The Virginia Cavaliers open ACC play at the Carrier Dome in NY against the Syracuse Orange tomorrow night. The ‘Hoos and Orange haven’t played since 2015 and haven’t played at Syracuse since 2005, which is a big indictment of ACC scheduling. That will change beginning next season.
The Orange are currently 3-0, with home wins over Louisville, UCONN and Purdue. The win over Purdue last week was a great game, with six fourth quarter TDs between the two teams, including this game winner from Syracuse with just seven seconds remaining.
Purdue brings pressure and very nearly gets to the QB. But he’s able to get the pass off, and his receiver beats man coverage. Was it really necessary to bring extra pressure with just 12 seconds left especially if it means leaving your third CB in man coverage on the Syracuse’s leading receiver?
UVA, of course, is now 2-1 coming off a far-too-close 16-14 win over ODU. Virginia looked terrible for much of this game, turning the ball over and failing to capitalize on opportunity after opportunity. A game that could’ve been a 20 point lead early with some better execution (and maybe some better luck) was just a 3 point game at halftime. And Virginia didn’t really begin to execute until the very last drive when they drove down the field for the game winning FG.
The ‘Hoos looked pretty bad in their lone road game, and the Orange are riding high off the big win. Thus, ‘Cuse are favored by 10. Don’t forget, it’s a Friday night game.
Virginia on Defense
Virginia fans may feel some nostalgia when looking at Syracuse’s sideline as former OC Robert Anae and former QB Coach Jason Beck both moved to Syracuse after leaving Charlottesville following Bronco Mendenhall’s resignation.
Beck’s current protegé at QB is Garrett Shrader. Shrader began his career in the Mississippi State QB room with Keytaon Thompson. When Mike Leach took over, Shrader moved to WR, while Thompson transferred to Virginia. Shrader lasted one season as a WR and then transferred himself.
A year ago, Shrader completed 52.5% of his passes, averaging 6.2 yards per attempt and 11.7 yards per completion. So far this year, Shrader is up to a 66% completion rate at 9.2 yards per attempt and 13.9 yards per completion. If you think Beck isn’t at least somewhat responsible for the increase, take a look at Armstrong’s numbers right now compared to the past two years. Jason Beck is a QB whisperer and nobody knows that better than Virginia fans.
As you’d expect from a former WR, Shrader can run it too. Last year, Shrader rushed for over 700 yards and 14 TDs at 4.5 yards per rush. He’s on a similar pace this year, with 201 yards (4.4 ypc) and 3 TDs thus far.
Sean Tucker is the leading rusher for the Orange, after rushing for nearly 1500 yards and 6 yards per carry last year. This year, he’s under 4 yards per carry.
The Orange are 74th nationally in total offense (Virginia is just ahead at 72nd). Last year’s team ranked 86th, but was 16th running the football and 121st passing (108th in passing efficiency). This year, they are 71st in rushing and 70th in passing (22nd in efficiency). Teams are paying more attention to Tucker, which is opening things up for Shrader.
Tucker will certainly be Virginia’s focus heading into this game. For the most part, Virginia has not fared well against opposing running games this year.
This was early in the game last week. ODU was gashing the Virginia front seven.
Things improved in the second half. Defensive Tackle Aaron Faumui was a big part of why.
In the first half, ODU rushed for 4.5 yards per carry. In the second half, it was 2.4 yards per carry. ODU simply couldn’t run the ball in the second half.
Over the past couple of seasons, Virginia has been prone to giving up big plays in the passing game. The secondary suffered too many injuries and didn’t have the depth. There is finally some depth there, and young guys like Jonas Sanker and Lex Long have looked good. Long is second on the team in tackles, tied for third in TFLs and has forced a fumble.
Long is responsible for Kuntz in man coverage, and reads the play perfectly. If Long doesn’t make that tackle, Kuntz is off to the races. Of course, Long was also beaten for this Kuntz TD which briefly gave ODU the lead.
This play is similar to Syracuse’s game winning TD to Oronde Gadsden. Gadsden is the top receiver for the Orange, and surely both coaching staffs saw both of those plays. How Long handles Gadsden may be a big part of this game.
If Syracuse is able to get going on the ground, this will be a long day for Virginia, similar to what we saw in Illinois. But if the Virginia front seven can hold their own up front, Virginia should be able to keep Syracuse’s offense in check.
Virginia on Offense
In two of three games this year, Virginia’s offense has put up over 500 yards of offense. As mentioned, they are 72nd in total offense. But they are 117th in scoring offense. Even against an overmatched Richmond squad, they scored just 34 points.
A big part of that is red zone struggles. Virginia is 123rd in the nation in red zone offense, scoring on just 7 of 11 red zone trips. That’s really bad. Six of those seven scores have been FGs. That’s really really bad. One TD on 11 red zone trips.
After putting up monster numbers last year, Brennan Armstrong simply has not been the same QB. It is impossible to know how much is the new coaching staff and new schemes, how much is the new OL, and how much is just Armstrong struggling. He was atrocious against Illinois, missing far too many throws. He was better this week, but still completed just 54% of his passes. On the season, Armstrong averages just under 7 yards per attempt, ranking 80th nationally. Considering the opposition thus far, this is not good and is a scary proposition for the rest of the season.
This throw from Armstrong is well overthrown, although it seems Wicks was held and maybe should’ve drawn a flag. Also, why are Wicks and Kemp in the same place?
It isn’t all Armstrong’s fault. Here, he delivers a strike to Wicks for a big first down and Wick’s straight up drops the ball. Can’t have that, especially not when the offense is struggling.
This play was on the opening drive, which totaled 35 yards on 12 plays. Armstrong was 1-5 on the drive for 5 yards, while the ground game picked up 35 yards (Virginia had a 5 yard penalty). Virginia simply is not going to win football games if the passing game doesn’t improve. Virginia punted from the plus-40 yard line.
We can debate the value of this punt, but clearly if Wicks comes down with that ball, it’s a first down and the ‘Hoos likely go on to score some points. We don’t know what would’ve happened if Wicks catches that ball. Maybe Virginia goes on to score a TD and runs away with the game. The ease with which Armstrong and UVA moved the ball between the 20s makes that distinct possibility. Alas.
Granted there are positive signs from the passing game. The play above is mostly positive, as Armstrong has time to throw after the initial rush and delivers a strike. There was this play on the game winning drive, as broken down by former NC State QB Mike Glennon.
We need more of this.
Of Virginia’s vaunted WR corps, Thompson has been as advertised, leading the team with 18 catches and 235 yards. Lavel Davis has been as advertised, going for over 25 yards per catch. But Billy Kemp has missed two straight games and Wicks has not seemed like the dynamic player he was last season. And we haven’t seen anything at all from the rest of the group. Overall, it’s been a bit disappointing.
Armstrong is at his best when he’s making reads, finding open guys, and spreading the ball around. But that requires time, which Armstrong has not had. He’s been sacked 8 times in 3 games (that’s 97th in the country). Again, this is troubling considering that Virginia’s going to face better defenses.
There are encouraging signs, though. After rushing for just 1.3 yards per carry against Illinois, the Virginia ground game averaged over five yards per carry against ODU. This ODU team held Virginia Tech to 3.5 yards per carry. Freshman Xavier Brown looked good and should earn more carries as the season progresses.
Brown is 5’9” 186, but this runs looks like a much bigger RB. Running with power is a skill, and Brown has it. He makes a good complement for Perris Jones.
Virginia’s offense was amazing last year, but this is a new year. Despite the number two offense in the nation, the team won just six games. This year’s offense may not live up to last year’s, but they don’t have to. But they need to be better than they’ve been. Fewer turnovers would be a good start.
Is Syracuse as good as their 3-0 record suggests? Is Virginia as bad as the struggles to Illinois and ODU suggest? The answer to both of these questions is likely “no”. But certainly the Orange have looked better in the early going this year than Virginia has.
Some of that is the difference between a seventh year head coach and a first year head coach. But some of it is simply Syracuse’s players playing better than their Wahoo counterparts. After all, it isn’t Elliott’s fault Wicks dropped that pass, and it isn’t his fault Mike Hollins fumbled at the 5 yard line.
If Virginia continues to play as less than the sum of its parts, Tony Elliitt’s squad is not going to win this game, nor many more this season. But this team is better than they’ve looked overall. There have been glimpses, including that final drive last week to pull out the win.
As the season goes on, we are going to see this football team get better and better. But I don’t think there’s enough improvement this week for the ‘Hoos to upset the Orange on the road.
Prediction: Orange 31, Virginia 21