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THE BIG PREVIEW: NC State Wolfpack vs Virginia Cavaliers

Hoos Return Home to Face NC State Wolfpack

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 03 Virginia at Clemson Photo by Dannie Walls/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Virginia Cavaliers sit at 1-1 with a win over Duke and a decent showing in a loss at Clemson. The next five weekends will make or break Virginia’s season: NC State, at Wake Forest, at Miami, UNC, and Louisville. That’s a tough stretch and Virginia will have to be ready to go each week, starting now.

Meanwhile, the NC State Wolfpack sit at 2-1, which sets them up nicely for the rest of the season. After this weekend, they have only one remaining road trip (at UNC). They’re coming off a big win over Pitt as 14 point underdogs. Virginia is favored by 9 in this one.

These teams last played in 2018, in Raleigh, a 35-21 win for the Wolfpack. Those were two very different teams. NC State won nine games that year, with an NFL QB, two NFL WRs and a 1000-yard RB. In 2018, Virginia was learning how to be a winning football team after a decade of mostly being irrelevant.

When: Saturday, October 10 at 12 Noon Eastern
Where: Scott Stadium, Charlottesville, VA
TV: ACC Network

Virginia on Defense

Last year’s Wolfpack team used three different starting QBs, two different starting RBs and five different starting WRs. In 2018, they were 26th nationally in total offense. In 2019, they fell to 88th.

Two of those three QBs return, both RBs return and four of the five WRs return. That’s good. Of course, it still means they have two starting QBs. Or does it?

Bailey Hockman started the first two games and was .... not great. He was 23-of-39 for 273 yards with 1 TD and 3 INTs. That’s a passer rating of 110.85, which would’ve ranked 104th last year. Sophomore Devin Leary played a little bit against Virginia Tech, but started and played the entire game against Pitt. All he did was complete 64% of his passes for 336 yards and four TDs (no picks). All told, Leary has completed 40/60 for 501 yards with five TDs and zero picks. That’s a 164.31 passing efficiency, which would’ve ranked 10th nationally last year.

Should note here that Hockman was starting early on because Leary had missed a lot of practice due to NC State’s CoVID-19 outbreak and subsequent quarantine.

Leary can also run it a little but, though he’s not really a “mobile” QB.

This looks to be a designed QB draw and was a perfect call. Leary probably should’ve scored, but stepped out at the four yard line (also RB Ricky Person was called for holding at the end of the run). We’ve seen Virginia get burned by QB runs over the middle before. When the Hoos bring pressure, they often leave the middle of the field open.

As Lawrence drops back he sees so much green in front of him that he has to take off. This was a problem last year as well. Sometimes, the Hoos are so focused on getting to the QB that they give open lanes to QBs. This can be a killer on third downs.

On this play, the Hoos bring just four pass rushers, but still leave the middle of the field open for Kenny Pickett to run through. At least in the above play from last week, the Hoos blitzed six. If you blitz, something is going to be open. With a four man rush, that should not happen. Why are both ILBs so far past the first down marker? If they’re at the line to gain, Pitt QB Kenny Pickett has no chance of getting the first down.

Leary (104.7) was better than Hockman (98.1) last year as well, but both of those efficiency numbers are terrible. At the start of the season, the ground game seemed to be their strong suit. Against Wake, they had 193 yards through the air and 270 on the ground. With a pair of big and talented RBs in Reggie Person and Zonovan “Bam” Knight, that seemed like it would continue to be the plan.

Against the Hokies, they fell behind very quickly, so that wasn’t really an option. They ended up with just 139 yards on the ground and 247 through the air. That 247 came with two INTs and six sacks, so it wasn’t particularly efficient.

The Hokies loaded up in the box to slow down the run and force Hockman to beat them. The first three drives for the Pack included 6 rushes for 26 yards (4.3 ypc), but totaled just one first down. They were 0/3 on third downs with two sacks and an INT. By that point, State was down 17-0 and the route was on.

Pitt also focused heavily on the ground game, but Leary was able to make them pay.

This is almost the exact same play that Duke scored on against Virginia. Twice. A fairly simple TE post route. Pitt looks to have man coverage on TE Cary Angeline, but the LB is too busy looking in the backfield to run with his man.

Notice Zane Zandier is also too busy looking into the backfield to turn and run with his man. With only a three-man pass rush, there’s no excuse for a guy being that open. The deep middle was open far too often against Duke.

Angeline (6’7” 250) is going to be key in this game, as Noah Gray was against Duke. He’s third on the team in catches and yards and first in TDs, with three. The other weapons in the passing game include Emeka Emezie (6’3” 220) and Devin Carter (6’4” 216). That’s a big set of receivers who can cause matchup problems all over the place. Virginia does have a big secondary, and held up well against Clemson’s bigger receivers. They struggled to stay with Etienne and Amari Rodgers, smaller guys with tremendous speed. A lot of teams struggle to keep with those guys.

As part of a strong running game, you’d expect NC State to have a strong OL. But while all five starters on the Pack OL have starting experience before this year, it’s a total of just 37 starts. For comparison, Dillon Reinkensmeyer has more than that by himself. It’s not a bad unit, but also not really a strength.

Virginia’s game plan will likely be similar to that of Pitt and Virginia Tech. Stop the run. Force Leary to win the game with his arm. He proved he was capable of doing it against Pitt, and Pitt has a solid defense.

This was pass interference against Pitt and was an easy call. Pitt was called for three PIs during this game. The two teams combined for 24 penalties and 205 yards. But early downfield shots like this really helped to open up the underneath routes later on.

This looks like man coverage on the outside. Pitt’s defender knows he can’t get beaten deep, so he’s giving cushion. That makes this come back route an easy completion. Leary did this over and over again, including on the game winning drive.

This is fourth down, and WR Thayer Thomas is far too open. Good route and good throw from Leary.

Virginia tends to give some cushion on the line, especially when they come after the QB. But they also have better pass rushers than Pitt, so hopefully they’re able to get some pressure on Leary. A couple of sacks and maybe Leary starts getting jumpy and makes some poor decisions. Those short sideline throws are dangerous because if the DB reads it, it’s a pick-six.

That’s Hockman, not Leary. But the point is, Virginia DBs should be looking for those throws.

The game plan for the Wahoos isn’t different from the first two games. Shut down the ground game first, and make the QB beat you. That’s a dangerous game against Trevor Lawrence, but it worked against his former backup (Duke QB Chase Brice). Whether Leary can do to Virginia what he did last week will probably determine this game.

Virginia on Offense

In that 2018 contest between these teams, Virginia had 351 total yards. That’s not too bad. But 226 of that came in the second half after the Pack led 27-7. It was garbage time yards and helped make the score look respectable.

That Pack defense was better than this one. This defense just gave up over 500 yards of offense to Pitt. They’re giving up an average of 461 yards and 38 points per game. Last year, that would’ve ranked 115th and 126th respectively.

It’s an incredibly young defense. There’s only one senior, and that’s graduate transfer Daniel Joseph from Penn State. The rest of the starting unit is three juniors, five sophomores and two freshmen.

This was the second play of the game last week against Pitt. Blown coverages happen occasionally, but this one is egregious. The Pack defense is a base 3-3-5, but they’ve got seven in the box on this play, against Pitt’s spread offense with five wide. That’s strange. We don’t know what the play call was, but this looks like maybe a read from the QB and WR. There’s no safety on the right side of the field, nobody to run with Jordan Addison. If the CB runs with Addison, the outside WR is wide open. Very strange defensive call.

Surely, the Pack have seen this and will correct it. But Virginia should work to cause confusion in the secondary by spreading out the field, using different formations and using pre-snap motion. This was not the only example of blown coverages from the Wolfpack.

One of the reasons Kenny Pickett threw for over 400 yards was that NC State had almost no pass rush all game.

Pickett has a good five seconds to throw, even though State rushes five. As a team, The Pack have nine sacks on the season, good for 20th in the nation. But six of those came in the opener against a bad Wake Forest team. They got one last week.

That’s a coverage sack. Pickett still has five seconds to throw. It’s a good read by sophomore SLB Drake Thomas. Thomas leads the team in tackles, sacks (tied) and is second in TFLs. (WR Thayer Thomas is Drake’s brother.)

Through two games, Brennan Armstrong is completing just 54% of his passes. But outside of two poor first quarters, he’s at 61%.

How can the same guy who makes this pass.

Also make this pass?

That first pass is terrible. Lavel Davis is open and the pass is too low and behind Davis. The second pass is tremendous. That’s a 30 yard frozen rope, right on Kemp’s numbers. Kemp couldn’t have dropped that if he tried. We need more of that.

Is it pre-game jitters? Is it lack of confidence in his reads? It’s going to have to change, because the Hoos can’t keep falling behind 10-0 every week.

Virginia has shown more success running the football this year than in the past few years. They’re rushing for 167 yards per game (would’ve ranked 59th last season), which isn’t bad considering they fell behind early in both games. Also, considering half their games have been against Clemson.

NC State’s run defense starts with the big man in the middle of the DL, Alim McNeill. At 6’2” 320, he’s a tough guy to push around. But overall, this is not a particularly good run defense. Not surprising for a team that runs nickel almost all the time. They are giving up 185 yards on the ground per game, which would’ve ranked 90th last year. They ranked 50th last year, but that was a different unit with veteran DEs.

This play starts out left, but immediately comes back to the right. The NC State defenders are all going the wrong direction, which leaves the RB a lot of room to roll. Here’s another example.

This is essentially the same play, but to the other side. Same thing, the DL and LBs are all heading in one direction, and the RBs goes the other way. Look how big that hole is.

Virginia Tech showed a lot of zone-read looks. Virginia will show similar looks, including some read-option for Armstrong. This seems like a way to attack this overzealous defense. Virginia Tech also had a lot of success with straight QB keepers.

We’ve seen similar plays from Armstrong and this figures to be a big part of the Virginia offense this week. Also, both Wake Forest and Pitt had some success near the goalline with wildcat formations. Might we see Keytaon Thompson (or Ira Armstead) in a similar role?

Other than the blown coverages, NC State also struggled to cover the short zones. Again, this is not surprising for a 3-3-5 defense. There aren’t enough players to stop the run in the middle and also cover the short zones.

NC State brings pressure, but does not get near the QB. That means it’s single coverage on the outside and it’s a pretty easy catch and throw.

Virginia piled up 450 yards on Duke and 417 on Clemson. Both of those defenses are better than NC State’s. And Virginia’s offense should be getting better as Armstrong gets more comfortable. If Armstrong continues to make the same mistakes he’s made in the first two games, NC State has a shot. If he plays a complete game and makes the plays that are there for him, this could be a big game for the Virginia offense.

Conclusion

As with the Duke game, Virginia is more talented at most positions on the field. That may not include QB or RB, but is especially true on the defensive side. Virginia’s starting 11 are both more talented and more experienced than NC State’s group.

But the QB/RB edge has to go to NC State right now. Leary was outstanding last week and, although we’ve seen vast improvement from Wayne Taulapapa, the Pack duo (trio?) is more dangerous. A couple of big plays can easily swing a game, and NC State made a lot of big plays last week.

Virginia has started slow in both games this year, falling behind 10-0 in both games. They do not want to make that a habit, because continually playing from behind puts Brennan Armstrong into tough positions. Virginia needs to work on making things easier for their young QB.

Prediction: Virginia 38, NC State 24 (season record: 2-0)