Walk the line: UVA success in 2017 starts up front on offense
What has been the key to the 4-1 start for UVA football? Two words: the line.
As in, the offensive line, an obvious weak point last year, and which seemed destined to be a millstone again on a roster with a bevy of talented skill players on offense and two All-America candidates on defense.
But the work done by offensive coordinator Robert Anae and his staff to patch things together up front since Week 2 has been nothing short of astounding, though it didn’t start out that way.
Through two games, the line was yet again the weak link on the offense, allowing three sacks in the 28-10 Week 1 win over FCS William & Mary, and limiting a sputtering run game to gain just 2.6 yards per carry on the ground.
The lack of a reliable running game was evident in the Week 2 loss to Indiana, which saw Benkert drop back to pass on 68 of Virginia’s 91 offensive plays.
Things were clearly, and seriously, out of balance, with UVA passing on 106 of its 163 offensive snaps through its first two.
And then, suddenly, balance was achieved. Over the last three, the ratio is basically 50:50, with 112 passes and 109 runs.
You can’t do that if you don’t have a ground game, and you don’t have a ground game without good line play.
Over the past three games, Virginia has rushed for 466 yards, gaining 4.3 yards per carry.
Not surprisingly, then, you’re seeing better numbers from quarterback Kurt Benkert, who has averaged 303.3 yards per game passing, completing 65.2 percent of his attempts, with nine touchdowns, over his last three games, including his two best passer-rating games at UVA (190.3 in the win over UConn, 178.7 in the win at Boise State).
With the success on the ground taking the pressure off Benkert, you get more points, obviously, but also, more basically, longer offensive drives, which means less pressure on the defense, which is on the field a lot less (the Cavs have the ball, on average, more than seven and a half minutes per game more than their opponents in 2017, after Virginia opponents had a nearly two-minute-per-game edge in 2016).
A relatively more rested defense can be a more effective defense, and that has definitely been the case for UVA in 2017, which is giving up 326 yards per game to opponents this season, down significantly from the 446 yards per game surrendered in 2016.
Football is a complicated game to break down because of the multitude of moving parts, but this one is strikingly simple.
Offensive line play has the foundation of Virginia’s success to this point in 2017.
Story by Chris Graham