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THE BIG PREVIEW: Virginia kicks off their season vs. Richmond

Hoos and Spiders play under the lights at Scott Stadium as UVA has a shot at redemption.

NCAA Football: Richmond at Virginia Amber Searls-USA TODAY Sports

Bronco Mendenhall’s first game as coach of the Virginia Cavaliers came against the Richmond Spiders. An FCS team. A good FCS team, but, still an FCS team. FBS teams shouldn’t lose to FCS teams. It happens occasionally. Usually, it’s a close game with the FCS team pulling out a squeaker. In that 2016 game, Richmond dominated from beginning to end. It was 13-0 early and 30-7 before the Hoos made it somewhat respectable in a 37-20 loss.

This is the first matchup of these two teams since that game. Would Coach Mendenhall like some revenge? Probably. Would Richmond love to pull another upset? Of course. Which is more likely to happen?

That 2016 Richmond team went 10-4 and lost in the FCS Quarterfinals (without QB Kyle Lauletta, who was hurt). Last year, they finished 6-5 (with Lauletta). They return a lot of last year’s team, but it still isn’t nearly as good as the 2016 team. Combine that with an improved UVA team, and the Hoos are heavy favorites. Most legit sports books don’t put out lines for FBS-FCS games, but some offshore books do, and they’ve pegged the Hoos as 13 point favorites.

Game time is 6PM EST and takes place in Charlottesville at Scott Stadium. The game will be “televised” on ACC Network (ESPN3/WatchESPN). You can also join us in the game thread for in-game discussions.

Let’s take a look at the matchups.

Virginia on Offense

All eyes in the crowd will be on QB Bryce Perkins. Ok, so everybody’s eyes are generally on the QB, but that’ll be magnified since he’s gotten so much preseason hype. Can Perkins manage the offense? Can he distribute the ball to all of his weapons in both the passing and running game? Can he run the various option looks without making any mistakes? Option plays can be devastating when run well, but mistakes often result in turnovers. Turnovers are a good way for a less talented team to make up ground.

The thing is, Perkins doesn’t need to win the game himself. The Hoos are at home and have a talent edge which should be enough to win. Perkins should let the game come to him, take what the defense gives him, and not try to force things. Forcing things will lead to turnovers, which will keep Richmond in the game (sensing a theme yet?).

Richmond will spy Perkins with MLB Justin Rubin, especially on early downs when they expect the read-option. Rubin was third-team All-CAA performer last year when he led the team in tackles. The Hoos will have to get a hat on Rubin, and Perkins needs to find him on each play.

Richmond lines up in a nickel as their base defense. They call the extra DB the “Dime”, which is just confusing. Dime usually means the sixth DB, but Richmond’s formation is 4-2-5. The other LB is Dale Mathews Jr. Both LBs are seniors and both can run although neither are particularly big for their position. I’d like to see RB P.K. Kier get a few runs up the middle to see how the 225 pound LB enjoys tackling the 230 pound RB.

The entire UVA starting OL is over 300 pounds, with 315 lb Jake Fieler leading the way.

On the other hand, 290 lb senior Andrew Clyde is the biggest of Richmond’s DLs. That’s a big advantage for the Virginia OL, especially in the running game. The Spider DEs are 240 and 265, which likely means they have a quickness edge. Conversely, this means the Virginia RBs need to be active in pass protection. This is another spot where Perkins’ mobility and elusiveness will help as well.

Richmond is replacing both of their starting CBs, with junior Trent Williams and sophomore Markus Vinson taking over. Neither are particularly experienced or big, which gives the Virginia WRs a big advantage on the outside. If Perkins can get a WR locked in man coverage against one of those guys, he needs to take advantage.

Because of this, Richmond will play a lot of zone. They’ll try to force the Hoos to march down the field, rather than giving up big plays. The more plays a young QB has to make, the more chance there is he makes a mistake. Against the zone, Perkins wants to hit on a crossing route or quick slant. Olamide Zaccheaus and Joe Reed are tough to tackle in the open field, so if Perkins can hit them in stride, they could run for a while. If freshman Tavares Kelly gets the ball in the open field, watch out.

Virginia’s offense was potent early last season but struggled down the stretch. Yes, it was against solid defenses, but the execution was simply lacking and there were too many mistakes. This year, the offense is different, which means growing pains. Plus, the OL is a big question mark especially considering all the time lost to injury during fall camp.

The Hoos have so much more size and strength, they should be able to power the ball down the field without anything fancy. Jordan Ellis and company should easily find space for five yards per carry. If that happens, all the other questions will go away.

Virginia on Defense

Much like with the OL, the question on defense is the line. The DL was thin to begin with, then had multiple guys dealing with injuries during camp. Graduate transfer Dylan Thompson has finally arrived on Grounds, but he isn’t ready to play just yet.

This seems a good matchup to begin working out the kinks as Richmond’s OL lost four out of five starters from last year. The lone returner is 6’5, 301 pound John Yarbrough at RT, who was 3rd team All-CAA last year and has 17 career starts. LT Tim Coleman is a transfer from Furman, where he started 11 games as a freshman. That’s pretty much the extent of the starting experience on the OL for Richmond. This is a big advantage for Eli Hanback, Richard Burney and Jordan Redmond. Those are the starters, but expect to see several other guys get run there as well.

The biggest loss for Richmond’s offense is Lauletta. The guy rewrote the Richmond record book. He’s the all-time leader in yards and TDs. He holds the single game record, three of the top four season records, and broke the team record for longest single pass play.

The starting QB this year is junior Kevin Johnson. Johnson didn’t play at all last year (redshirt), but played in 2016 after Lauletta went down. In his first start, he threw for 315 yards and a TD in an FCS playoff game. He totalled 50-for-76 passing for 761 yards and three TDs in three games. That’s pretty good considering he was redshirting that season until Lauletta’s injury.

Johnson is a dual-threat guy, but he’s more of a passer. Accounting for sacks, Johnson rushed just 22 times for 104 yards versus the 76 pass attempt. Johnson actually totaled just 17 yards rushing on 33 attempts, because of 87 yards lost on 11 sacks. That’s something to think about since the Wahoo defense has some good pass rushers, including OLBs Charles Snowden and Chris Peace.

Johnson has a good arm. Check out below for a deep pass he threw two years ago. Johnson throws that ball 60 yards in the air, giving his WR a chance to make a catch.

The last time Johnson played, he was still basically running Lauletta’s offense. Maybe this is still that offense, but probably not. That should change with a full off-season to plan around Johnson. (There was a QB battle during the off-season with sophomore Joe Mancuso, who is a bit more like Lauletta, but Johnson won.)

Here’s a look at Johnson’s running ability. This is a read-option look, in this case used as play-action. It is hard to tell if this is a pass play, or just misdirection, since Johnson doesn’t spend much time looking downfield. Johnson is not a big guy (6’0, 200), but takes a good shot from the DB and doesn’t go down.

The Spiders top four rushers all return from last year, along with the top three receivers. It is a strong group of skill position guys and will be a challenge for a young Virginia defense.

At RB, the leading returning rusher is Xavier Gooddall, who had just 452 yards rushing. The quartet of RBs, though, had 1,113 yards at just under five yards per carry. Goodall is not on the depth chart, however, as the “starter” is listed as Deontez Thompson OR Gordon Collins. Thompson began last season as the starter, but dealt with injuries and played just seven games. As a freshman in 2016, he rushed for over 1,000 yards, which made him the first Spider to do so. In the 2016 matchup, Collins rushed for 115 yards on 13 carries, including a 55 yard TD. Thompson rushed for 21 yards on two carries.

Out of 24 completed passes in the 2016 game, just 13 return. That includes four catches for 63 yards and two TDs from Tyler Wilkins, a 6’3, 200 lb senior, a 2nd team All-CAA and a serious force to be reckoned with on the edge. Luckily, the strength of the UVA defense is the secondary. Bryce Hall (6’1, 200), Tim Harris (6’1, 205) and Darrius Bratton (6’0, 195) all have the size to stay with Wilkins.

Richmond will line up in a three WR set for most of the game. Alongside Wilkins the starting WRs are Dejon Brissett and Cortrelle Simpson. Brissett had a game-long 37 yard reception in the last game. Simpson is a transfer from Temple who had over 1000 yards receiving last year, averaging over 16 yards per catch. At 5’11, 165, he’s a different matchup than the bigger guys.

Look for the Hoos to spend a lot of time in nickel as well. We should see both a 3-3-5 and a 2-4-5. We may also see different nickel backs. In passing situations, Brenton Nelson probably gets in at nickel and lines up across from the slot guy (often Simpson). But in early downs, the nickel back may be Chris Moore, who provides a more physical presence and better run defense.

Richmond’s offense is similar to Virginia’s. If the OL does its job, the offense should be good. They’ve got a talented, but mostly unproven, dual-threat QB and a solid stable of skill position players. But the OL is a big question mark. How well that OL handles Virginia’s front seven (or six) will likely determine this game.

Conclusion

Yes, Richmond came out on top in the last matchup between these two teams, and yes it wasn’t close. But these aren’t the same teams as that matched up two years ago. Last year, the Cavaliers knocked off FCS William & Mary 28-10, in a game that was not as close as the score indicates. Richmond squeaked by that W&M team 27-20.

This Richmond team returns much of the same from last year, except for the best QB they’ve ever had. That’s a big loss and without Lauletta, the Spiders are going to struggle to move the ball consistently against a solid UVA defense.

The real key is going to be the revamped UVA offense. If Perkins struggles and makes mistakes, this game will be closer than it needs to be. If Perkins plays well and makes the correct reads, the game will not be close. I’m betting on Perkins and I’m betting on the Hoos.

Prediction: Virginia 31, Richmond 13