The Big Game Preview: UVA football opens 2018 season with Richmond

My first thought, seeing the UVA football team run through the tunnel onto the turf at Scott Stadium for the 2016 season opener with Richmond: where is everybody?

New coach Bronco Mendenhall doesn’t feel compelled to put uniforms on all his guys. Didn’t know that then.

All I knew was, it looked like Richmond, with 22 less players on scholarship, had more guys on its sidelines.

Turns out, maybe Mendenhall could have used the extra bodies. Richmond dominated from the outset, led 30-7 early in the fourth, before winning, 37-20, in a game that was nowhere near as close as that score would indicate.

From that inauspicious debut, the Mendenhall era has come off to this point with mixed results: a 2-10 first season in 2016, a 6-7 sophomore campaign in 2017 that had started with promise, then ended with a thud, with six losses in the Cavaliers’ final seven games.

And now, we’re back to where we started from, with Richmond helping the ‘Hoos kick off the 2018 season, Saturday night at Scott Stadium.

No doubt, it won’t be hard for Mendenhall to get his team’s attention heading into this one. Even last year’s team, on its way to the program’s first bowl game in six years, had its troubles fending off another FCS in-state squad, William & Mary, with the Tribe getting as close to down 21-10 in the fourth quarter before Virginia went on to post a 28-13 win.

New guys at QB

With this one, both teams will be breaking in new quarterbacks. UVA’s record-setting QB Kurt Benkert is fighting for a roster spot with the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons, so the keys to the offense are in the hands of JUCO transfer Bryce Perkins.

Perkins led his Arizona Western team to the JUCO national-title game in 2017, putting up nice numbers on the way there – completing 63.3 percent of his passes, averaging 5.1 yards per rush keying the read-option attack that will amp up under UVA offensive coordinator Robert Anae.

It’s not a state secret that Anae prefers quarterbacks with the skillset of a Perkins to that of a Benkert, who has an NFL arm, but was more comfortable, and successful, in the pocket than on the perimeter.

Richmond has to replace its own record-setting QB, Kyle Lauletta, a fourth-round draft pick of the New York Giants. Kevin Johnson, a junior, isn’t exactly an untested quantity – Johnson gave up his redshirt in 2016 when Lauletta went down in the FCS playoffs, leading the Spiders to two playoff wins, including a 315-yard, one-TD performance in his first career start, a win over North Carolina A&T.

So, just in terms of experience, you’d have to give the edge to UR at quarterback.

Richmond also returns a trio of big-play receivers – redshirt junior Cortrelle Simpson (60 receptions, 1,019 yards in 2017), and seniors Deion Brissett (63 catches, 896 yards in 2017) and Tyler Wilkins (62 catches, 876 yards in 2017).

The ground game seems to be an afterthought. UR ran for 111.7 yards per game and 3.8 yards per carry in 2017. Last season’s leading rusher, junior Xavier Goodall (456 yards, 5.8 yards per carry in 2017) returns, as does redshirt senior fullback Gordon Collins (265 yards, 4.5 yards per carry in 2017).

The Spiders averaged 30.9 points and 452.7 yards per game in 2017, and with the passing game featuring experience at wideout and with Johnson’s big-game experience at quarterback, you should expect them to be able to move the ball just as well this season.

Will UVA’s defense be able to get stops on Saturday?

The biggest question for the ‘Hoos is on the line, where things are a little thin. The two-deep only lists five players for the three positions across the line, with junior Eli Hanback listed as the starter at the right defensive end spot and the backup at nose tackle, to true freshman Jordan Redmond.

Another true freshman, Aaron Faumui, is listed as Hanback’s backup at the right end spot.

The strength is at linebacker and secondary. The linchpin this year will be junior middle linebacker Jordan Mack, who fifth in the ACC in tackles in 2017 (114 tackles, 7 TFL, 3 sacks).

Flanking Mack is senior outside linebacker Chris Peace, who stuffed the stat sheet in 2017 (68 tackles, 10.5 TFL, 7.5 sacks, 1 INT, 2 PBUs, 2 QBHs), and can be utilized in passing situations both as an edge rusher and in coverage.

Also returning at ‘backer are senior ILB Malcolm Cook (46 tackles, 4 TFL, 2 sacks in 2017) and OLB Charles Snowden (13 tackles, 2 TFL, 1.5 scks, 1 QBH as a true freshman in 2017).

Key guys in the secondary include senior strong safety Juan Thornhill (64 tackles, 2 TFL, 4 INTs, 6 PBUs in 2017) and junior cornerback Bryce Hall (47 tackles, 3 TFL, 1 sack, 1 INT, 9 PBUs in 2017), a good cover guy who can help defend the run.

Because Richmond is most adept at moving the ball through the air, and the UVA defense is best defending against the pass, this one should be strength vs. strength.

Bottom Line

I hate trying to predict how an opening college football game is going to go, because you haven’t seen these teams play, you have nothing to work from, and this one is harder because you have new QBs on each side.

The key for Virginia, from my perspective, will be establishing the running game early. The UVA offensive line is young and inexperienced, but it’s also big, and much bigger across the line than the Richmond defensive front on the other side of the line of scrimmage.

Anae should keep the game plan for this one pretty vanilla. Use Perkins and tailback Jordan Ellis in the read-option, get wideout Olamide Zaccheaus plenty of touches, through the air and on some reverse action in the running game, keep the chains moving, and avoid turnovers.

Richmond will challenge the UVA defense, and don’t be surprised to see the Spiders’ game plan emphasize the run more than you’ll see them do later on in the season, just to see if the ‘Hoos can defend the ground game.

This one is likely uncomfortably competitive into the fourth quarter from a UVA fan perspective.

Preview by Chris Graham

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