Maybe you recall the last time a new Virginia Cavaliers Football coach began his tenure. It was 2016 and Bronco Mendenhall was the new coach. Virginia lost, 37-20 to this same Richmond team. Mike London’s career also began in 2010 against Richmond, a 34-13 win.
This is closer to the 2010 situation than to the 2016 situation. The proverbial cupboard was pretty bare at the end of the Mike London era, especially on offense. This Virginia team has a veteran QB and far more talent than the 2016 team did.
The Spiders enter their sixth season under Russ Huesman, who took over for former UVA assistant Danny Rocco in 2017 after Rocco left to coach Delaware. After three straight playoff appearances under Rocco, the Spiders have not been back, compiling a 19-20 record under Huesman, including 6-5 last season. They open the season ranked 24th in FCS polls.
Virginia on Defense
The Spiders finished last year with the 84th ranked offense in FCS. They weren’t particularly good at either passing (76th) or running (60th). They averaged four yards per carry on the ground (63rd) and 6.4 yards per attempt in the air (89th). All of these numbers are poor, and were the reason the Spiders finished just 6-5.
That offense was led by QB Joe Mancuso, who averaged 7.1 ypa and 12.3 ypc. Both of those are solid numbers in the upper half of FCS QBs. But there wasn’t much behind Mancuso and the offense struggled badly when he was out.
With Mancuso’s career over, this year’s starter will be Reece Udinski, a transfer from Maryland who began his career at VMI. Udinski transferred to Maryland expecting to compete for the starting gig, but he was coming off a torn ACL and he lost the battle to Alabama transfer Taulia Tagovailoa, who broke just about every Maryland passing record last year.
Seeing the writing on the wall, Udinski opted to transfer again, this time coming to the Spiders, who had an opening at QB. In three seasons at VMI (which included the nine game 2021 spring FCS season), Udinski threw for over 7000 yards, breaking the VMI school record for passing yards. Though he put up numbers, he wasn’t the most efficient of QBs. In 2019, his best season, he was 16th in FCS in passing yards (3276), but just 69th in yards per attempt (6.8). That was despite completing a solid 64% of his passes. His average completion went for just 10.7 yards, 85th among FCS QBs.
In two career games against FBS foes (ODU in 2018 and Marshall in 2019), he was 30/62 for 267 yards with 1 TD and 2 INT (QB rating of 83, which is not good). For Richmond to be successful, Udinski will have to be better than that against Virginia’s revamped defense. Udinski has more talent around him now than he did at VMI. But, he also hasn’t played much in 2 years.
That new defense is something of a hybrid 4-2-5/3-3-5 defense, with a Bandit position floating between LB and DL. That front six has a lot of experience with multiple returning starters and several graduate transfers. The linebackers also have returning experience with Nick Jackson coming off a second-team All-ACC campaign. They will be going against a solid, experienced Richmond OL with three returning starters.
The defense is going to have to get pressure on Udinski. Although he can run a bit, he is far from mobile. He can, however, pick apart a defense if given the time.
The WR in this play is Jakob Herres, who caught 226 balls for over 3000 yards and 26 TDs over four seasons at VMI. And he is now at Richmond, back with his old QB. (Richmond Offensive Coordinator Billy Cost also comes over from VMI.) Herres is 6’4” 225 and will likely play on Sundays. He will be a very tough matchup against a young secondary with several new faces and new roles. All the more reason to focus on getting pressure in the backfield.
Richmond’s top two tailbacks, Aaron Dykes and Savon Smith, split carries last year with Dykes totaling 516 yards rushing last year, at 4.1 yards per carry and Smith totaling 489 yards at 4.8 yards per carry. Expect to see both backs. Dykes is also a very good receiver out of the backfield, with 25 catches last year including four TD catches.
This is a really nice play design, with both RBs in the backfield. The play action to the weak side leaves Dykes alone on a wheel route and it’s a big play. Richmond has also used Dykes split out wide, which causes matchup problems out there.
Virginia’s defense is not going to become dominant in one offseason. That’s why this is a very good opening game. They don’t have to be great to beat Richmond. But they can’t make mistakes and they can’t give up big plays. A turnover or two and a few stops are all they should need to knock off an FCS foe.
Virginia on Offense
That FCS foe comes to town with a pretty good defense. They ranked 26th in FCS last year in total defense, 20th in rush defense and 58th in passing defense (37th in pass efficiency defense). That unit returns six starters from last year’s team, but just two who started all 11 games last season. Both of those are LBs, Tristan Wheeler and Phil O’Connor. Wheeler led the team in tackles, and chipped in a sack, 6 TFLs, 2 INT, and 3 QB hurries. He is the best player on this defense, a three time All-CAA player.
Although Wheeler only gets credited with 0.5 TFL on this play, he totally makes the play happen. He reads the run and fills the gap, forcing the RB outside right into his teammate.
After all the talk about balanced football, it will be interesting to see how much Tony Elliott and Virginia actually commit to the running game. Richmond’s strength is against the run, although their DL is largely rebuilt from last year. But that DL should still be a strength and Wheeler excels against the run from his MLB spot.
That said, the ‘Hoos should have an advantage in the trenches. If they can’t run the ball against Richmond, how are they going to run against ACC foes later in the season? Virginia couldn’t run the ball at all last season, and yet still rushed for over 200 yards against William and Mary in the opener, with Armstrong accounting for none of that.
Armstrong did throw for 339 yards in that game, including two TDs. As you surely know, he is on his way to basically rewriting the UVA record book. He broke the single season record for completions, pass yard, total offense, and TD passes. The southpaw also broke the single game record for pass yards and total offense. He’s just 678 yards behind Matt Schaub for the career passing record at Virginia. Armstrong also sits just 190 yards behind Bryce Perkins for the UVA total offense record, so he should break that record against Richmond.
In that W&M game last year, most of those rush yards came late in the game, with the score well out of reach. In the first quarter, Virginia rushed for 20 yards on eight carries, and the quarter finished 0-0. Virginia also saw two 4th and short chances stuffed by the Tribe. And that was with a healthy, talented, veteran OL.
Virginia’s starting five OL has totaled 20 career starts, and none of those have come in the orange and blue. Starting LT McKale Boley is a true freshman. Only Dartmouth transfer John Paul Flores, at LG, has played non-garbage time, non-special teams snaps in his college career. This unit will get better as the season goes on, especially with the return from injury of Jonathan Leech, who started twice last year. But running the ball, right now, may be a struggle.
We can glean some knowledge about what type of offense Virginia will run from his time at Clemson. For example, we should see a lot of zone-read looks.
Virginia doesn’t have a RB as dynamic as Travis Etienne, but we should see the same looks. Clemson RBs were also used heavily in the passing game, something we should see with Mike Hollins being a capable receiver (16 catches last year). But we all know the strength of this offense is Armstrong and the WRs.
Committing to the run game sounds nice and all, but any play where Armstrong isn’t involved seems wasteful. The run game will be used to set up the pass. Hopefully, that is successful. And hopefully the ‘Hoos are able to build a big lead and keep Armstrong healthy. Because if Armstrong misses time, Virginia is going to be in trouble.
Although Richmond won the previous Virginia head coaching debut, this game will not be a replica of that. That was a bad Virginia team with a brand new QB. This is a solid Virginia team with a veteran QB. This Richmond team also isn’t as good as the 2016 team that won 10 games and made the FCS playoffs. In fact, Richmond has not been back to the playoff since.
Prediction: Wahoos 42, Spiders 24