plays. After IU took a lead in the third quarter, OSU scored on a 74 yard pass, a 59 yard pass and then forced two turnovers. Those are the kinds of plays that the Hoos would love to have.
If Virginia is able to come up with a few big plays, be it turnovers or a long pass or a Joe Reed kick return touchdown (he’s been oh so close), they can win this game. They can’t go play-for-play with IU’s offense, not without forcing a few turnovers. A lot of things are going to have to go right for the Hoos to beat this offense
Prediction: Hoosiers 31, Hoos 21