UVA Football: Five Questions For Week Two
That is the best way to describe the opening to Virginia's 2009 season.
The Cavaliers lost to an FCS opponent (William & Mary) for the first time in over 20 years and appear to be near the end of the Al Groh era in Charlottesville.
On the other hand, Virginia has gotten off to terrible starts before and found a way to recover. In 2008, the Cavaliers went undefeated in October to temporarily grab the ACC Coastal lead. In 2007, they recovered to earn a Gator Bowl bid.
So maybe we should not be surprised by the slow start. Virginia is 7-8 in the month of September since 2006 and 1-4 in September during the past two seasons.
Nevertheless, TCU is the last team Virginia would want coming into Scott Stadium. The No. 16 Horned Frogs are an experienced team that will not be scared of unfriendly confines. They will have a chip on their shoulder and appear to be in a great position to continue the Cavaliers' misery with a talented defense and a versatile offense.
Virginia has pulled off some incredible upsets before, but its chances of doing that this weekend rely on how the Cavaliers answer the following five questions.
5. Can the 3-4 defense put pressure on Andy Dalton?
Last week, the Tribe's R.J. Archer had the homecoming of his life.
Being from the Charlottesville area, the Tribe quarterback had grown up around Virginia football. He had been to Scott Stadium plenty of times but last weekend was special as he led William & Mary to an historic victory.
Archer finished 23-of-44 for 184 yards with a touchdown and interception. Between the three Virginia quarterbacks, the Cavaliers were only able to muster 137 passing yards combined.
The most impressive part of Archer's game though was his determined leadership. He helped the Tribe overcome missed opportunities and showed the poise Virginia desperately needed.
So how is Virginia going to do against a quarterback who is third all-time in TCU history in career passing yards?
Andy Dalton has emerged as a dual threat, who can both run and pass effectively. After a two-game injury, Dalton racked up 11 touchdowns in the final six games of the season. He also helped lead the Horned Frogs to a signature victory over Boise State in the Poinsettia Bowl.
While Virginia had some new faces on the defense play well against William & Mary, the pressure will be on the veterans to step up and play to their potential if the Cavaliers have any chance of keeping the Horned Frogs out of an offensive rhythm.
Nate Collins and Cam Johnson will need to do a better job getting to the quarterback and forcing him into some poor decisions. If they can play at the level they achieved last year, Denzell Burrell and Steve Greer can continue their strong play at linebacker to make things difficult for the Horned Frogs.
4. How effectively can Virginia mix the run with the pass?
Watching the Cavalier offense last week was truly painful.
The reason was an almost comical predictability by offensive coordinator Gregg Brandon.
Virginia had virtually no passing game but instead of trying to establish a running game the Cavaliers simply tried to scramble the quarterbacks out of the shotgun. Of the 39 rushes Virginia had, 28 of them were by a quarterback.
The result was not only a scary invitation for a season-ending injury to a Virgina quarterback, but an offense that only amassed 268 yards against an FCS team.
Anyone can tell you that the most successful teams can balance the run and the pass. They keep defenses honest and for Virginia to do that, they need to establish Torrey Mack and Mikell Simpson as viable options in the backfield.
Simpson averaged 6.4 yards per carry, yet he only got five carries for the entire game. Even while injured and second on the depth chart to Cedric Peerman last season, Simpson could expect more than five carries a game.
With a decisive edge in size over the Tribe, it is inexcusable to not try and plow the ball down the field with the top running backs. If Virginia is to win against TCU, they must work on their time of possession and that means establishing the run early and often.
If the Cavaliers can limit the total possessions of the game, they will have a puncher's chance. However, Virginia's defense cannot hold for long if the offense continues to go three-and-out like they did last week.
3. Will Virginia's secondary live up to its potential?
We all know that championships are not decided on paper.
On paper, Virginia had one of the best secondaries in school history. Looking at the names like Ras-I Dowling, hard-hitting Corey Mosley, experienced veteran Chris Cook, and Chase Minnifield, Virginia appeared to have the depth to make opposing quarterbacks nervous.
Add to that mix the return of all-star safety Anthony Poindexter as secondary coach and things appeared to be on the rise.
Well just like paper, the secondary was burned last weekend against the Tribe. Miscommunication was an issue on several key plays where Archer was able to find open receivers and keep drives alive.
Worse yet, the Virginia secondary needed to make some big plays and instead literally dropped the ball. Three times the Virginia defense had the ball in their hands to make a key turnover and three times they dropped it. Instead of a momentum changer, Virginia was left asking "What could have been?"
If the Cavaliers have any chance, they need to stay on-task and read their assignments. With Dalton's versatility, the Horned Frogs can provide a balanced attack. That means the Virginia secondary must find a way to play one-on-one against these TCU wide receivers.
Jimmy Young is a speedy option and his 988 yards last season was the second most in TCU history. Virginia must keep a tab on him at all times and try to shut him down much like the Cavaliers have done in the past against greats like Calvin Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald, and Michael Crabtree.
The time has come for the defense to put up or shut up.
2. Can Virginia avoid turnovers?
No other statistic was more telling for the Cavaliers than the seven turnovers they had against William and Mary. If Virginia had played a cleaner game, they almost certainly could have won the game. However, clean games have not been a common occurrence for the Cavaliers as of late.
Last year, the Cavaliers were 10th in the ACC in turnover margin. Now they are playing a team that has forced 223 turnovers since 2001, ninth best in the country.
Nothing is more important for Virginia's success this season than being able to hold onto the football. Their offense is simply not good enough to handle missed opportunities.
So how can the Cavaliers avoid the costly mistakes?
Some of the mistakes are purely mental preparation. Players have to know when to field a punt and when to let it go into the endzone. Yes, Vic Hall, that means you.
Players must be smart enough to keep the ball in high and tight. Too many times, Virginia players were lazy with the football and led to unnecessary fumbles.
The biggest cure for turnover-itis though is inextricably tied to our final question.
1. Is Matt Schaub going to be given an extra year of eligibility?
Okay, so maybe it's not a serious question, Schaub is a little busy getting constantly sacked in Houston. However, it emphasizes the biggest problem Virginia has faced since Schaub graduated from the University of Virginia.
In 2003, Schaub's final year, Virginia had 3,324 yards of passing offense. The following year, Virginia had only 2,167 yards of passing offense.
Since 2003, Virginia has not amassed more than 2,700 yards of passing offense and defenses know it. If the Cavaliers cannot find a quarterback that can move the offense by using both the run and the pass, head coach Al Groh may as well put his house up for sale now.
Last week, Virginia used all three quarterbacks and each struggled when given their opportunity. Every signal caller has one or more glaring weaknesses and, as a result, the transitions between the options have not been smooth and clean. Instead, it has been abrupt and chaotic.
If offenses are supposed to be a well-oiled machine, the Cavalier offense is more like a 1973 Pinto. In other words, outdated, ugly, and more of a danger to yourself than to others.
Virginia needs a leader to emerge from this trio or the Cavaliers could be facing one of their worst seasons in recent memory. While victory against TCU is not necessary for a season turnaround, the Cavaliers need to, at least, show signs of life.
The Horned Frog defense is actually one of the best Virginia will play all season. If their new offense could shake off the William & Mary game to make some strides, the Cavaliers avoid turnovers and the offense remains balanced, then Virginia will make it a game.
Unfortunately for the Cavaliers, those are a lot of "ifs."
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