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THE BIG PREVIEW: No. 25 Virginia vs Florida State

Can the Hoos keep the positive momentum going with the Seminoles coming to town?

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NCAA Football: Florida State at Boise State Melina Myers-USA TODAY Sports

The last time Virginia Cavaliers Football faced the Florida State Seminoles was in 2014, when the Seminoles were ranked No. 2 in the nation. Things have changed since then. For the first time ever, Virginia heads into a game against FSU with a national ranking while FSU is unranked.

FSU opened the season with a home loss to Boise State. They led by 18 and then blew the lead. They followed up that Week 1 disaster with a one-point, double-OT win over Louisiana-Monroe last week after ULM missed the game-tying point after attempt. They had a 21-0 lead at one point in the game and led by 17 at the break.

Amazingly, it’s been nine years since the Seminoles came to Charlottesville and this is just the second Hoos-Noles game at Scott Stadium since the Marques Hagans game in 2005.

Virginia is favored by about a touchdown, which seems low considering where the programs are right now. Still, it’s FSU and they get respect. They also still have talent. Let’s look at it.

Virginia on Defense

Players to Watch

#1 QB James Blackman (sophomore)

#3 RB Cam Akers (junior)

#15 WR Tamorrion Terry (sophomore)

Akers was the star of the show last week against ULM. He had 193 yards on 36 carries to go with two TDs. The 36 carries is a school record. If Akers gets that many carries again, things probably aren’t going well for the Virginia defense. Akers was the No. 1 RB in the 2017 class and a top-10 overall player. He could’ve gone anywhere. He’s got great speed, good size, and power. He is also a threat in the passing game, so he will rarely come off the field. He has nearly 80% of the team’s non-QB carries.

A year ago, FSU ranked 102nd in total offense. They were 126th on the ground. Early signs say that will improve greatly. In fact, this could be the best offense Virginia faces all year. It is certainly the best offense they’ve faced thus far. They rank 43rd nationally (above all of Virginia’s other opponents), though that’ll change as they face better defenses, including Virginia.

That Virginia defense is currently ranked 14th nationally in total defense (2nd in the ACC). They’re 15th in rush defense, 27th in pass defense, and 13th in pass efficiency defense. They’re also 3rd in sacks and 13th in TFLs. Yes, they haven’t exactly faced a murderer’s row of offenses yet, but then again, neither have most teams above them.

After starting 12 games as a redshirt freshman in 2017, Blackman was back on the bench last year behind Deondre Francois. So far this year, he’s completing 72% of his passes, averaging over eight yards per attempt and has six TDs with two INTs. These are much better than his freshman year numbers (58%, 7.5 yard per attempt, 19 TD to 11 INT).

Blackman can run, but he’s not a runner. He’s not looking to run. He’ll get out of the pocket a bit, and he’ll take off occasionally, but he’s had negative yards rushing every season and has just one rushing TD in his career. That said, if Virginia gives him the space that Kenny Pickett had in the opener, Blackman may take off.

The Hoos are probably OK with Blackman taking off. That means he has nobody open. FSU likes to throw the ball downfield and Tamorrion Terry is the top target. He was just third on the team last year in receptions, but tied for the lead in yards. He averaged over 20 yards per catch. So far this year, he’s averaging just 15 yards per catch, but he’s also seeing more passes his way. He’s got 10 receptions for 156 yards (47th nationally). That includes this 75 yard catch against BSU.

This is a dump-off and Terry turns it into a big gain. His quickness is evident, but the exterior blocking by FSU is outstanding here. That’s how you get big plays.

The leader in receptions is D.J. Matthews. Matthews is used a lot like Virginia used Olamide Zaccheaus. He lines up in the slot most of the time, and runs a lot of quick hitters. He’ll run bubble screens, quick hitches, quick slants, etc. Here is a TD he caught last week.

That’s just too easy. Can’t give a guy that much space that close to the endzone. Expect to see a lot of nickel from Virginia again this week, which puts Brenton Nelson over the slot CB. Nelson’s ability to stay with Matthews will have a big impact on this game. Blackman looks for him on third downs and around the endzone.

The Noles’ struggles on offense are largely due to offensive line issues. That plagued them last year, as they finished 111th in sacks allowed and 129th in yards per carry. Again, the early returns show some improvement. The Noles are up to 74th in yards per carry, but they rank 98th in sacks allowed. Again, keep in mind those numbers are going to drop as FSU faces better defenses. The OL will also missing a key member, as LT Jauan Williams left the game last week with an injury and is not available this week.

We know the Virginia defense is good. But shutting down Pitt is one thing. Shutting down FSU, with all of their four- and five-star talent is a much bigger challenge. Virginia has been blitzing a lot, and has seen several big plays open up for the opposition. Largely, those big plays haven’t materialized because of drops or overthrows. But FSU will take advantage. FSU wants to score on big plays. They don’t want to be methodical. It may be time for Virginia to slow down the defense and force FSU to dink and dunk their way down the field. That will give the Hoos a chance to capitalize on FSU’s mistakes. And, if the past two games are any indication, there will be several mistakes.

Virginia on Offense

Players to Watch

#35 LB Leonard Warner III (junior)

#8 CB Stanford Samuels (junior)

#23 FS Hamsah Nasirildeen (junior)

Despite putting up 30 and 52 points, it seems like Virginia’s offense hasn’t really hit their stride yet. Their longest play from scrimmage is 40 yards, Perkins is averaging just 10 yards per completion (99th nationally) and outside of garbage time Virginia hasn’t really run the ball consistently.

So far, Virginia has had outstanding play on third down (16th nationally, at 55%) and they’ve have opportunistic drives. Against Pitt, the Hoos scored their TDs on drives of 19, 29 and 27 yards. And against William and Mary they scored TDs both on Defense and Special Teams. That’s how you put up 40 points per game without really hitting the mark on offense.

The offense will come. They had to replace a 1000 yard rusher and a 1000 yard receiver. Both positions are filled with young and inexperienced players. Some guys were getting their first taste of college football. Of course there are growing pains. But they’re getting better.

It seems strange to say this, but playing FSU’s defense might help. FSU’s fall from the upper echelon is shocking, but most shocking is the defense. The Seminoles finished 80th nationally in total defense last year. The previous year, they were 18th. Just five years ago, the Noles were 3rd. Oh, how the mighty have fallen.

This year they are 124th in total defense, giving up well over 500 yards per game. Boise State gained 621 yards in their week one win in Tallahassee. The next week, at home against Marshall, the Broncos totaled 437 yards in a 14-7 win.

Yes, they were better last week, holding Louisiana-Monroe to just 419 yards (in OT). They still gave up almost 200 yards rushing, which isn’t good.

The Noles depth chart shows three DLs, two “EDGE” and two LB. That’s a 3-4. However, they’ve spent a lot of time in a 4-3. This play, for example, is a 4-man front. One of those is the EDGE, but they are lined up in a 4-3 and it appears that they’re playing single-gap.

The 3-man front is very big, very talented, but somewhat inexperienced. Only DE Marvin Williams had real game experience heading into this year. He was the #4 overall player in the nation in 2017. He was also honorable mention All-ACC last year. In the clip above, Wilson forces the fumble even though he’s being held. He’s one of the best interior linemen in the nation and will be the key for Virginia’s OL.

The Noles have seven sacks through two games. But just three of those are from starters. Two came from the backup FS. Wilson was second on the team in sacks a year ago, but with just 3.5, a ways behind first-round pick Brian Burns. With three down linemen plus two “EDGE” rushers, the Noles will bring five on most passing downs. Because of that, they play a lot of man on the outside.

On this play, the Noles rush five and have four DBs in man coverage. This looks like a nickel package from the Noles, with Nasirildeen playing a hyrbid LB/S role. This is a role he will play very often, akin to what Virginias has seen from Chris Moore at times. At 6’4 215, he has the size for the role. Here’s the rest of the play.

FSU brings pressure and doesn’t get there. The extra DB is Carlos Becker and he’s beaten to the corner. Blitzing with man coverage and no safety help is a big play waiting to happen.

FSU has the CBs for man coverage. Stanford Samuels and Asanta Samuel, Jr have tons of talent. Samuels had 4 INTs last year and Samuel started three times as a true freshman as the #14 overall player in the class. Both also have CB in their blood. Each of them have 3 PBUs in the early going.

Virginia’s has spent a lot of time in four and five WR formations. If Virginia spreads out the field, they’re going to get man coverage. Virginia’s WRs are more talented than either ULM or Boise State. In a four-wide set, the two CBs may key on Joe Reed and Hasise Dubois. That means somebody has a good matchup against one of the safeties or the nickel DB. That’s what Bryce Perkins will be looking for.

ULM QB Caleb Evans rushed for 32 yards and 2 TDs on 10 carries. That includes a sack. We know Bryce Perkins is a better runner than Evans. Apparently FSU knows as well. But they’re prepared:

I would hope they have a plan. Warner is one of the EDGE guys and, although he’s talented, he has not done much in his career yet. He did record his first career sack against BSU.

This FSU defense is very talented, but they lack consistency. They just don’t seem to all be on the same page at times. It’s not a simple defense, and if one guy is out of position, big plays occur. If they get their act together, this could be a very good defense. But they don’t seem close to getting their act together.

Conclusion

The Noles are reeling. The Hoos are surging. If momentum is a thing, then Virginia has it. That said, FSU still has the talent edge. They’re always going to have a lot of individual talent, with their name cache and the rich Florida recruiting grounds. There are a ton of top-100 guys on this roster. But they have been far less than the sum of their parts.

It’s possible that FSU gets all their issues figured out and plays lights out. If that happens, they probably win, even if Virginia also plays lights out. FSU has more talent, especially at the skill positions. But the Hoos have been playing at a high level for most of the past two seasons and the Noles have...not. If both teams continue at that pace, Virginia wins with ease.

Prediction: Hoos 27, Seminoles 17 (Record this year, 2-0)