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THE BIG PREVIEW: Virginia Cavaliers takes on No. 11 Miami Hurricanes

NCAA Football: Virginia at Miami Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

After a respectable loss to Clemson, the Virginia Cavaliers has struggled on all sides of the ball, with the defense unable to overcome the offense’s point droughts and turnovers, and special teams has been unremarkable.

Nothing gets easier this week, as the Hoos travel to Miami to face the #11 team in the nation in the Miami Hurricanes. Virginia fans may not want to remember last year’s contest, also on the road, when Virginia fell 17-9. That was the game Bryce Hall was injured and it is also the game that Virginia had five red zone trips and scored a total of nine points.

Maybe this year will be better.

Where: Hard Rock Stadium, Miami Gardens, FL
When: 8PM Eastern
TV: ACC Network

Virginia on Defense

The Wahoo defense ranks 43rd in total defense based on yardage, but they rank 63rd in scoring defense (out of 77 total teams). They just allowed almost 500 yards and 40 points to a young and inexperienced Wake Forest team. That’s not going to get it done against Miami’s deeper, more talented, and more experienced offense.

That Miami offense is led by D’Eriq King, a graduate transfer from Houston and one of the top Heisman candidates coming into the season. So far, he’s completed 59% of his passes for 1079 yards and 10 TDs with 4 INTs. Solid numbers, but far from Heisman worthy. (Not that it matters, the Heisman already has Trevor Lawrence’s name on it.)

Despite a reputation from King of being a dynamic runner, he actually doesn’t run that much. During his career at Houston, he averaged around 7.5 rush attempts per game (includes sacks). Bryce Perkins averaged more than 16 carries per game (also includes sacks) during his two year run. So while King will run, he’s more of a passer than a runner.

As far as Miami is concerned, King is doing what he needs to do. His mobility helps open things up for RB Cam’ron Harris, who has rushed for 338 yards at over 5 yards per carry. We’re going to see a lot of zone-read looks and a lot of RPO.

That is actually good defense from Pitt, but better execution from Harris. He has excellent burst and he’s a punishing north-south runner despite not being very big (5’10” 210). He runs big and is not afraid of contact.

This is NOT good defense from Pitt. They bite on the fake run from King, and nobody covers Harris out of the backfield. That’s what the threat of a runner like King provides, something Virginia fans know well. Harris is a threat out of the backfield, fourth on the team with 11 receptions. He averages just six yards per catch though.

Miami has long been known for having a deep and talented WR corps. That isn’t really the case right now. Their leading receiver is TE Brevin Jordan. The junior Jordan has been starting since day one, and was second team All-ACC as a true freshman. He’s likely to go pro after this year.

That’s not to say the WR corps isn’t talented. It’s Miami. They’re chock full of four-star WRs. We would rejoice if any of these guys signed with the Hoos, but it’s ho-hum at Miami. This week, they haven’t even named starters at any of the WR spots. All three spots have three “co-starters”. Last year’s leading receiver was a graduate transfer.

The top two WRs this year have been senior Michael Harley and junior Mark Pope. They have 17 and 16 receptions, just behind Jordan’s 18. But Jordan missed a game and is well ahead of both in yardage. One guy to keep an eye on is true freshman Xavier Restrepo, who has been named the starting PR. He’s dynamic.

The Miami OL is a bit inexperienced. Returning starters include OC Corey Gaynor and LG Jakai Clark, though Clark (a true sophomore) moved over from RG. That OL also includes Jarrid Williams, who came from Houston along with King. The Miami OL struggled in pass protection last year, finishing 127th in the nation in sacks allowed, at almost four per game. They’ve improved this year, but still allowing nearly 2.5 per game. Is the improvement actually the OL, or is it King and his ability to get away from pass rushers?

Pitt brings six here but Miami does a good job of picking up the blitzers. The guy who gets there first is one-on-one with LT John Campbell and just wins that battle.

Ultimately, even though King avoids the sack, it’s a successful third down stop. Virginia has not been that fortunate.

This is Wake’s first TD last week. The Hoos bring De’Vante Cross on the CB blitz, but he is picked up nicely by the RB. That left Joey Blount in single coverage against a WR. Blount isn’t 100% and ended up missing much of the game, after missing the NC State game as well. But even when healthy, that isn’t a good matchup for the Hoos.

And this is Wake’s second TD.

This is an RPO from Wake and Nelson just gets beat. We really don’t expect that from Nelson who is a very strong cover guy. But this has been the problem the past two weeks. Guys are just not winning their one-on-one battles, especially in the secondary.

Another notable thing on that play, there is no penetration against the Wake Forest OL. Two LBs, Matt Gahm and Nick Jackson, do nothing on this play. They both stand there waiting on a run to their side. Most likely, both are tasked with outside contain, but if one or both move a few yards into the backfield, they can more easily read Sam Hartman’s decision to throw and have a chance to pressure him.

We saw this over and over again from Wake Forest RBs. The patience to wait for a hole is not something all RBs have. In this case Kenneth Walker sees nothing in the primary hole. But because Virginia’s defense gets no penetration, Walker can wait for things to open up. By the time it does, Virginia’s secondary is out of position and Walker can run forever. This isn’t the defense we expected, with youngsters like Antonio Clary and Fentrell Cypress in there instead of Blount and Cross. But still, the ILBs are standing around waiting for somebody to engage them. Wake TE Brandon Chapman comes from across the formation to block Zandier in the initial hole. If Zandier moves up into that hole instead of just watching, maybe he can force Walker back and maybe he doesn’t get that second chance.

This time, it’s Snowden standing around watching. Is he supposed to have that underneath coverage on the play-side? Maybe not, as two DBs go with the deep man and neither covers the underneath man. (Snowden is probably covering the short middle of the field while also spying on Hartman.)

Havoc doesn’t come from reacting to the offense; Havoc comes from making the offense react to you. Until (and unless) Virginia gets back to that mindset, we’re going to continue seeing opponents put up 35+ points per game. Especially if the deep coverage in the secondary doesn’t get better.

Virginia on Offense

With Brennan Armstrong still in concussion protocols, Virginia went with a three QB rotation against Wake Forest. Each of Lindell Stone, Ira Armstead and Early Keytaon Thompson saw chances taking snaps.

Early on, it was pretty successful. Even though they fell behind, the offense continued to grind the Wake Forest defense down with the run, and they ended the first half tied at 20. Considering they scored 21 last week and now were without the starting QB, 20 points in a half is outstanding.

You think Wake doesn’t know what’s coming? With a true freshman QB out there near the goal line, it was always going to be a run. Sometimes, it isn’t run/pass that confuses the defense. Sometimes, it’s just not knowing who and where the ball is going. Virginia’s OL is good, the RBs are good, and both Armstead and Thompson are dynamic ballcarriers. We needed to see more of this all game long.

Lindell Stone threw 42 passes last week. Twelve of those came late with Virginia trying to get back into it. But even earlier in the game, Virginia was far more successful running the ball than throwing it. On Virginia’s first scoring drive, Stone was 2-3 for 13 yards (plus another incomplete pass negated by a Wake penalty). The Hoos rushed 6 times for 43 yards.

Stone averaged 4.5 yards per attempt. In his “breakout” against NC State, Stone averaged just 4.4 yards per attempt. The threat of the pass isn’t much of a threat at that rate. In 2013, David Watford averaged just 5.2 yards per attempt while setting a team record for attempts in a season. Kurt Benkert broke that record throwing an insane 509 passes in 2017, averaging just 6.3 ypa (108th in the nation). Why does Virginia always seem to throw the ball more when it isn’t working?

What makes more sense? Throwing the ball at 4.5 yards per pass, or running it at 7 yards per carry? Taulapapa averaged 6.8 yards per carry last week. Thompson averaged 7.1 and Armstead was at 7.7 ypc.

It seems like Armstrong is likely out again this week. Stone will undoubtedly take some snaps again, but Virginia would do well to have Thompson and/or Armstead in the game as much as possible. Having all three QBs on the field would also be interesting and fun.

Running out of passing situations does work though. On this play, it’s Stone in at QB. It’s 2nd and 11. The defense is looking pass. Hayden Mitchell runs an inside route, dragging the DB away from the play. Stone executes the play very well, faking a pass out to his left. That causes the play-side safety to hesitate and by the time he recovers, it’s too late to keep Taulapapa out of the endzone.

The Canes run a hybrid nickel defense, with four down linemen and a OLB/DB hybrid which they call “STRIKER”. The Striker is Gilbert Frierson and he’s second on the team in TFLs with 6 in five games. Graduate transfer DE Quincy Roche (from Temple) leads the team with 9.5, which is seventh in the nation. Roche is taking the place of Gregory Rousseau, a top talent who could be a top ten pick in the next NFL Draft. Rousseau chose to opt out for the season.

The Canes are 28th in sacks, averaging 2.8 per game. That’s just ahead of Virginia at 2.5 per game. But the Canes are also fifth in the nation in TFLs at 9.8, well ahead of Virginia’s 7.3 per game. That is because the Canes are in attack mode at all times.

Two Miami defenders (Roche and OLB Waymon Steed) are in the backfield almost immediately.

This is that same drive, on third and long and Miami is bringing the house. They bring six immediately, with another coming late. Bear in mind that Pitt is playing without starting QB Kenny Pickett, with redshirt freshman (and Arizona State transfer) Joey Yellin in there. Chances are they wouldn’t be quite so aggressive against Pickett. And chances are, they will be just as aggressive against Stone, especially on third and long. All the more reason to stay out of those obvious passing situations.

The Cane’s top two tacklers are the starters at safety, Amari Carter and Bubba Bolden. Interestingly, Gurvan Hall Jr is listed as a co-starter at both S positions and has actually started three times, while Bolden has started just twice. But it’s Bolden who leads the team with 33 tackles. He’s also forced three fumbles, something Virginia will have to be wary of.

Turnovers are obviously killing the Hoos this season. Virginia is 73rd (out of 77) in the nation in turnovers lost. Interestingly, Duke (77th) and Georgia Tech (75) are both below the Hoos. The Hoos are also 67th in turnover margin, despite the seven (!) turnovers forced in the opener against Duke. We know the Hurricanes thrive on turnovers. That turnover chain has become a phenomenon. Hold on to the ball and don’t feed that beast.

With Armstrong out, this game has to be about the run. The Canes are not great tacklers (see that last video for an example). If Virginia is successful running early, Miami will have to put more defenders in the box. That gives the Hoos a chance to hit a big play. Don’t be surprised to see some more passes from Armstead and/or Thompson (yes, I know Thompson’s shoulder is injured) this week. They’ve taken more first team snaps in practice and obviously teams are going to start selling out against the run. Even just a few passes will help keep defenses honest. Showing a lot of different looks, with multiple ball carriers also helps slow down the defensive aggression.

Conclusion

A lot of fans had the Hoos going 3-1 to open the season. And even those optimists had the Hoos losing at Miami. The Canes are very good defensively and D’Eriq King makes them good enough offensively. This is a good team, and probably the favorite to win the Coastal.

That’s not to say the Hoos can’t win. The Canes offense is not great. Virginia’s defense can shut them down, much as they did last year. Combine that with a clean game from the offense, and a win is possible. Neither of those things seem likely, based on what we’ve seen from the Hoos the past two weeks.

Prediction: Miami 34, Virginia 20