After its first loss of the season in its first road game of the season, Virginia returns home to face a 3-0 Wake Forest team that has won four in a row over the Hoos, a winning streak that has lasted 12 years and traversed three Virginia coaches. It also followed a stretch where Virginia won 21 out of 22 dating back to the early George Welsh years.
The Deacons are 3-0, but they’ve played all three games at home and their three opponents have a combined record of 2-7 with zero wins over FBS schools. Not exactly the cream of the crop of college football. That said, all three wins were blowouts and you gotta beat the teams on your schedule. Wake is coming off a 35-14 win over FSU that was not as close as even the 21 point win indicates.
Can Virginia get back to winning football? Can they slow down a solid and veteran offense?
When: Friday, September 24th, 7PM
Where: Scott Stadium
Virginia on Defense
The Tar Heels did as they pleased last week against Virginia’s “defense,” piling up nearly 700 yards. Disappointing, but remember that UNC had the fifth best offense in the nation last season. Sure, they struggled against Virginia Tech, but that was a road game and the opener with a lot of new parts on the offense.
Wake Forest’s offense is good. They ranked 28th last season, and rank 64th through three games this season. That’s good, but it isn’t as good as UNC. And the Virginia defense has played much better at home over the past few years than on the road.
Does that mean they can shut down the Deacons? No. UNC’s Ty Chandler rushed for almost 200 yards, and QB Sam Howell rushed for over 100 himself. Virginia struggled to contain Wake’s RBs last season, giving up over 200 yards rushing. Most of that came from Kenneth Walker III, who is now at Michigan State. Christian Beal-Smith is a similar back, but wasn’t nearly as effective in last year’s game, with 14 carries for 59 yards. Like Walker, Beal-Smith has serious speed and is a threat to go the distance on any play.
As I said, serious speed. He breaks the play outside, turns the corner and isn’t going to be caught. Different back from Ty Chandler, but a big play waiting to happen.
Wake Forest QB Sam Hartman is also capable of picking up yards with his legs when needed.
This looks to be a designed QB draw, and you don’t see Hartman on designed runs very often, which is probably why it’s effective. Hartman usually takes off when a play breaks down. He’s totaled 389 yards rushing over his career (includes sacks).
In the passing game, the Deacons are led by 6’5” A.T. Perry. Virginia fans saw last year with Lavel Davis what a big WR can provide down field. Perry isn’t quite as big as Davis, but he’s still a lot bigger than most DBs.
It’s tough to jam a guy who’s 6’5” with long arms. The FSU defender doesn’t even really try, so Perry gets a clear release and then just beats the defender. Looks like there’s supposed to be safety help, but it’s far behind the play. Virginia had similar problems last week, with safety help lacking. However, starting FS Nick Grant was not with the team, which left young and inexperienced players in the secondary.
There were many issues last week. Tackling was one.
Joey Blount is in perfect position to make the tackle shy of the first down marker. But he puts his head down, allowing Chandler to get past him and into the endzone. Blount is too good to be making that mistake. Blount had a bad game. It happens. Bet on him picking his play up this week.
And here is Nick Jackson being victimized. Jackson may be the surest tackler on the team, so this is out of character. Again, he should be better this week.
But schemes were also problematic.
This is early in the game, before UNC was running over and through the Virginia defense. And Anthony Johnson is in man coverage on Khafre Brown with no safety help? Why is Antonio Clary so close to the LOS? How does this defense make any sense? By the way, Khafre Brown scored on an almost identical play last year.
In this case, there was safety help but Clary takes a poor angle. UNC runs these slant routes over the middle a lot, so it shouldn’t have been a surprise to see it. So why weren’t they prepared for it?
Virginia’s aggressive defense is intent on getting into the backfield and pressuring the QB. Virginia Tech shut down this same UNC offense by getting pressure on Howell, often with just a three or four man pass rush. Here is the one sack Virginia had against Howell.
This is a coverage sack with a 4 man rush. Howell has a full four seconds (maybe more) before he feels pressure. This was a big play that led to a long UNC FG, which was missed.
And here’s another play from the same drive, with the same personnel. It’s a five man pass rush, and Howell has maybe two seconds before he’s pressured. But he turns it into a 20 yard gain. This is a 3-3-5 look. Two LBs are pass rushing, with Nick Jackson seemingly in man coverage on the RB. The five DBs are all in pass coverage and giving huge cushions to the receivers. There’s just nobody in the middle of the field. Antonio Clary is closest, but he’s too far outside.
Virginia on Offense
As bad as Virginia’s defense was last week, the offense was nearly that good. Putting up almost 600 yards of offense against anybody is good. Doing it on the road against a top-25 team is quite impressive.
Wake Forest currently ranks 42nd in total defense. But, as noted above, they haven’t exactly played a murderer’s row so far. Last year’s team ranked 90th, and they lost their top two tacklers from that unit.
Wake runs a 4-3 defense, which will actually be Virginia’s first view of a four man front this season. Wake likely spends most of this game in a 4-2-5. The Hoos should get used to seeing a lot of nickel and even dime packages against them as teams try to shut down Armstrong and the passing game. That’s a good thing, as most teams do not have five or six starting caliber DBs. Getting Billy Kemp matched up against a third string CB is generally a win for Virginia.
Virginia’s offense currently ranks fourth nationally, but they rank just 109th in rushing and second in passing.. Through three games, Virginia has 129 pass attempts against 87 rush attempts. And remember, that includes sacks and scrambles. Some of that is due to playing catchup last week and some of it is due to trying out things in the first two games. But, it’s clear that Virginia’s offense is best with the ball in Brennan Armstrong’s left hand.
With Wayne Taulapapa likely out after suffering a concussion last week, the running game probably continues to take a back seat to the passing game in this contest. However, we saw Virginia use the RBs in the passing game more against UNC. Mike Hollins had three grabs, Ronnie Walker had one, and we saw this beauty to Billy Kemp out of the backfield.
Passes to RBs worked pretty well for FSU last week, with 6 out of 16 completions going to the backs, including this TD.
This is an inside screen and a very nice play design. Only one OL is really involved in the screen, but the one block is all the RB needs to get going upfield. We have not seen Virginia run screens this year. They also haven’t had issues against the pass rush yet. Armstrong was sacked three times last week, but they were behind almost the entire game. Armstrong was not sacked against Illinois.
Along with their top two tacklers, the Deacons also lost their top pass rushers from last season. But Miles Fox was the team leader with 10 TFLs and he’s back this year. He’s the clear guy to be wary of along the DL.
Wake runs a little stunt, misdirection with DE Jacory Johns cutting inside. This confuses FSU’s OL a bit, but Fox is just able to bowl right through the OT and into the QB.
Wake Forest ranks 14th in the nation, giving up just 13 points per game. They’re also second in the nation in forced turnovers, having forced six against the Seminoles last week. Turnovers are really the only way Wake can hope to slow down this offense. If Virginia takes care of the football, they’re going to put up a lot of points.
Obviously, Virginia didn’t look great defensively last week. And maybe that’s a sign of things to come defensively all season. But UNC is a very good offensive team with a very good QB. And the Virginia offense was nearly up the task of hanging with the Heels.
Wake has had a similar start to their season that Virginia had. Wake has won three straight blowouts, putting up at least 35 points per game, and they’ve shut down some mediocre offenses. Now, like Virginia last week, Wake has to go on the road to face a good team. It’s a different ballgame. Virginia’s defense doesn’t need to improve much if the offense keeps rolling. Just a couple of stops per game will be enough.
Prediction: Hoos 42, Deacons 31 (season record 3-0)