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THE BIG PREVIEW: No. 21 Virginia vs. ODU

Can the Hoos improve to 4-0?

NCAA Football: Old Dominion at Virginia Tech Lee Luther Jr.-USA TODAY Sports

Fresh off the biggest win the Virginia Football team has had in years, the Cavaliers now have a different challenge. With Notre Dame coming up next week, this is a classic “trap” game as the Old Dominion Monarchs come to town for a 7pm Saturday game (broadcast on ESPN2). ODU isn’t a big name and hasn’t had a lot of FBS success (this is just their 12th year of football and sixth in FBS).

You may recall ODU having a memorable win last year when they knocked off the Hokies, so just because they aren’t a big name doesn’t mean they can’t knock off the big boys. That was a home game for ODU (though much of the crowd was pro-VT), whereas this is a road game (Virginia goes to ODU next season). The win over Virginia Tech last year was part of a 4-8 season for the Monarchs.

This year, the Monarchs are 1-1 and coming off a bye week. They beat Norfolk State and then lost to VT in Blacksburg. That game was reasonably close, although the Hokies led 24-3 before letting ODU back into it.

Playing at home, at 7PM, and on ESPN2 should help keep the Hoos focused, and we know Bronco won’t let his players look ahead too much.

Virginia on Defense

The QB who threw for almost 500 yards against VT last year, Black LaRussa, decided to bypass his senior year in order to join the seminary. To replace him, ODU coach Bobby Wilder brought in a graduate transfer from Riverside Community College, Stone Smartt. Smartt began his career at Northern Arizona.

Smartt is a dual-threat QB in a similar mold to Perkins. He had both of ODU’s TDs in the loss to Virginia Tech. He’s scored three of the five ODU TDs this year, but has yet to throw a TD.

Seriously, don’t those look a lot like what we’ve come to expect from Perkins? He’s 6’4, 220, compared to Perkins at 6’3, 215. Smartt isn’t quite as quick as Perkins and isn’t as developed a passer.

He’s thrown just 53 passes this year — completing 33 of them — for just 280 yards. The 62% completion rate is solid, but the 5.3 yards per attempt is poor. Against the Hokies, he was just 16-for-30 (53%) for 122 yards (4.1 ypa). He has rushed 29 times for 98 yards (3.4 ypc).

As a team, the Monarchs have 82 rushes and 54 passes. That’s a notable difference, even considering that some of the rushes are scrambles (or run-pass-option). This is a running football team.

Virginia faced a similar team a couple of weeks ago in W&M. That team also wanted to run the ball, and had a QB with speed and quickness. We know what happened to the Tribe, who were simply overmatched in the trenches.

That should be the case again, as the outstanding Wahoo defensive line has a big advantage against a somewhat inexperienced OL. The left side of ODU’s line is strong, with 330 pound left guard Tony Barnett and 296 pound left tackle Isaac Weaver. Weaver might be the best (only?) NFL prospect on the team. The right side of the line is entirely new and very young. The Monarchs will look to run left, which means the right side of Virginia’s defense will need to be solid. Here’s an example:

The motion to the right keeps the defense’s focus to that side. The action goes to the left, with the RT pulling as lead blocker. The RB on this play is freshman Lala (Elijah) Davis, who leads the team with 143 yards rushing thus far. He had 81 against the Hokies on 11 carries (7.4 ypc). He’s actually listed as the backup behind senior Kesean Strong, but has nearly twice the carries so far this year.

The play above also includes two TEs for the Monarchs. They’re going to use those personnel groupings a lot, as they try to run the ball. This means we’ll likely see much less of the nickel from Virginia. The TEs try to engage the OLBs, giving the RBs a chance to get to the edge. That puts a lot of pressure on the DBs to make plays on the outside. Virginia’s DBs have been up to the task so far this year, which is why Virginia’s run defense is allowing just 2.5 yards per rush.

Of the 33 completions Smartt has this year, 10 have gone for five or fewer yards. Just five have gone for more than 15 yards (one of which came against VT). The top WR for the Monarchs is Eric Kumah, a grad transfer from Virginia Tech (he had 3 receptions for 24 yards against his former team). They aren’t looking to throw downfield, which means Virginia will play more press coverage instead of the zones we saw against FSU.

Against the Hokies, they ran several shovel pass plays for 5’9 freshman Blake Watson. Watson has speed (listed on Hudl with a 4.45 40 time). He has averaged under three yards per reception early in his career. Still, they want to get the ball in his hands, because he’s one guy who can do damage in the open field. Along with the shovel pass, they’ll use him on jet sweeps and WR screens.

The other guy to be wary of is former QB Stephen Williams. Williams started seven times at QB in 2017 as the youngest player in FBS. He opens up a lot of trick-play possibilities, something we saw work for W&M. Something similar from a more talented ODU WR corps could turn into a TD.

The Monarchs ranked 40th in the country in total offense last year, but that was with LaRussa throwing for over 3000 yards. They were 15th in the nation in passing offense, but just 110th in rushing. With LaRussa out and a running QB in his place, that has to change. It’s similar to what Virginia did changing from Kurt Benkert to Bryce Perkins.

Virginia on Offense

The Monarchs currently rank 50th in the country in total defense with just two games played (one FBS opponent). A year ago, they ranked 118th in total defense. That was 12 games. Which one do you think is more accurate?

Are they better than last year? Maybe. It’s a very different unit from last year. There’s a new defensive coordinator and an entirely new scheme. There are only five returning starters, including just two of last year’s top seven tacklers and just 4.5 out of last year’s 22 sacks.

The new scheme is a hybrid nickel defense, five DBs and a hybrid DE/LB they call “BANDIT”. The two LBs (Lawrence Garner and Jordan Young) are tied for the team lead in tackles. That is by design, as they’re asked to cover a lot of ground and make a lot of plays. They’re rarely coming on blitzes and have combined for just one tackle for loss between the two of them. (Garner had nine TFLs, so he’s certainly capable.) Both are strong run stoppers and solid in shallow zones. The pass rush comes from the DL (including the Bandit). Through two games, that group has three sacks and 10 TFLs.

It’s a small unit, led by 265 pound Juwon Ross (1.5 sacks and 3.5 TFLs). That gives Virginia’s OL another chance to impress. Here’s a play where Virginia Tech’s OL dominates at the line in short yardage. Ryan Willis just walks into the end zone.

Considering the short yardage performed against FSU, we should see similar success this week.

Generally speaking, the Monarchs were able to contain Virginia Tech’s ground game. The Hokies ended up with 131 yards and 2 TDs, but averaged just 3.4 yards per carry (including one sack). If Virginia struggles like that, it’s going to be a longer day than fans would like.

The secondary is led by FSU grad transfer free safety Calvin Brewton and the nickel CB Geronda Hall. Hall was in and out of the starting lineup last year as a freshman.

This is a great play from Hall in last year’s game. That’s perfect coverage and a great play on the ball.

This is not a great play from Hall against Norfolk State this year.

If Norfolk State WRs are outrunning the ODU secondary, that’s a good sign for a speedy Virginia receiving corps. It’s also an undersized, and not very physical, unit. Another good sign for a rather big Virginia WR corps.

There’s definitely talent on this defense, but they’re undersized and inexperienced, especially in this new scheme. They weren’t too bad against the Hokies, but still gave up 31 points and 400 yards. That’s about what Virginia has averaged in their two prior FBS games (30 points and 360 yards). There’s no reason to believe Virginia won’t at least put up those numbers again.

Conclusion

Knowing that the Monarchs knocked off Virginia Tech last year should benefit the Hoos. They know what can happen if they don’t focus and look ahead to Notre Dame. I’m sure the coaching staff has reminded them several times.

ODU is better than W&M, so don’t expect a 50 point outburst again. But considering Virginia is favored by 30, it isn’t out of the question. If the Virginia defense continues its stellar play, ODU will have trouble moving the ball. That should lead to a blowout. But if the defense struggles with Smartt’s size and mobility, the game will be closer than expected.

Prediction: Hoos 49, Monarchs 17 (season record 3-0)