UVA Football Notebook: Mid-semester grades
OK, it’s not quite mid-semester, with a third of the 2017 UVA football season in the books, but with a bye week, now is a good time to assess.
The Cavs’ 42-23 win at Boise State last week was a nice send-off to the bye and the beginning of ACC play. Quarterback Kurt Benkert and wideout Andre Levrone were each named ACC players of the week for their efforts, and though the defense didn’t have any conference honorees, it maybe should have after holding the Broncos to 30 yards on the ground.
The win lifted Virginia to a 3-1 record at the conclusion to the non-conference schedule.
To the report card.
The offensive line has improved dramatically the past two weeks, boosting a ground game that has averaged 4.5 yards a carry after gaining just 2.8 yards per carry in the opening two games.
The line has also kept Benkert clean the past two weeks, allowing just two sacks total, after allowing three sacks in the opener against William & Mary alone.
The ground game and the clean pockets have benefited Benkert to the point that he is currently second in the ACC in passing yards (1,249), second in passing TDs (10), and third in completion rate (66.1 percent, up from 56.2 percent a year ago).
Also significant: just one turnover, total, through four games. In 2016, the Cavs committed 26 turnovers, and opponents scored 99 points off UVA turnovers, 8.3 points per game.
The tally there through four games is zero opponent points off turnovers.
Offensive coordinator Robert Anae has been masterful in finding ways to get the ball into the hands of talented wideout Olamide Zaccheaus (30 catches, 279 yards, 2 TDs receiving, 111 yards and 1 TD rushing).
Levrone is maybe the ACC’s top big-play threat, averaging 26.8 yards per catch, with four TD receptions among his 13 catches.
For anybody else, Doni Dowling’s 19 catches and 275 yards would have him as the A receiver.
Props also to tight end Evan Butts, who has 12 catches for 106 yards.
Tailback Jordan Ellis is proving durable (19.5 attempts per game), and able to gain tough yards (4.0 yards per carry, 5 TDs).
There’s a lot to like about what we’ve seen on the defensive side of the ball. The unit has given up 21.2 points per game through four weeks, down 12.6 points per game from 2016, and is allowing opponents 341.2 yards per game total offense, down 105 yards a game from last year.
The defense has trimmed more than 60 yards a game from what teams gained on the ground last year, and 44 yards a game from the passing totals.
Average gains per play are also down significantly: from 4.7 yards per rush in 2016 to 3.5 yards per rush through four games this year, and from 8.5 yards per pass attempt in 2016 to 7.0 yards per pass attempt this year.
Those numbers are translating into success getting off the field. Virginia opponents in 2016 converted an astounding 43 percent of their third-down plays, but the 2017 D is allowing conversions on just 26 percent of third downs.
As you would expect, the anchors are senior linebacker Micah Kiser (first in the ACC with 45 total tackles, tied for first with five sacks) and senior safety Quin Blanding (second in the ACC with 43 total tackles).
Also impressive: redshirt freshman free safety Brenton Nelson, who has three pass breakups, two interceptions and 19 total tackles), sophomore linebacker Jordan Mack (27 tackles), junior safety Juan Thornhill (27 tackles, two pass breakups, one INT), junior linebacker Malcolm Cook (23 tackles, three tackles for loss, one sack in three games), and junior linebacker Chris Peace (19 tackles, three tackles for loss, two sacks, one INT).
The Virginia defense is playing the way coach Bronco Mendenhall would want it drawn up in his perfect world: guys with speed flying to the ball, taking away the run, making opponents one-dimensional.
Special Teams: D
The glaring weak link. We’ll start with the field-goal unit, which has only been used three times total in four games. Freshman A.J. Mejia has connected on two attempts, but his long is just 28 yards, though he has hit on all 17 of his extra-point attempts.
Mendenhall clearly doesn’t trust the field-goal unit to be able to convert on drives stalling beyond the 15, which will be an issue in tight games down the stretch.
The impact on play-calling is obvious: Mendenhall has pulled the trigger on going for it on fourth down 10 times, 2.5 times per game, after going for fourth downs 23 times, basically two a game, last year, when his placekickers combined to go 5-for-10 on field-goal tries, with a long of 36.
For sake of comparison, UVA went for 15 fourth downs in 2015, when Ian Frye was 17-for-22 on field goals, with a long of 47, and went for 17 fourth downs in 2014, when Frye was 22-of-27 on kicks with a long of 47.
The kickoff unit is ranked 12th in the ACC, averaging 46.6 yards net per kickoff, and the punt unit is dead-last, averaging a 32.4 yard net.
The return units are middle of the pack: sixth on kickoffs, averaging 23.5 yards, and eighth on punts, averaging 8.8 yards.
The ESPN Power Index rates the UVA special-teams unit 124th among the 130 FCS teams. Ouch.
The win at Boise State shot Virginia up the ESPN Power Index from 81st a week ago all the way to 67th, and the Power Index now has the ‘Hoos finishing in the area of 5.5-6.5, after projecting a 4.1-7.9 finish a week ago.
At this stage, UVA is still only a favorite in its game with Boston College on Oct. 21, though the Pitt game on the road the following week is close to a pick ‘em.
The other six games on the schedule include three ranked in the top 25 of the Power Index, with Duke at 26, Georgia Tech at 31 and UNC at 39.
So, yes, tough row to hoe. (Even BC played #2 Clemson into the fourth quarter this past weekend.)
Much hinges on luck in terms of player personnel. The offense benefits from the experience of Benkert running the controls, but if he were to go down, the backup is a true freshman, Lindell Stone, who is the quarterback of the future, but certainly untested at this early stage in his career.
As long as Benkert is in the lineup, the Cavs have a fighting chance against everybody left on the schedule, the Power Index be damned.
Key has been ball security, which has allowed the offense to finish out drives, and prevented opponents from having short fields.
Special teams will have to improve, all the way around.
The offensive line will have to keep doing what it has been doing the past two weeks.
Bottom line: a 13th game is in sight, as is a decent shot at ending that forever-long losing streak to Virginia Tech.
Column by Chris Graham