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THE BIG PREVIEW: Virginia Cavaliers vs Wake Forest Demon Deacons

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Can Virginia get back to winning football?

NCAA Football: North Carolina State at Virginia Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

For the Virginia Cavaliers, a lot of things did not look good last week. The offense, especially early on, struggled getting anything going, while the defense could not contain the NC State ground game and struggled to generate pressure. This was not the same team that faced Duke or Clemson.

This Saturday, the Wake Forest Demon Deacons may be a good opponent for Virginia to “get right.” After all, we ranked them 12th in the latest Power Rankings. Thing is, it’s difficult to judge this Wake team at this point. They’ve played one game in which they were badly outmatched (Clemson) and one in which the opponent was badly outmatched (Campbell). That leaves us a single game (NCSU) which seems to be an even matchup. But the NC State team that faced Wake was vastly different from the team that faced Virginia last week due to NC State’s COVID-19 outbreak earlier this season.

The Deacons are coming off a bye week, following that blowout win over Campbell, a bad FCS team. Wake is 0-2 against FBS teams (with a game against Notre Dame postponed due to COVID-19).

As with NC State, the Hoos and Deacons don’t play regularly. These teams last played in 2016 in Winston-Salem, a 27-20 win for Wake. That was a bad Virginia team that finished 2-10, whereas Wake finished 7-6.

So which Virginia team will show up? Can they get back to winning football?

When: Saturday, 4PM ET
Where: Wake Forest, NC
TV: ACC Network

Virginia on Defense

Against Duke, the Hoos had five sacks, 11 TFLs and forced seven turnovers. Against Clemson, the turnovers weren’t there, but they did have five TFLs and two sacks. Against NC State, it was six TFLs and no sacks. That’s true straight games without forcing a TO and very few plays in the backfield. This isn’t exactly the “havoc” we were hearing about. The Hoos need to get back to that.

That seemed to be the game plan against the Wolfpack. A team that is known for bringing pressure seemed content to sit back in coverage for much of the game. The problem with that is the coverage wasn’t there.

Yes, this is a tough throw and a great catch. But with two guys in coverage on the WR, he shouldn’t be that open.

Thing is, when they did bring pressure, it didn’t work either.

Zane Zandier comes untouched off the edge. Good job by Leary to avoid the blitz and make something out of nothing. But that should’ve been a sack. Maybe it doesn’t matter on 3rd and 12, but it’s just not making the plays that were there to be made. NC State made the plays.

The previous week, Pittsburgh had a similar game plan against the Pack, and it didn’t work for them either. Moving forward, Virginia needs to reevaluate what this defense does. The strength of this unit is the front 7, so let them work.

Wake Forest’s leading passer last year was Jamie Newman. Their leading rusher was Cade Carney. Their top four receivers were Sage Surratt, Kendall Hinton, Scott Washington and Jack Freudenthal. None of those guys are back this year.

That’s a lot to lose, but the cupboard is not completely bare. Sophomore QB Sam Hartman returns after losing the job to Newman because of injury. Hartman started the season opener in 2018 as a true freshman and kept the job until breaking his leg. Newman took over and ran away with the job. Hartman redshirted last year and began this year as a sophomore with 2800 passing yards to his name to go along with 20 TDs and 10 INTs.

Those are some big numbers, but Hartman has feasted on the bad teams he’s faced and struggled against better competition. In 11 ACC games (includes Notre Dame), he has completed less than 54% of his passes for just 215 yards per game with 13 TD and 7 INTs. Compare that to his non-ACC opponents, where he’s completed almost 68%, with 9 TDs and 3 INTs, for 256 yards per game. His passer rating against ACC opponents is 119. Out of conference, it’s 166. That’s a huge difference.

So far this year, Hartman has completed 63% of his passes for 584 yards and 2 TDs (no picks) for a 139.25 efficiency. Against NC State, he was 23/36 (64%) for 236 and a TD. Solid, but 6.5 ypa isn’t great.

Hartman can also move with the ball. He’s rushed for 331 yards so far in his career, though he’s at negative-33 so far this year because he’s been sacked 11 times. (NC State had six sacks in that game, so maybe the Pack are better than we thought.)

It’s not just the sacks, though. Hartman isn’t running as much. As a freshman, he averaged nearly 10 rushes per game (removing sacks). So far this year, he’s had eight attempts in three games. Could that be, in part, because Wake does not have another experienced QB on the roster? Or could it be that the broken leg he suffered has impacted his mobility?

Getting pressure on Hartman is necessary. Let him sit back and read the defense, and he’s going to find guys.

That is a tremendous throw. And it came against just a three man pass rush.

As a team, the Deacons have rushed for just 3.8 yards per carry. That includes all those sacks though. The Deacons have a talented pair of RBs in sophomore Kenneth Walker III and junior Christian Beal-Smith. Walker starts, but both will get touches. On the season, Walker averages 5.8 ypc, with Beal-Smith at 4.5 ypc. But remove Campbell and it’s 4.5 for Walker and just 2.8 for Beal-Smith.

Here’s Walker:

And here’s Beal-Smith:

Both of these are the same zone-read look. In both cases, the middle is stuffed but the RB is able to bounce it outside for a big gain. That’s generally not going to be successful. If Virginia can get that kind of pressure in the middle, they’ll be successful. NC State had success with late pressure on the edge.

This is just a four man pass rush, but one of those rushers is a DB off the edge. He gets there late, but is causes enough trouble for Hartman that it ends up in a sack.

That’s key, making things uncomfortable for Hartman, especially in his face. Despite all those sacks, Hartman hasn’t thrown an INT yet this year. In fact, Wake has just one turnover all year. They’re sixth in the nation in turnover margin. Forcing a turnover or two will make this game a lot easier.

Get back to havoc. Sacks. Pressure. Turnovers. That’s what this defense needs to be, and they can do against this offense.

Virginia on Offense

Considering how much turnovers have killed the Hoos this year, this is key number one. Virginia is averaging three turnovers per game. That is very clearly not winning football. Whether it is Brennan Armstrong or Lindell Stone at QB, they need to take care of the football.

That’s the question heading into this game. Is Armstrong ready to go? Stone looked good after Armstrong went down, but the game was largely out of hand for most of that time. There’s a reason why Armstrong won the job. This is his team and they need him to win football games. Armstrong also needs the reps, as he’s still learning on the job.

The kinds of mistakes Virginia made last week were uncharacteristic of Bronco Mendenhall coached teams.

This is the first INT, Armstrong threw an out and Jana ran an in. That kind of thing happens occasionally, but it seemed everything was going wrong early on. Of course, the highlight (lowlight?) was the goalline stand at the beginning of the second quarter. Down 14-0, a TD there might’ve changed the game.

After a strong performance against Clemson, the OL did not have a good game against State.

Some of this is on Armstong. He has some time to throw and he isn’t actually under that much pressure. On both of these plays, Armstrong has a chance to step up into the pocket and make a throw. Instead, he gets happy feet and ends up getting sacked.

This looks like it was meant to be a screen, but it’s snuffed out by the Pack. This is actually a good play from Armstrong, though you’d like him to be more decisive getting upfield.

Wake Forest did not have the same attrition on defense that they had on offense. Ten of their current starters were starters at one point last year. But is that a good thing when the defense ranked 84th? Wake Forest was 19th nationally in turnover margin a year ago. If not for all those turnovers, how many more yards and points would Wake have allowed?

Well, this year they’re allowing 461 yards per game through three games (one of which was FCS). That would’ve ranked 115th last year. If you discount the Campbell game, they’re allowing 512 yards per game, which would’ve ranked 129th last year. Perhaps that is unfair with Clemson as half of their FBS opponents so far, but NC State totaled 463, which is right on their season average. So Clemson and Campbell cancel each other out.

When it comes to getting pressure, it starts with Carlos Basham. The 6’5” 285 lb DE is a likely first round pick next year. He has three of the team’s seven sacks, one in each contest.

That’s a coverage sack and a good initial job of keeping Basham contained. But he’s able to shed the block once Lawrence gets out of the pocket and his closing speed forces a sack instead of throwaway.

Wake runs a fairly basic 4-3 defense. Many college teams run nickel as a base package these days, but not Wake. There’s no hybrid position, no Rover, nothing. It’s refreshing actually. They do list two “LB” and one “OLB”, which is different.

The front four is the strength, led by Basham. But the two LBs, Ja’Cquez Williams and Ryan Smenda, are the top tacklers on the team. While the DL is generally responsible for the pass rush, the LBs are meant to stop the run. That means if you get a hat on those LBs, you can get big plays in the ground game.

NC State floods the left side and gets bodies on the LBs at the second level (it helps that Smenda overruns the play). The State WRs get some good blocks in as well, and then it’s on the RB to maneuver through traffic for a big play. That’s something we could see out of the zone-read from Virginia this week.

The Virginia running game gets a boost with the announcement that Ronnie Walker is eligible to play. How much he’ll play this week is anybody’s guess. He’s been practicing with the team, so maybe he’s ready. More likely, it’ll be another week or so before he’s fully included in the game plans.

Wake’s secondary isn’t as strong as the front four. They have just one INT this year, after 14 last year. Last year’s leader, Amari Henderson, is gone. Only seven of those fourteen return from last season. Virginia can attack this unit, especially on the outside.

This actually isn’t bad coverage. But the DB shouldn’t let the WR get by him. With the size of Lavel Davis and the quickness of Billy Kemp, Virginia certainly has the weapons on the outside to take advantage of the matchups. But Armstrong (or Stone) simply need to be better, especially early on.

Conclusion

As mentioned a couple of times, the key is winning the turnover battle. Regardless of who is at QB, the Wahoo offense isn’t good enough to overcome multiple turnovers, especially if they aren’t also benefitting from some turnovers coming their way.

Both of these teams are so hard to judge, and frankly this season is becoming very difficult to judge. The impact of CoVID-19 on practice schedules, game prep, weight lifting, etc is very difficult to quantify. We may end up looking back on this season as a complete outlier for many teams. Going on the road, and getting away from the weirdness of college life right now, may be a good thing for this (and other) teams.

It’s clear that this team was simply not ready last week. I’m banking on Bronco getting them ready this week. I’m banking on the team being embarrassed about their showing last week and coming out firing on all cylinders.

Scoring some first quarter points would help, something Virginia has not done yet this season.

Prediction: Virginia 42, Wake Forest 24 (Season record: 2-1)