With Connecticut Huskies football heading down to Charlottesville to face-off against the Virginia Cavaliers. While the two teams met last season, with the Huskies taking a 13-10 victory at the Rent, much has changed for both teams.
To get the inside scoop on the Hoos, we spoke with Paul Wiley from SB Nation’s Virginia blog, Streaking the Lawn.
We had a chance to see what UVA was all about last year, but that was obviously a unique situation with it being Bronco Mendenhall’s first year. Any major changes over the offseason?
The single biggest change—pun intended—has been team size. The coaches spoke at some length last season about how much they realized UVA's guys just weren't big enough to hold their own against ACC competition. That focus in the weight room (and the buffet line) has paid off: after only 7 guys were 300+ pounds last year, twelve tip the scales at three bills or better in 2017, including all five offensive line starters.
It’s been a mixed start for the Cavaliers to the season. What went wrong in the Indiana game that didn’t against W&M?
Two things. First and foremost, Indiana was able to adjust to a completely different offensive look after the defense smothered Richard Lagow for the first few drives. Once they went mobile under center, IU had a lot more success. William & Mary didn't have as radical a scheme change to implement and wasn't able to shake things up as dramatically. The other big breakdown in week two was special teams. UVA's net punting was cut almost in half from the season opener, thanks in large part to a punt return touchdown that slammed the door on any comeback attempt. Combined with a fake field goal attempt that got blown up, special teams caused a couple of momentum shifts that put the Hoos behind the eight ball.
Does the offense look improved from last year? Who are the players to keep an eye on and what is the offense’s biggest weakness?
Ugh. This has been the biggest topic of frustration the past week. Right now, UVA has no running game, despite offseason reports about how the offensive line was improved and the running backs looked stronger and faster. But the passing game has suffered from accuracy problems by QB Kurt Benkert, and drops by the receiving corps. Virginia needs to establish an identity, but it needs to be an identity that fits with its personnel. I'd like to see more creative use of WR/RB Olamide Zaccheaus, who can play out of the slot or carry the rock himself. TE Evan Butts (yea we all laugh too) had a break-out game against Indiana as one of the few receiving bright spots, and could be leaned on more often to help keep chains moving.
Same question for the defense
The strength of the defense goes right up the middle, anchored by inside linebacker Micah Kiser and free safety Quin Blanding. Both should end up playing on Sundays, with Blanding a possible first- or second-round pick. Kiser has been hobbled by a bit of a knee issue, but he's been supported by Jordan Mack playing alongside of him. Mack was an outside linebacker last year but moved to the middle this season; Coach Mendenhall said on his call-in show this week that thanks to the process of bulking up for that move, Mack can squat the equivalent of a motorcycle. The two weaknesses could be depth at cornerback, after losing senior Tim Harris to a season-ending wrist injury, and an inability to set the edge against the rushing game.
What’s the best strategy for beating this UVA team?
Dare them to beat you with the deep ball. Benkert averaged only 3.9 yards per attempt against IU and routinely overthrew deep routes along the sidelines. Bring your safeties up and smother underneath routes until Benkert proves he can connect over the top. On offense, tempo. There's not a ton of depth, especially on Virginia's defensive line. Wear em out early and often, and you could see gashes open up by the second half.
I’ll be at the game. Any recommendation for where to get a post-game meal and/or drink?
Oh man, where to begin? The Corner is the quintessential University experience, if you want to go drink with undergrads. The Virginian is my personal favorite for drinks: it's old, it's crowded, and the bourbon and ginger ale is the best in the country. For something more civilized, head downtown. Charlottesville's Downtown Mall is a pedestrian mall with some of the city's best restaurants. C&O is the classic (and among the most high-end), but Mono Loco is a less expensive gem for Caribbean/Mexican food. And of course, take advantage of being in the heart of Virginia's beer and wine country. About 45 minutes drive from town, you can hit a bunch of great breweries and cideries within a few miles of each other on Route 151 through Nellysford. Go to the southeast side of Charlottesville and you can try wineries like Blenheim (owned by Dave Matthews) and First Colony before a tasting at James River Brewery in Scottsville.