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The Big Preview: William & Mary

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Abilene Christian v Virginia Photo by Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images

Virginia Football kicks off their 2021 campaign by hosting Mike London and the William and Mary Tribe to Scott Stadium. These two teams play regularly, and Virginia is currently riding a four-game winning streak in the series and has won 10 of the last 11 matchups.

The Tribe did not play a full season last year due to CoVID. They ended up playing three games in the spring, losing to Richmond and JMU while beating Elon. The 2019 team finished 5-7 including a 52-17 loss to Virginia at Scott Stadium.

Virginia, of course, opens the 2021 season coming off a 5-5 record in the CoVID-impacted 2020 season. With most of that team back and a number of intriguing newcomers, expectations are rather high for the Hoos despite a very difficult schedule. Any struggles to put away the Tribe will dampen those expectations for fans and could help keep fans away from Scott Stadium.

On the other hand, a dominant showing like the 52-17 win two years ago would likely start to get the bandwagon populated and may help to fill Scott Stadium for future games.

Virginia on Defense

In 2019, then-freshman Hollis Mathis saw some action against the Hoos. He did not impress. He threw 5 passes, and the only one that didn’t hit the dirt was a pick six to Nick Grant. (below). Mathis also rushed for 10 yards on 15 carries. That is 0.67 yards per carry and that is not good.

For that entire freshman season, Mathis completed 44% of his passes, averaged 6.3 ypa and threw four TDs against three INTs. His passing efficiency was 102.7, which would’ve ranked 102nd in FCS if he’d thrown enough passes to be eligible. That’s not good, even for a true freshman.

Mathis played in just two games last year, but completed over 60% of his passes, averaging 7.4 ypa, with two TDs and zero INTs. That’s a passing efficiency of 136.2, which would’ve ranked 27th in FCS last season. That’s quite an improvement. He also increased his rushing average from 3.9 ypc to 4.6 ypc.

As you can see, Mathis is a real threat as a runner, so if his improvements as a passer are legit, he becomes a very dangerous QB.

Michael Imoh led the Tribe in rushing during the three-game season this spring. He rushed for 149 yards on the season, but 137 of them against Elon. He had just 6 carries the previous week and missed the “season finale” against JMU with a lower-body injury and may still be injured. He is not on the depth chart.

Atop that depth chart is Donavyn Lester, who 6 carries for 28 yards against Richmond in last year’s opener. He missed the rest of the “season”. He rushed for 271 yards and 4 TDs in 2019 in a reserve role. At 6’2” 210, Lester is a bigger back which may give him an advantage against a bigger FBS defense. But we will almost definitely see Bronson Yoder (5’11” 195) get carries as well.

This is from 2019, when Yoder was listed on the roster at Safety. You may notice that he is, most definitely, not playing Safety here. He is lined up at QB. Yoder was also top returners in FCS, with two KR TDs in 2019. He’s listed at RB now.

The play above uses misdirection with the fake jet sweep. They are going to use a lot of misdirection in this game. The Tribe OL is a big and experienced unit. But they know they can’t really dominate at the line of scrimmage against Virginia’s veteran front seven. As you can see above, it only needs to work once to potentially change a game.

Even with Mathis’ improvements last season, Virginia is going to load up against the run until Mathis proves he can beat them through the air. He has some decent targets, including last year’s leading receiver Cole Blackman, a former Wahoo from 2016-2018 (he also played at Illinois State).

Kane Everson was the leading receiver in 2019 and he returns as well after missing last season. Everson is 5’11” 150, while Blackman is 6’4” 205. Zach Burdick (6’1” 200) is listed, with Blackman, as the starters. But Everson will line up in the slot and his quickness could be a tough matchup for Virginia’s bigger DBs.

This is last year with Imoh at RB, but it comes off the zone-read-option. We’re going to see a lot of that this week, and likely all season. So this will be a good test for Virginia’s defense. If they struggle to keep Mathis in check, how are they going to fair against D’Eriq King and Malik Cunningham?

Virginia on Offense

“I think we’ll be dynamic. I think we’ll score a lot of points.”

That’s a quote from Virginia head coach Bronco Mendenhall. Having Brennan Armstrong back at QB is certainly going to help. Obviously, QB is the most important player on the offense and Armstrong was just getting his feet wet last season. And doing it without spring practice or much of a fall camp. The difference between Armstrong at the beginning of the season and the end of the season was stark.

This takes patience and trust in your OL. Not to mention a strong arm to get the ball between the defenders.

This is what happens when you aren’t patient and don’t trust your OL. This is a panic throw from Armstrong in the season opener.

Over his first four games, Armstrong averaged 6.1 ypa passing and rushed for 4.1 ypc. (One of those games was the NC State game in which he was injured). Over the final five games, Armstrong averaged 9.5 ypa and 4.5 ypc. Yes, the first set includes the game against Clemson. But the second set includes the game against Virginia Tech, when Armstrong (and the rest of the team) simply did not show up.

There aren’t too many guys who can make both of these plays. The first is my favorite play from last season. Armstrong isn’t able to step into the throw and still throws it almost 50 yards and hits Lavell Davis in stride. The second play is a little misdirection QB keeper and Armstrong just outruns the defense for 60 yards.

So there is reason for optimism, especially with the passing game. Armstrong’s 7.9 ypa on the season was the second best from a Virginia QB since Marques Hagans in 2004. His QB efficiency of 138.9 was the second highest for a Virginia QB since Matt Schaub, trailing only Bryce Perkins in 2018.

Though Virginia’s WR corps has been beset by injuries already to Lavell Davis and Nathaniel Beal, there are still some very good weapons for Armstrong. And the running game should be much improved with a full quota of healthy RBs including Mike Hollins, who torched the Tribe in his first action as a Wahoo in 2019.

This was Hollins’ first career touch and first career touchdown. He may be listed as the backup to Wayne Taulapapa, but he will almost certainly get touches in this game. Taulapapa is a good all-around back, but Hollins is a better runner with more speed and more quickness.

The man to watch in the passing game this year may be transfer TE Jelani Woods. The transfer from Oklahoma State started his career there as a QB. Virginia has had success in the past with QBs-turned-TE. Woods moved to TE, but the Cowboys just do not throw to the TE very much.

That is a 6’7” 260 lb man. He should not be able to do that. That is a dump off. Woods is a pass blocker on this play until breaking free for a dump off pass. He turns it into a 40 yard gain. The Tribe defense has been susceptible to passes to TEs running over the middle.

This was last year against JMU. The play action freezes the LBs enough for the TE to be wide open in the endzone for an easy TD. Looks for Virginia to show similar play action looks.

This is a standard W&M defensive alignment. It’s first down, so the base defense is in the game. It’s tough to tell, but there’s three down linemen, four LBs, and a single-high safety.

Some Virginia fans may recall that the Hoos ran a 4-3 defense under Mike London. This, after Al Groh’s 3-4, and now Bronco’s 3-4. Well, now London is running a 3-4 as well.

Here’s the play:

It’s a three WR set for JMU and it looks to be man coverage on the outside with the single high safety (it’s called Cover-1). Good QBs will have a field day throwing to open receivers over the middle against this defense. Once the WR gets inside of the OLB dropping back into coverage, it’s an easy pass and the WR has room to run.

This defense is called to stop the running game on first down. JMU takes advantage for a big play. But you have to be able to run the ball for this play to work. That should be something Virginia’s veteran OL can make happen. Virginia’s OL averages 315 pounds. William and Mary’s DL averaged 275. Again, if Virginia isn’t able to push around this small, FCS defense, how are they going to fair against Notre Dame or Pittsburgh.

Conclusion

Coach Mendenhall’s first season included a loss to FCS Richmond and a loss to UCONN from the AAC. Since then, Virginia is 10-0 in the regular season (let’s pretend the Navy game didn’t happen) against so-called “lower” schools (meaning FCS or non-Power-5). The average score of those games is 43-20. Taking care of business against the teams you’re “supposed to” beat is an important part of being a consistently strong program..

There’s too much talent, experience and depth on this team for them to lose, at home, to William and Mary.

Prediction: Virginia 49, William and Mary 10