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University of Virginia vs. Clemson Preview: The Cavaliers Offense Takes A Step Back

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Bronco Mendenhall has built a strong program, but lost his best player from 2019 this off-season

NCAA Football: Duke at Virginia Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

University of Virginia football will come to Death Valley fresh off a 38-20 defeat of the Duke Blue Devils. Last year was a high-water mark for the program, with the Cavaliers facing the Tigers in the ACC Championship Game. Armed with one of the best QB’s to come through Charlottesville, and with the Virginia Tech streak finally broken, the ‘Hoos… lost to Clemson by a score of 62-17.

It’s hard to see things being too different this time around, with UVA having to replace a bevy of skill position players. As of this writing Vegas has Clemson as a 29-point favorite for the rematch.

God help you if you feel comfortable wagering on college football right now, when we have no way of knowing who will be ruled out (or if the game will happen) until moments before kickoff. We’re going to write this preview assuming that won’t happen, simply because it’s impossible to predict who it will impact.

S&P+ has UVA rated highly, placing them 33rd overall and 6th place in the ACC. The defense and special teams are solid, coming in at 27th and 32nd overall. The offense is a weakness coming into the season, ranked at just 51st.

It’s hard to tell you exactly what the Cavaliers offense is going to look like this year. Now that Bryce Perkins is no longer a Cavalier the offense is busy finding its identity with Brennan Armstrong under center.

Unfortunately for Virginia, they’ve only had one game to gel before going up against an elite defense. Unfortunately for us, that means there isn’t a ton of film of this year’s offense. It’s hard to tell what was a core play and what was just something that the coaching staff liked against Duke.

This is the best offensive line Bronco Mendenhall has had at UVA, and he’s noted the running game has taken a major step forward. Center Olu Oluwatimi is the keystone in the middle. The rest of the unit is versatile and deep enough to hopefully stave off the issues UVA’s offensive line had in the middle of last year.

QB Brennan Armstrong is capable on the ground, which is good because he’s going to have to remain a significant portion of the running game. The Cavaliers only have two scholarship running backs available in returning starter Wayne Tualapapa and Towson transfer Shane Smith.

Perkins relied on scrambles for a huge chunk of his production, and Armstrong is likely to do the same. With that said, UVA coordinator Robert Anae has a handful of interesting ways to design QB runs. One he is quite fond of is attaching QB draws to quick passing plays. Doing this allows the offense to get the benefits of an RPO while initially giving a pass, instead of run, look.

https://247sports.com/college/penn-state/Article/Penn-State-Nittany-Lions-football-Get-to-know-the-RPO-Swing-Draw-Joe-Moorhead—53305369/

Another scheme Anae is fond of in short yardage is running QB follow, with the OL blockng a “down g” scheme and RB leading through the hole.

Tualapapa is a workhorse, losing yardage on only nine carries last year and converting nearly 70% of his short yardage runs. He’s not known for long runs, but he ran for 96 yards and two TD’s on Duke at nearly 6 yards per carry last week. The defense has to account for him between the tackles.

The Cavaliers running game is diverse, using a mix of zone, gap, and draw plays as well as an array of QB keep options and RPOs. For example, notice the tight end (#87) slowing down backside pursuit in the play above. In addition, UVA will give the ball to shifty receivers in motion or throw to them in the flats, similarly to how Joe Reed was used last year. These may well go to Billy Kemp IV.

With that said, it’s unlikely the ‘Hoos will be able to keep up with Clemson by rushing the ball. The Tigers average 43 points per game and give up under two yards per carry. That math doesn’t go anywhere good for the underdog.

It remains to be seen how good of a passer Armstrong is. Last week he completed only 24/45 passes against Duke. Occasionally he showed an impressive ability to progress through the reads and get the ball to his receivers quickly, such as on this drive concept.

Other times Armstrong throws turnovers that make no sense, just bad-for-a-high-school-QB throws going towards nothing but defenders. A Streaking The Lawn writer remarked, he’s pretty good for throwing the ball with his wrong hand.

Keep an eye on tight end Tony Poljan in this game, the Central Michigan transfer has an All-MAC season under his belt and is one of the Hoos’ more proven weapons. Against Clemson last year UVA had success attacking linebackers in pass coverage either by using the tight end to punish linebackers off run actions:

Or by using motion to bump a RB/TE (and UVA throws to both) outside, where they take the attention of the corner.

This left a WR on LB mismatch inside that UVA was able to exploit for several big gains down the seam.

UVA had significant losses at WR, and really only returns Terrell Jana as a proven talent. One player to keep an eye on is 6’7” freshman Lavel Davis, an obvious matchup problem who had a big game against Duke. Armstrong has the, no pun intended, arm strength to hit shots downfield. UVA runs plenty of verts and switches to force secondaries to respect the deep ball.

With that said, the lack of proven skill talent is UVA’s single biggest weakness. It’s at the point that backup QB Keytoan Thompson (a gifted runner and sub 50% passer) is likely to get snaps as a slot receiver/running back.

I don’t think a less experienced and probably less talented UVA squad outdoes the 2019 team’s performance. Inexperienced receivers and a new QB would have to come together under historically difficult circumstances and outperform the best quarterback in program history. I don’t see it happening. UVA has a strong offensive line but by no means are they world beaters. The Tigers’ front is stronger this year than last. The only matchup I’m worried about is our linebackers in pass coverage.

Meanwhile the 38 points the Hoos scored against the Blue Devils came because Duke gifted them six turnovers. Unless Clemson is similarly generous, I don’t see the Cavs keeping this close.