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Virginia offensive line, tailbacks hitting their stride, finally

wayne taulapapa
Wayne Taulapapa. Photo courtesy UVA Athletics.

Bronco Mendenhall talked all spring and most of the summer about how his stable of tailbacks was the best in his years in Charlottesville.

And then: crickets.

Through the Cavaliers’ first four games, UVA was running for a paltry 115.5 yards per game, and the backs were only getting 12.5 touches and 62.3 yards per contest.

Offensive coordinator Robert Anae set out to establish the run and the backs early in the 30-28 win over Miami, feeding Wayne Taulapapa, who ran for 62 yards on 11 carries, and Mike Hollins, who had 10 rushing attempts for 38 yards.

That’s 100 yards on 21 runs for the tailbacks, keying a season-best 181-yard effort in the win.

“We’re capable in the run game,” Mendenhall said. “So much of it now is what is the defense doing, what does the run game yards and opportunities look like, and how is the game being managed, really how does it fit.

“So all of those things in the Miami game, it just was – I love seeing our running backs run,” Mendenhall said. “They’re physical, they’re tough, they’re always falling forward, fighting for extra yards. It adds a dimension to our offense when people are playing coverage first. That makes them – holds them accountable to the chains being moved, and that’s necessary.”

Keying the ground game was a big night from the offensive line. Ryan Swoboda was my UVA nominee for ACC O lineman of the week. The 6’10” right tackle graded out at a season-best 86.3, per Pro Football Focus, with a monster 92.2 run block grade.

The lowest grade among the regulars was the 66.3 given to Jonathan Leech on his 36 snaps splitting snaps at left tackle with Bobby Haskins (who had a 76.0 grade on his 50 snaps).

The unit graded out at 80.7 on its run blocking and 73.6 on its pass blocking.

Solid numbers.

Their work cleared the way for the backs to attack the A and B gaps, with between the tackles running that was reminiscent of 2018.

Virginia had 19 runs at the A and B gaps, gaining 147 yards, with seven first downs.

Season through Week 4 had seen averages of 12 A and B gaps runs, for 59.5 yards and 2.8 first downs.

The 2018 group, the best run game of the Mendenhall era to date, averaged 19.6 A/B gap runs, 98.9 yards and 6.0 first downs per game.

Mendenhall singled out the play of Ryan Nelson and Bobby Haskins in the Miami game.

“I really have liked Ryan Nelson at guard. That seems to be a natural and effective position for him, so I’ve liked that a lot,” Mendenhall said. “Jonathan Leech started at tackle. As I was reviewing film with the team, and I do that where I’m kind of talking about all positions and all things in front of the entire team, that didn’t take long on offense where Haskins kept showing up and blocking really well and playing through the whistle, just performing in a way that we knew he could, but has been a little bit hampered by injury.

“I really liked what I saw when Haskins and Nelson were in at the same time in those stretches on Saturday, or Thursday, against Miami. Yeah, that gives us more depth and more flexibility. It will be needed, right? We’re just going into Game 6. That just helps our depth,” Mendenhall said.

Story by Chris Graham