Does Anae not trust his RBs, or is it his O line?

chris glaser uva
Photo courtesy UVA Athletics.

You can’t say Virginia, second in the ACC in total offense, isn’t moving the ball up and down the field. Does it matter that the Cavaliers can’t run the ball?

The results in Week 4 would suggest: yes.

The ‘Hoos outgained Wake Forest, both teams had five red zone possessions, but Wake won, 37-17, largely because of a 27-10 advantage in red zone scoring.

What does this have to do with whether or not UVA can run the ball?


Virginia had a first-and-goal at the Wake 4 on its first drive, ran the ball twice, for a net loss of a yard, and failed to score on fourth-and-goal from the 5.

Then on its second drive, a QB draw on third-and-4 from the Wake 6 gained two yards, setting up a field goal.

That’s 11 points left on the board on the first two drives.

It’s great that UVA is averaging 546.0 yards per game in total offense. That the Cavaliers are only averaging 115.5 yards per game on the ground, and only running it on 37.7 percent of their snaps, is a big reason why the ‘Hoos are only 2-2 with the most prolific offense through four games in program history.

Establishing the run

In the first two games, offensive coordinator Robert Anae was calling a much more balanced game. Of the 138 plays from scrimmage in the wins over William & Mary and Illinois, 61 were designed runs (with four more runs resulting from scrambles).

That works out to a 44.2 percent/55.8 percent run/pass split.

The losses to UNC and Wake saw more leaning to the pass, though to be fair, they were both 20-point losses, so I looked at the play-calling in the first three quarters of the Carolina game, which was still a one-score game into the latter stages of the third quarter, and the first half of the Wake game, because even though that one was 20-3 Wake at the break, that’s still not enough of a margin in the first half to take you out of whatever your game plan coming in might have been.

OK, the ground rules established, here’s what we saw:

  • UNC: 11 runs/6 scrambles/sacks out of 57 plays from scrimmage through three quarters
  • Wake: 10 runs/5 scrambles/sacks out of 38 plays from scrimmage through two quarters

That’s 21 designed runs out of 95 plays – 22.1 percent of the overall plays.

Not using the backs much

Head coach Bronco Mendenhall started telling us back in the spring, then repeated himself in training camp, about how he felt his 2021 team had the deepest and most talented group of running backs of his years in Charlottesville.

That group, through four games, is averaging a paltry 12.5 rushing attempts and 62.3 yards per game.

And if you were wondering if it’s the case that, OK, they’re not getting touches in the run game, but they are on screens and dump-offs in the passing game, not really.

The group has a combined 15 catches on 16 targets for 108 yards – adding another 27.0 yards per game to their output.

The QBs – Brennan Armstrong, backup Ira Armstead and Keytaon Thompson and Jacob Rodriguez, the latter two listed on the depth chart at “football players – get more touches in the run game than the backs do.

And honestly, they’re more effective.

Accounting for sack yardage, the QBs and FBPs contribute 69.8 yards per game to the ground attack, on QB and wildcat draws, pitches and straight handoffs.

Better line play?

The O line ranks middle of the pack in run blocking in the Pro Football Focus rendering of the 2021 season to date – 55th, with a season grade of 66.0.

This actually represents an improvement over the group that anchored the most productive run season under Mendenhall, back in 2018, when UVA averaged 173.2 yards per game on the ground.

That O line was ranked 81st nationally by PFF with a 61.1 season grade.

Anae, in 2018, had a 58.2 percent/41.8 percent run/pass split in his play-calling.

And he attacked the A and B gaps, with 19.6 rushing plays (gaining 98.9 yards and 6.0 first downs) per game up the middle or inside the tackles.

The 2021 play-calling has Anae calling just 12.0 rushing plays (gaining 59.5 yards and 2.8 first downs) per game up the middle or inside the tackles.

Roughly eight runs, 40 yards and three more first downs a game into the teeth of the defense.

With a lower-graded O line.

Easy to get seduced

Armstrong is throwing for 430.5 yards per game through the air. He also leads the team with six rushing first downs and two rushing touchdowns.

The QBs and FBPs have 15 of the 28 rushing first downs.

Seventeen of the 28 rushing first downs came around the ends or on scrambles.

Armstrong, Armstead, KT, Rodriguez have blazing speed.

Sometimes you need to give it your backs on first down to get three or four, on third down to get one or two.

The line play suggests that there’s capacity to clear the way for the backs to get the tough yards.

Were we sold a bill of goods by Mendenhall about the talent level of the backs? Or are they just not being used enough?

It’s one or the other.

Story by Chris Graham

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