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THE BIG PREVIEW: Wahoos Look to Extend Winning Streak Against FCS Abilene Christian

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Louisville v Virginia Photo by Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images

What we saw last week from the Hoos was the blueprint we had for the Virginia Cavaliers this season. A defense creating havoc and enough offense from Brennan Armstrong and a strong OL to win low-scoring affairs. The offense scored just 24, which would rank in the bottom quarter of the nation in points per game, but the defense was good enough to win.

That may be something they can do again this week. Abilene Christian, one of just 16 FCS schools playing football this season, sits at 1-4 and averages just 21 points per game. The Wildcats’ last game was cancelled due to CoVID concerns from their opponent (Arizona Christian, an NAIA school), and their previous game was a home loss to Division-II Angelo State.

Virginia on Defense

Over the past two games—both wins—the Hoos have totaled nine sacks and five turnovers, exactly in line with what we expected to see from this defense this year. Yes, they’ve also given up over 1000 yards in the two games, but they’ve held the two teams to an average of 29 points. And, of course, they’ve won both games. The turnovers and sacks have been a big part of the wins.

If you listen to most offensive coaches, they’ll preach balanced offensive attacks. Abilene Christian is certainly practicing that, with exactly 158 rush attempts and pass attempts on the season. While that is merely a coincidence, they have been pretty close to even in almost every game. The only outlier was Army, with 39 passes and just 23 rush attempts. Army went ahead quickly and had a 3 possession lead with more than 10 minutes remaining in the first half.

The Wildcats are led by QB Peyton Mansell, who began his college career at Iowa. He saw limited action as a redshirt freshman and then transferred.

This highlights what Mansell brings to the table. He’s not going to panic when under pressure and although he’s not going to run the ball much, he’s also not going to panic when he gets under pressure. He’s comfortable getting outside the pocket, but he’s looking to throw and not to run. This is unlike what Virginia saw last week.

Virginia struggled badly last week containing Malik Cunningham, especially with the zone-read.

A lot of things went wrong on this play. First, Charles Snowden cannot let Cunningham get past him to the outside. He needs to trust his teammates to make the tackle on the RB inside. And it certainly looks like Virginia has it defended well in the middle. But the DBs also bite on the play-fake inside and nobody stays outside. Then the downfield pursuit and tackling is poor. This was not the only incidence of this.

Although ACU will show some zone-read, there’s little threat from Mansell to take off running. However, Virginia will need to do better the following week against Jordan Travis and FSU, who will run a TON of zone-read. And Travis may be even more dangerous with the football than Cunningham.

When running the ball, ACU has a pair of RBs who they count on. The starter and leader in carries is junior Tyrese White. But while he averages just 3.3 yards per carry, freshman Jermiah Dobbins is averaging almost six yards per carry and has seen his carries increasing as the season progresses.

This isn’t a great view, but the run starts out to the right. Dobbins gets lost a bit in between all the big bodies inside, and then bounces out to the left and breaks a tackle on the way to the endzone. He’s small, which allows him to find holes that a bigger back may not find. But he runs bigger than he is, and his low center of gravity mean he’s tough to bring down.

The WRs are led by 5’10” junior Kobe Clark, with 19 catches for 281 yards. He did not play against Angelo State (and also missed the UTEP game), but he is listed on the depth chart for this one. In his absence the leading receiver is Lionel McConnell, who averages fewer than 10 yards per catch.

Again, not a great view of the play, but Clark runs a nice little post route, and gets inside the DB. Mansell puts the ball right on the numbers, on time and it’s a big play. With Virginia’s struggles in the secondary, this is how Abilene can hurt the Hoos. If they bring pressure, which they will, there’s going to opportunities for Clark to get open against Virginia’s CBs.

The other big play weapon ACU has in the passing game is TE Branden Hohenstein, who presents matchup problems at 6’5” 233 lbs with good speed.

The OL for the Wildcats is solid, if on the small side. They have been able to generate some push against their opponents this year, but those opponents don’t have the size and depth of the Wahoos. Of course, that depth is about to be tested in a big way with the departure of Jowon Briggs. We will see Jahmeer Carter in the middle, but we may also see a lot of 2- and even 1-man fronts. With the depth at LB, we could see something like a 2-5-4 or even a 1-6-4. That gets more speed on the field, but gives up size and strength at the line of scrimmage.

ACU’s offense isn’t too bad. Mansell can make plays and they have some depth at WR and RB. However, the offenses that Virginia has faced this year (Clemson, UNC, etc) are among the best in the nation, and ACU falls far short of that. ACU may pick up some yards, but scoring points might be tough against this aggressive defense that is playing their best football of the season.

Virginia on Offense

The Virginia offense has been improving week by week. Much of that is the growth of Brennan Armstrong, but the game plans also seem to be maturing. We’re seeing a lot more power runs, which have been successful.

Look at how big that hole is in the middle. Louisville’s defense isn’t big, but they’re bigger than ACU’s. Virginia’s OL took a hit this week with the loss of Dillon Reinkensmeyer. But this unit still averages almost 310 pounds. And ACU’s DL averages just 250 pounds. Getting some push at the LOS should not be a problem this week.

One reason Virginia’s running game has been so strong is that the RBs are hitting the hole and not slowing down. There isn’t a lot of dancing around in the backfield. They trust their blockers and they hit the hole hard and keep going.

Expect to see more of Ronnie Walker this week, in an effort to get him more acclimated to the Virginia offense and back up to game speed. And at 5’11” 210, Walker is roughly the same size as ACU’s LBs, so they will have trouble bringing him down once he gets a head of steam. He has the same north-south running style that Taulapapa has, but he’s also a bit quicker and more able to make guys miss. Given the opportunity, Walker could have a huge game this week.

This ACU defense is tiny. As mentioned, the DL averages 250 lbs. The LBs average 215 lbs and the DBs average just 180. Virginia’s offense will have a very big advantage, especially in the running game. There may not be a need to throw the ball at all, but undoubtedly there will be chances for Armstrong to make plays with his arm.

ACU’s defense has just seven sacks in five games. They are forced, at times, to blitz to generate pressure. That has repercussions, with WRs open down field.

The Wildcats bring a CB blitz, but he simply has too far to go to get to the QB. The coverage rolls to that side, but the WR runs a deep route and the coverage can’t get there. Big play. This type of play should be open for the Hoos if they want it.

Here’s a similar play from the Hoos last week. This isn’t a CB blitz, but it’s still Louisville bringing six pass rushers. When you do that, you often get beat deep. Terrell Jana is beneficiary, but this is a great read from Armstrong, especially with the defensive penalty providing a free play. If you look closely, you can see that Tavares Kelly is wide open on the left side of the formation. Could’ve been a big play to him as well.

With 6’7” Lavel Davis back in the fold, Virginia’s passing game became more explosive again. Davis single-handedly changes the Virginia passing game. He can be used on jump balls and back-shoulder throws because DBs simply can’t reach what he can reach. But he’s also becoming a more complete WR.

This is a great example of the growth of both Davis and Armstrong. Armstrong has a tendency to get happy feet in the pocket and just take off running. This is common of young QBs, especially athletic ones. Armstrong always feels like he can make a play with his legs, so he will take off. By keeping his eyes up field, he sees Davis wide open in the endzone. And Davis reads his defender go to Armstrong, so he moves to open space and makes himself big for Armstrong to see. Easy throw and catch for the TD.

ACU’s defense is not good. They allow almost 250 yards per game on the ground, and although they allow just 155 yards per game through the air, that’s largely because they’ve been behind in every game. Angelo State rushed for over 400 yards, but attempted just 15 passes and had just 53 yards through the air. Army was similar, with just seven pass attempts and 52 yards passing to go along with over 400 yards rushing. There’s just no reason to throw the ball much against this defense, because they can’t stop the run.

Conclusion

Virginia fans know all too well that strange things can happen against less talented teams. Can Abilene Christian come in and make the game competitive if Virginia isn’t ready and prepared? Of course. Is that likely to happen? No.

Simply put, the Wildcats are overmatched. They have talent, especially on offense, but overall they lack depth and they are small. We already mentioned the matchup between the ACU DL and the UVA OL. But there’s size matchups all over the place. Sure, Lavel Davis is a mismatch against everybody, but especially so when the CBs are 5’10” 170. They simply can’t get up with him, and even just tackling him is going to be a struggle.

Virginia should win this game handily. The keys will be not having anybody get hurt, and not showing too much for the final three ACC opponents to work from.

Prediction: Cavaliers 49, Wildcats 10 (season record: 4-3)