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2014 Virginia Football Preview: Richmond

After a surprisingly close loss to UCLA, the Hoos have a much easier foe this week. The Richmond Spiders travel down 64 to face the Hoos. The Hoos are 26-2-2 against the Spiders all time, and haven't lost since 1946. The last matchup was in 2012, when the Hoos won 43-19. That Wahoo team wasn't very good, finishing 4-8.

Michael Strauss returns to his former home, leading a high powered Richmond offense.
Michael Strauss returns to his former home, leading a high powered Richmond offense.
Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

For Wahoo fans, the stories entering this game are all about the QBs. Are there Spider fans? I don't know. But they are probably thinking about QBs as well. On both sides of the field, everything is QBs. I suppose that is often the case, but this week it's even more so. For the Hoos, obviously, we have a bit of a QB controversy between Lambert and Johns. But on the other side, the Spiders boast two former Wahoo QBs (only one of whom ever actually threw a pass for the Hoos).

In case you've been living under a rock and don't know, the two QBs are Michael Strauss and Michael Rocco. Those who haven't been living under a rock know that Rocco led the Hoos to 8 wins and a Peach Chick-Fil-A Bowl appearance in 2011. What you may not know, regardless of your living under a rock status is that Michael Strauss basically rewrote the Richmond QB record book last year, throwing for nearly 3800 yards and 26 TDs versus only 8 INTs. Anybody think the Hoos could've used a QB like that last year?

Richmond Offense

Players to Watch

#3 QB Michael Strauss - Big arm. That's the first thing you notice about Strauss. He's tall and he's filled out a bit since he was a redshirt freshman for the Hoos. He's not mobile, but he can move around in the pocket a bit. There isn't a pass he can't throw. He's a good fit for Richmond's system, because he's a "gunslinger". He's going to throw it all over the field, and he's not going worry too much about what happens once he lets it go. As mentioned, threw for nearly 4000 yards last year.

#2 QB Michael Rocco - We know Rocco, know what he can do. He doesn't have the arm strength that Strauss has, but he's maybe a bit more athletic. He's a smart QB, knows where to go with the ball. Won't panic under pressure, won't throw passes that aren't there. But he's maybe a bit too hesitant for the fast-paced offense that Richmond wants to run.

#4 RB Seth Fisher - Big FB/RB combo. Will start at RB, but likely also see time at FB (or at least as the bigger part of a two-back set). Not a big play guy, but solid short yardage back. Tough to bring down with an arm tackle.

#1 RB Jacobi Green - Small, quick, speedy back. Good compliment to Fisher. Hits the hole hard and can make people miss in the open field. Led the team in rushing yards and attempts last year despite missing 3 games. Led the team with 9 attempts last week against Moorehead State.

#29 WR Stephen Barnette - Tall, lanky WR. Very good hands. Runs very precise routes. Good enough speed, but not a burner. Led the team last year with 76 catches for nearly 1200 yards and 5 TDs. A big year could push him into the NFL draft. Led the team with 6 receptions last week for 76 yards and a TD.

Offense Breakdown

Like so many teams these days, Richmond runs a spread offense. That means a lot of 3 WR sets. It means a lot of hurry up, with no huddle or a very quick huddle. For the Spiders at least, it means a lot of quick passes. Strauss will throw it deep, but most of his passes are going to travel less than 15 yards. This will be especially true when you look at the matchup against Virginia's defense. The best way to stop a pass rush is to get rid of the ball before it gets to the QB.

If Tenuta is going to continue to bring pressure this week, it would make sense to play tighter coverage against Richmond's WRs. For one thing, they aren't as dangerous as UCLA's WRs. But even beyond that, if you give Barnette and company a 12 yard cushion, they are going to run 8 yard curls all day long. Then, when the Hoos start looking to jump that route, they'll run a curl & go and try to hit a long pass.

Strauss will start, but coach Danny Rocco has said that both Strauss and Rocco will play. You probably already know that Danny is Michael's uncle. It is hard not to think that there is some nepotism in play here. How else do you explain a record-setting QB losing playing time to a transfer. Strauss was 17/23 for 259 yards and 3 TDs last week. Rocco was 9/13 for 1 TD and an INT. Strauss was better last year, he was better last week and he's a better fit in Richmond's system. There's no good reason for Rocco to play as long as Strauss is healthy and keeps performing.

Alongside Barnette, Richmond has a deep WR corps. Rashard Ponder and Reggie Diggs will start, but Brian Brown and Porter Abell will see time at WR as well. Barnette's size is usually a matchup problem against FCS teams, but the Hoos have a number of CBs who can match up with the 6'3" 200 pound WR. Abell also got 4 carries last week. Fisher is a bigger part of the passing game than Green. Jeremiah Hamlin is a freshman RB from Fork Union who has impressed. He scored twice in garbage time last week, and has serious speed. The Hoos may not see him, unless the game gets out of hand, but he's talented.

The Spiders OL is a solid veteran group. Led by RT Jacob Ruby, they have 91 career starts between them. The only newcomer is RG Nick Vergos, so he is one to watch anytime he is lined up across from David Dean. If the Spiders are having trouble keeping UVA defenders away from Strauss, they may be forced to use TE Hunter Westfall more than they'd like. He's mostly a blocking TE, although he can a weapon in the red zone with his 6'6" frame.

Last year, the Spiders threw 509 passes and rushed 380 times. Strauss had 55 rushing attempts, and since he's not a runner, you can assume that a large percentage of those were scrambles. Either way, Richmond throws a great deal more than they run. The Richmond offense was the 24th ranked offense in FCS last year, averaging nearly 450 yards per contest. They were 7th in passing offense, and 104th in rushing offense.

This means the Hoos will likely spend most of the game in some sort of substitution package. Whether that is a 4-2-5 or 3-3-5 or 2-4-5 remains to be seen. The defense lined up in all three of those basic sets last week, although largely using the same personnel for all 3.

Richmond likely knows they can't go toe-to-toe with the Hoos. They don't want to grind out 16 play drives. They want big plays. The Hoos want to force Richmond into difficult third downs where they can send their pass rushers. And they want to force Strauss to throw the ball under pressure. Forcing a few turnovers early in this game could really make things easier for the Hoos.

Richmond Defense

Players to Watch

#90 DT Evan Kelly - Led the team with 6 sacks and 9 TFLs last year. Two time second-team all-CAA. Originally recruited as an OG, and plays a bit like it. Kind of a mauler. Plays with great strength, doesn't move all that well. Will use a variety of pass rush moves to disengage from OL, but still just ends up trying to bull rush through.

#34 LB Eric Wright - Good combination of size and speed, but not elite in either one. Fills a gap very well. Doesn't miss many tackles. Solid in zone coverage and can handle a TE man-to-man. Will rush the passer as well, has good timing on delayed blitz. Three sacks last year to go along with 8.5 TFLs and 83 total tackles.

#24 LB Aaron Roane - Recruited by most schools as a RB. Runs well for a LB. Spent most of his career at the "Bandit" position before moving inside this year. A bit on the small side for a LB, but runs well. Good in zone coverage. Not the type of LB to come up and fill a gap against a running back, but will chase sideline to sideline and make plays all over the field.

#21 S Justin Grant - Finished 3rd in tackles and 2nd in INTs for the Spiders last year. Originally came to Richmond as a RB. Tremendous speed. Plays deep safety very well. Covers tons of ground. Can come up and make a play in the running game, or against a flat receiver. Moves well in space, can avoid blockers and make plays against a screen pass or trap run. May return kicks.

#37 S Reggie Barnette - Identical twin brother of WR Stephen Barnette. Team captain. Finished 4th in tackles, 1st in passes defensed, 3rd in INTs, and 1st and fumbles recovered. The kind of always who always seems to be in the right place at the right time. Runs very well. Probably could've played CB rather than S, and in fact may have to move to CB if he gets a shot at the NFL. Can cover a slot receiver, but also tackles well and plays a lot bigger than his 190 pound frame. Will stick his nose in on a running play.

Richmond's defense is a bit more bread-and-butter than their offense. This is a base 4-3 defense, which morphs into a 4-2-5 at times, as one of the OLBs plays a hybrid OLB/S role. This is a veteran unit, with 10 seniors and a junior starting. They were 36th in FCS last year in total defense. That breaks down to 32nd in rushing defense and 42nd in pass efficiency defense. While all those numbers are impressive, keep in mind that this unit gave up 444 yards to an NCSU offense that was not good.

Despite all the upper-classmen, the Spiders only return 6 starters from last year's defense. Compare that to the Hoos, who returned 8 starters, although only 4 are seniors. The top players are the two LBs, Eric Wright and Aaron Roane along with safety Reggie Barnette. That trio combined for 33 tackles the last time the Hoos and Spiders matched up, 2 years ago. Those 3, along with the other safety, Justin Grant, were 2-5 in tackles for the Spiders last year.

These guys are all a bit undersized for their positions, at least in comparison with an FBS defense. Only Grant is over 200 pounds in the secondary. Wahoo WRs will have a big size advantage over the Richmond DBs. Jump balls, which worked well against UCLA's smaller DBs, should work again. A guy like Zach Swanson or Rob Burns could have his way in this game, as they both have 5 or 6 inches and 50 pounds on the safeties. A seam pass, or even a deep post, from one of those two could provide a big play for the offense.

The Hoos, as always, will be looking to establish the run. The OL should do a better job this week than they did last week, simply because Richmond's front 7 isn't as good as UCLAs. The Wahoo OLs have 20+ pound advantages over the Richmond DLs, although Evan Kelly is tough to move on the inside. The rest of the DL doesn't concern me very much, and so I expect Richmond to load the box, much like UCLA did.

This is the type of game where the Hoos shouldn't worry about shortening the game, milking the clock or anything of the sort. If Richmond loads the box, the Hoos should throw the ball downfield. They'll have a big advantage on the outside more often than not, and they shouldn't be as concerned about the pass rush as they were against UCLA.

Richmond is a heavy 2-deep team, which makes sense due to the talent of their safeties, and the relative weakness of their CBs. So the Hoos want to attack the perimeter. The Hoos want to get one of their bigger receivers, Andre Levrone or Keeon Johnson perhaps, matched up in single coverage on the perimeter. Being able to run the ball successfully will make this easier, because Richmond will have to cheat Grant and/or Barnettte up into the box. Once this happens, the Hoos should immediately go to a deep pass to that side, especially if it is Myron Blueford in single coverage. He'll be giving up tons of size, and has struggled covering deep passes.

The Hoos offense wasn't bad against UCLA, other than the 3 turnovers. Some of that was bad luck, although much of it was caused by UCLA's quality defense. Richmond doesn't pose nearly the same challenge, although they certainly have talent. The Hoos would do well to attack the perimeter of the Spiders' defense, because that is where it is weakest. This means sweeps, traps and off-tackle runs. And it means outs, flair passes and some corner routes. These types of plays will hopefully stretch Richmond's stronger interior defenders out, and open up space in the middle for the running game.

Game Breakdown

The Spiders are not a bad team. They are probably one of the top FCS teams. This isn't like last year's game against VMI, which was little more than a glorified scrimmage. But Richmond simply does not have the talent or depth that the Hoos have.

Certainly, as Wahoo fans well know, an FCS team can upset an FBS team. But that usually takes some extraordinary situations. Something like, oh I don't know, 3 defensive TDs in one quarter. That isn't likely to happen twice in a row.

Assuming the Hoos don't make stupid mistakes, they should win this game easily. It should give some of the youngsters a chance to get into the game late. This could include somebody like MLB Micah Kiser, who needs some playing time on defense to get ready for when Henry Coley graduates. It could also mean a guy like Daniel Hamm, who ran wild against VMI, gets a chance to try his luck against another FCS team.

Prediction: Hoos 31, Spiders 3