Bottom line: UVA needs more production from anemic offense

Stats, yes, they are misleading. If you look at the stat profile of Indiana and UVA from Saturday, it’s a close game.

uva footballDidn’t play as a close game, of course.

A key reason, to Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall: “Indiana was more opportunistic in the short fields they had in relation to the short fields we had.”

“In the beginning of the game they were struggling to get across the 50. We didn’t have as many points come out of that as necessary. Then there were moments of the game when it shifted and we were defending short fields and they capitalized at a higher level,” Mendenhall said after his Cavs fell to IU by a 34-17 final.

UVA had one promising first-quarter drive peter out because Mendenhall still doesn’t trust his kicking game, going for a fourth-and-six at the IU 18 and failing to convert.

Then the Cavs failed to get anything going after a second-quarter interception in plus territory, before finally getting on the board midway through the second with a short field goal that came after a punt return that started a Virginia drive at the Indiana 24.

So there you had two drives starting in Hoosier territory, a third getting inside the red zone, and you get three points to show for your troubles.

“We didn’t seize our opportunities or take advantage of the field position,” said junior wideout Olamide Zaccheaus, who had 12 catches for 72 yards on the day. “I’m not sure how many times we had the ball on the plus 40, but we scored three points and we had the field position advantage, and when we’re in the red zone we have to score touchdowns.”

Indiana, for its part, eventually got things going, starting with a kick return and penalty that started a drive at their own 41, leading to a short field TD drive, another short field drive initiated by a big punt return to the Virginia 30, and a third drive that was aided by a shanked punt that allowed IU to start at the UVA 45.

It was 17-3 Hoosiers at the half, and the difference on the scoreboard was almost entirely a product of success, or lack of success, of the teams in short field situations.

IU also took advantage of its superior special-teams play, getting scores on field goals of 51 and 48 yards and a fourth-quarter punt-return touchdown in addition to the first half TDs set up by kick and punt returns.

That’s 27 of Indiana’s 34 points right there, directly or indirectly coming from special teams.

“It takes three phases of the game to play complementary football,” Mendenhall said. “If one side stops and there is field position added, then the next part of the team has to capitalize on that. That leads to the best way to play complementary football, which then turns into the outcome that we want.”

Virginia is not playing anything resembling complementary football. Again, to the stats. IU outgained UVA by four yards, 318-314, and the Cavs had a 22-19 advantage in first downs, and a 91-71 gap in plays from scrimmage.

The defense more than did its job. The other units, not even close. Special teams were anything but special, and the offense was, well, offensive, gaining a paltry 3.5 yards per play, including 2.2 yards per play on the ground.

“I didn’t think it would be that difficult,” said quarterback Kurt Benkert, who attempted 66 passes on Saturday, completing 39, for 259 yards.

That’s 3.9 yards per pass play, which is way under acceptable.

But the failures in the running game had Virginia behind the chains all day long, and allowed Indiana’s defensive front to pin its collective ears back and put pressure on Benkert on later downs.

“We have to do a better job on early downs to get us into third and manageable,” Benkert said. “That’s really what the game came down to. We weren’t as efficient at moving the ball early on and it affected us later in the game and later in drives.”

Mendenhall conceded that the running game is “still something we are working on,” and acknowledged that the failures in establishing a run game is shifting pressure to the passing game, which is basically being used to take the place of the ground game, with screens and quick slants doing what the Cavs can’t do going hat-on-hat.

It’s a vicious cycle, as Mendenhall described.

“The throw game is taking place of medium to long runs, and the run game is not productive enough,” the coach said. “When we don’t hit passes over the top enough, the defense just keeps sitting on the intermediate routes. Eventually we will make them pay for that and have more opportunities. There were a number of shots today in terms of balls downfield, but we have to connect more on those to have the type of offense and scoring production that we’d like.”

Story by Chris Graham

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