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THE BIG PREVIEW: Virginia vs Florida State

NCAA Football: Abilene Christian at Virginia Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

After losing four in a row, the Virginia Cavaliers football team has won three in a row to get back to .500 on the season at 4-4. Not exactly how we drew it up, but not that far off what we expected coming into the season.

Virginia has three games remaining, and even though this one is on the road, it’s possibly the easiest of the three. The Florida State Seminoles are just 2-6 on the season, with wins coming over Jacksonville State, in which they had to come back from a two touchdown deficit, and over UNC, in which they very nearly blew a 24-point lead in the second half.

They’ve also been completely blown off the field by Miami, Louisville and Pitt. Yes, the same Louisville team that just lost handily to Virginia. (OK not the same team, because Louisville was short several players last week.) Anyway, FSU is bad. This team won a national championship seven years ago, how did they fall so far, so fast?

When: Saturday, November 28th, 8PM

Where: Doak Campbell Stadium, Tallahassee

TV: ACC Network

Virginia on Defense

Let’s start with the bad news. As you may have heard, the heart and soul of the Wahoo defense, Charles Snowden, is out for the rest of the season with a broken ankle. It’s the same injury that Bryce Hall suffered last year. What did we do to deserve this two years in a row?

Luckily, LB (and specifically OLB) is the one position that Virginia actually has playable depth right now. The DL is tissue-paper-thin and the secondary is already in shambles due to injuries. Matt Gahm will step into Snowden’s rather large shoes (he is, after all, 6’7”).

FSU opened the season with James Blackman at QB. Although Blackman has all the skills you’d ask of a QB, and has some decent numbers, he just wasn’t consistent enough and never seemed in control. By the third game of the season, Blackman had been benched in favor of Jordan Travis. Travis’ passing numbers are not great, and likely never will be. He’s got more INTs than TDs. His completion percentage is barely over 50. But, man can he run.

Considering what Malik Cunningham did to Virginia a couple of weeks ago, seeing this is terrifying. Travis is able to make the first man miss with a little juke move. Then he’s off and he outruns the DBs. When a QB is that fast, it’s imperative to keep him from getting outside into the secondary. And sometimes that means keeping extra defenders in the box, which means single coverage on the outside, which makes things easier for Travis in the passing game.

Travis leads the Noles in rushing, despite not playing much in the first two games and hitting the bench in a couple of other games. A part of why he’s leading the team is that the Noles’ backfield is a time-share, with La’Damian Webb and Jashaun Corbin splitting time. Webb leads the duo with 69 carries and 369 yards (5.3 ypc), but Corbin is right behind him with 65 carries for 329 yards (5.1 ypc) in one fewer game. Obviously, those are both outstanding yards per carry figures. Combined with Travis’ 5.5 ypc, this is a very dangerous rushing attack.

That is, seemingly, in spite of an OL that doesn’t look particularly impressive, at least on paper. They unit isn’t very experienced (three freshmen and a sophomore in the starting up) and not very big (average of just over 300 lb). They’ve gotten the job done in the ground game, but they have struggled badly in the passing game. The Noles are 112th nationally in sacks allowed (per game), which actually means the ground game is even better than it seems, since sack yards are part of rush yards.

Pitt brings pressure and it seems maybe Travis throws this ball before he wants. Perhaps as a result of that, the throw is nowhere near the intended target.

It is paramount that Virginia slow down that rushing game. Yes, that could leave the secondary in dangerous positions against the pass. But the truth is, the FSU passing game is simply not nearly as dangerous. As a group, the four QBs who’ve seen time have thrown 12 INTs against just eight TDs. Eight TDs in eight games is poor, and more INTs than TDs is very bad.

Virginia on Offense

The Hoos put up 49 points of offense last time out (and 6 points from the defense), but they had just 402 total yards. That’s actually fewer than their season average. It’s also far below what FSU allows per game. However, the Hoos scored on a number of big plays, which is something Virginia had been lacking this season at times.

It hasn’t really been big plays that have hurt the Seminoles defense, not particularly anyway. But getting off the field has been a big issue. The ‘Noles are 111th nationally in third down defense, and they haven’t made up for that with turnovers (just 10 forced TOs in eight games).

The Noles run a 4-3/3-4 hybrid defense with a FOX DE/LB in Janarius Robinson. The former 4-star recruit leads the team in sacks, but with just three. Nobody else has more than one. They simply haven’t been able to generate big plays defensively. They rank 93rd in rush defense and 100th in pass yards (103rd in pass efficiency defense). There really isn’t anything they do well.

The star of this unit is CB Asante Samuel, Jr. NFL fans will remember his father as a long-time NFL CB who won a couple of super bowls with the Patriots. The elder Samuel played at UCF, but the son was the #14 player in the nation (according to ESPN) and was recruited by the nation’s college football powerhouses. He has three INTs, six pass breakups plus two fumble recoveries. Samuel will often matchup with the oppositions top WR. But at 5’10” 184, he really doesn’t match up with Lavel Davis, Virginia’s most dangerous WR.

Because he’s 6’7”, we think of Davis as a big guy on jump balls and back shoulder throws. But he’s also got great speed and he’s developing as a route runner. Credit to Brennan Armstrong here because he can’t step into this throw, gets hit right as he releases the ball, and yet hits Davis 40 in stride 40 yards downfield. We all loved Bryce Perkins and he did amazing things for the Hoos, but this was not a throw he could make. In fact, I can’t remember a Virginia QB who could’ve made this throw.

Coming into the ACU game, the Wahoo offense had been much stronger on the ground than in the air. But they struggled to get things going on the ground against the Wildcats, and averaged just 3.5 yards per carry. That may seem disappointing, but it’s also the reason Armstrong was able to throw for 383 yards on just 23 pass attempts (16.6 ypa, which would lead the nation by a comfortable margin). ACU knew the Hoos could run the ball, so they focused on stopping the run. So focused that they played single coverage against the receivers.

The most success Virginia had against the run was with Armstrong, usually on pass plays. Once ACU dropped back in coverage, there was room to run. We’ve seen this before from Virginia. Notice how the interior OL moves upfield before Armstrong even takes off. If they do that, and then he throws, it’s a penalty for illegal man downfield. But they know that the play-call is one read and then go for Armstrong. So when the pass doesn’t come, he’s going. Those blocks ahead help open up all that running space.

That single coverage was especially trouble against TE Tony Poljan. He’s so big that whether it was a S or a LB in coverage, he had a huge advantage. This looks like a zone, and Poljan does a great job of getting into an open spot. That’s an easy throw and catch for the first down.

FSU has similar problems with the short zones. This isn’t a TE, but it’s the inside receiver. FSU brings pressure, playing man coverage on the outside. The inside zone isn’t really covered, which makes for an easy throw. That’s FSU reserve safety Raymond Woodie who misses the tackle. If he makes the tackle, it’s a third down stop. But because of the blitz, there’s nobody behind him. He misses the tackle and it’s a TD. Poljan doesn’t have the moves of Jordan Addison (the Pitt WR), but he’s got a lot of size on FSU’s DBs and could have a big game.

It isn’t just the DBs that are small, the LBs average just 228 lbs. That is a big part of why they’ve struggled against the run.

Yes, UNC RB Javonte Williams is a strong runner, but that is not something we are used to seeing from an FSU defense.

Look at how open UNC’s WR is. Again, FSU brings pressure and they’re so concerned with giving up the big play that the quick out is wide open. Yes, FSU has a big lead at this point. But there is a lot of football left to be played and this was why FSU very nearly blew that big lead.

If Virginia plays as they have the past few games, avoiding turnovers and negative plays, they should be successful moving the ball. Turning those yards into TDs, as they did against ACU, will be important.

Conclusion

FSU has talent. Maybe not the level of talent they had a decade ago (and earlier than that), but they still get that Florida talent. But they haven’t been able to put it together since Jimbo Fisher left.

They’ve had real problems defensively over the past few years. This year, they rank 108th in total defense. Last year, 90th. Year before that, 80th. See the pattern? It’s a precipitous fall from where they were even just five years ago (19th in the nation in 2015).

Stopping FSU, and especially Jordan Travis will be the key. FSU’s offense can go off if Virginia doesn’t do a better job of stopping Travis than they did at stopping Malik Cunningham, he could have a huge game. If Virginia’s offense struggles, that could be enough for FSU to pull out a win. Cunningham had almost 200 yards and 2 TDs and it wasn’t enough. Hopefully, Travis isn’t enough either.

Prediction: Wahoos 34, Seminoles 24 (season record: 5-3)