Virginia Cavaliers football looked good last week. Yes, it was Richmond—a Richmond team that struggled in their own right—but considering how things looked at the end of last year, it was a remarkable performance.
The Wahoo offensive line was able to control the line of scrimmage, something they weren’t effectively able to last year against William & Mary, and certainly not two years ago in a loss to Richmond. The Spiders’ defense is actually quite good, and they were manhandled.
The story of the game, of course, was QB Bryce Perkins. Virginia has, perhaps, never had such a dynamic runner at QB. Shawn Moore, arguably the best QB the Cavaliers have ever had, had just one 100 yard rushing game in his career. In three years as the starter, Moore totaled just under 1200 yards rushing. Perkins rushed for 100 yards in his first game, and is on pace for more than that this year. (Obviously, Perkins is unlikely to rush for 1200 yards, as the competition will get better.)
This week, Virginia travels to take on the Indiana Hoosiers who are coming off their own impressive season-opening win. They went down to Miami—no no, not that Miami—and knocked off Florida International, 38-28. Indiana, of course, also knocked off the Hoos in Charlottesville last year.
In last year’s game, the Hoos were done in by an inability to run the ball and some special teams issues. After a quiet first quarter, Indiana changed QBs and brought in Peyton Ramsey who promptly torched the Hoos for 173 yards on just 20 pass attempts and also rushed for a 29 yard TD. Virginia actually outgained the Hoosiers, performed better on 3rd down and won the time of possession. But Indiana scored on some big plays, including a game-clinching punt return TD.
This year’s game kicks off at 7:30 PM Eastern in Bloomington, Indiana and will air on the Big Ten Network. Let’s take a look at some matchups.
Virginia on Offense
A year ago, the Hoos rushed for just 55 yards against Indiana. Some of that was due to game situation, as the Hoos were forced to throw to catch up, but some of it was also due to personnel, as the team was reliant on Kurt Benkert’s arm for offense. But much of it was simply a poor performance by the OL. Considering this year’s offensive scheme, totaling 55 yards rushing again won’t be pretty.
Against FIU, the Hoosiers allowed 170 yards rushing, at 4.4 yards per rush. Last year, that would’ve ranked 73rd in the country, and that’s against a team that ranked 72nd nationally in rushing last year. In other words, it wasn’t a very strong performance by Indiana’s run defense.
Like Richmond, Indiana plays a 4-2-5 formation as their base defense. That is a defense designed to get more speed on the field and to disrupt spread offenses. It’s also a defense designed more to protect against the pass than against the run. Although the option runs and run-pass-options (RPOs) that we saw last week aren’t the same as typical between-the-tackles runs, replacing a big guy with a small guy generally hampers your run defense. We’ll see if Indiana stays with their 4-2-5 if the Hoos are able to find running room as they did last week.
Run defense, of course, starts with the defensive line. Indiana’s DL is led by senior DT Jacob Robinson, who started every game last year. Other than him, the unit had just one career start heading into this season. Indiana will rotate a number of players along the DL in order to stay fresh. Though not particularly experienced, the players have been productive in limited opportunity and it’s a pretty big unit. The UVA OL will have its hands full this week, but it’s a good test for a unit that looked much-improved last week.
One place the UVA OL excelled last week was getting into the second level to block the linebackers. This is what turns 5-yard runs into long TDs. The screenshot below is from Virginia’s first TD last week. On the left, you can see center Dillon Reinkensmeyer blocking Richmond LB Justin Ruben. That’s a clear mismatch for the Virginia. You can also see Jordan Ellis blocking Dale Matthews. Two Virginia blockers take out the two Richmond LBs and Bryce Perkins does the rest.
Like Richmond, the two Indiana LBs are going to make a majority of the tackles. One LB is Dameon Willis, who led the team in tackles last week and will likely contend for the team lead this season. He’s a former safety and he has the cover skills to match, a bit like Jordan Mack. That’s about where the similarities end, though. While Mack has outstanding speed for an ILB, Willis’ speed is only adequate. He’s just now broken into the starting lineup as a redshirt senior, while Mack has been starting since his true freshman season.
Next to Willis is Raekwon Jones. Coming to college, he was seen as a possible safety, LB, or even a WR. Though listed at LB, he has played almost exclusively special teams prior to this year.
The DBs are the strength of this unit, which is often the case with teams running 5 DBs as a base package. One reason to use such a package is to get your best players on the field. I promise you that if IU had three great LBs, they’d all be starting. The other reason this is the strength of the defense is that three out of five starters return from last season. That includes the extra DB, called the “HUSKY.” That position is manned by Marcelino Ball, a 6’2” 222 pounder, who really is a hybrid LB/DB. He’s probably not fast enough to be a DB and he’s probably not big enough to be a LB, but as a hybrid, he’s both big enough and fast enough. He had 8 tackles in the game last year and may end up getting the assignment of spying Perkins. That means getting a hat on him quickly on the option plays (or simply running away from him).
Along with Ball, CB A’shon Riggins and S Jonathan Crawford return. Riggins is the best cover guy on the team, but Crawford is probably the best defender out there. He’s big, he’s fast and he’s good. Crawford had 11 tackles in last year’s game and had an interception last week. He’s their version of Quin Blanding. He’ll play a deep cover zone and make plays, but he’ll also come up and make a play in run defense. He’s the other guy that Perkins really needs to find on every play. He’ll often be Perkins’ main read in the run-pass-option. If Crawford is back, Perkins will run. If Crawford is up, Perkins will look to hit a big play in the passing game.
Last week, with one HUGE exception, Perkins mostly made the correct reads. If he does that again, and avoids the big mistake, Virginia is in good position to come out on top.
Virginia on Defense
The Virginia defense could, perhaps, be excused for their performance in last year’s matchup. After all, they’d spent all week preparing for Indiana QB Richard Lagow. They completely befuddled Lagow. Then Indiana brought in Ramsey, a freshman, and he was a completely different player. He’s mobile and he’s accurate, but he’s not the power arm that Lagow was. Lagow was coming off a tremendous game against Ohio State in which he’d thrown for over 400 yards and 3 TDs. They held Lagow to just 3/10 passing with an INT. The game plan was working, but Indiana threw a wrench into it by switching QBs. Credit to the Indiana coaching staff.
This year, there will be no excuses for not getting the defense ready for 2 QBs. Against FIU, Ramsey completed 20/27 for 156 yards and 3 TDs (1INT), along with 8 rushes for 36 yards. Freshman QB Michael Penix, Jr completed 8/10 for 96 yards and a TD, plus 2 rushes for 8 yards. Ramsey’s line looks good until you see the 5.7 yards per attempt, which is awful. Penix played 2 series and averaged 9.6 yards per attempt, which is outstanding. Both of them completed a very high percentage of their passes. The offense doesn’t change much between the two. Ramsey is a bit more accurate on the short passes, but Penix has a bigger arm. Both are reasonably mobile, but both are looking to pass before they throw.
This is what Ramsey did to Virginia last year. Micah Kiser blitzed from the middle, and the two OLBs were in zone coverage. When Ramsey leaves the pocket, watch Chris Moore (#39) go to the receiver. You can’t see it, but he turns his back to Ramsey. That tells me that he wasn’t prepared for a running QB.
Ramsey isn’t really a running QB. Not like Perkins. He threw 205 passes last year and rushed 92 times (splitting time with Lagow). Indiana isn’t like to call a whole lot of designed QB runs, but they will run the read-option. In fact, the play above starts as a read-option look. Ramsey will look to take off a run if he doesn’t have an open man. That’s what he did in the play above, and that makes him dangerous.
Indiana is without their top 2 rushers from last year. One is Morgan Ellison, who has been suspended indefinitely by head coach Tom Allen. The other is Cole Gest, who is out for the year after tearing his ACL last week. In last year’s contest, Indiana rushed for 111 yards, but 32 of them came from Ramsey. The starter this week will probably be 5’11” 215 lb senior Mike Majette. Last year, Majette rushed 12 times for 15 yards against Virginia, which ended up being more than half of his season total. The other option in the backfield is Ricky Brookins. Neither of those guys are all that scary.
But Indiana has a couple of true freshmen who might be scary. One is Stevie Scott, a 6’2” 240 pound bruiser who led IU with 70 yards on 20 carries last week. For the mathematically challenged, that is an underwhelming 3.5 ypc. The other is Ronnie Walker, who serious Wahoo fans may recall as a guy the staff badly wanted in Charlottesville. Walker did not play against FIU, but that doesn’t mean we won’t see him this week.
Another true freshman to watch is Reese Taylor, who was Mr Indiana for football last year. He’s a RB/WR/DB, but he’s also the 3rd QB. Taylor is more quick than fast, though he’s not slow. He had 3 carries for 40 yards (including a 32 yard sweep) and had 2 catches for 12 yards. The IU staff and fans are very excited about Taylor. He’s a guy who the Hoos will have to keep tabs on. He’s also on the small side, and the staff doesn’t want him taking too many hits this early in his career. That means when he’s on the field, there’s a good chance he’s seeing the ball. It also means the Wahoo defense should be physical with him coming off the line of scrimmage. He may line up in the backfield for some of those read options.
Last year, Indiana had two outstanding WRs, Simmie Cobbs and Donovan Hale. Both caught TDs in last year’s game. Hale actually ended up getting hurt and receiving a medical redshirt. Cobbs graduated. Hale actually isn’t in the starting lineup, but he had 2 TDs against FIU. He’s the most established threat at WR, and is a legit deep threat. Look for the Hoos to shade coverage to his side.
IU returns 4 of 5 starters from last year’s OL. Now, that OL wasn’t great. IU finished 107th in rushing S&P and 90th in sacks allowed. But bringing back an experienced OL is always a good thing. Last week, they rushed for over 250 yards and allowed just 1 sack. Virginia’s untested DL was fantastic last week, making some plays and generally keeping Richmond RBs from getting going. That’ll have to repeat itself.
With 2 solid QBs who can run and throw, the way to beat the Hoosiers is keep them one-dimensional. The injuries at RB will help, but the defenders need to do their jobs. Let the secondary handle the WRs, the DL and ILBs handle the running backs and the OLBs handle Ramsey and Penix. That’s the game plan. If it works. Virginia probably wins this game.
Last year’s game was strange. Early on, the Virginia defense was dominant, but the offense couldn’t get anything going. They settled for a short FG and a 3-0 lead. Then Indiana scored on 2 big plays and basically the game was over. Later on, Virginia finally started moving the ball, but it wasn’t enough. The PR TD from J-Shun Harris ended any hope the Hoos had.
On paper, the game was close. But the score wasn’t. That was mostly because of the big plays. Last week, Virginia scored on big plays. Richmond had a few big plays, but were unable to score on them. That’ll be tough to replicate week in and week out, especially as the competition gets better. Indiana has big play guys in Taylor, Hale and obviously Ramsey.
But Virginia has more big play guys. Perkins, Ellis, Zaccheaus, Reed just to name a few. There’s a pretty good chance this game, like last year, comes down to hitting on some big plays. Whichever teams does that more will win. I’m betting on the Hoos.
Prediction: Virginia 31, Indiana 27 (record this year: 1-0)