The Virginia Cavaliers return to Scott Stadium this Saturday - kicking off a critical 4 game home stand that will make or break UVA's chances at making a bowl game this year. It all starts with Southern Miss, a team entering this weekend's contest with a matching 2-1 record - their lone loss coming to conference foe Marshall in a disappointing loss for the Golden Eagles. The two squads have only faced each other 1 previous time , with Southern Miss taking a 3 point win at home in a game that Virginia led at the half by 17 points. The line this weekend, a mere 1.5 in favor of the Cavaliers, reflects most people's thoughts on the game - uncertainty and doubt that either team is very good at this stage in the game. For Virginia, it's time to make a statement. In the first of 4 home games, it is critical that the Cavaliers get off on the right foot with a solid victory - building momentum and fan excitement to carry over Saturday to Saturday in Charlottesville over the next month. Here's what I'll be watching in Scott Stadium as the Cavaliers try to do just that this weekend.
Stretching the Field
Virginia has still yet to open up the passing game through 3 games , with the only downfield passes of note resulting in 2 spectacular catches by wide receiver Tim Smith. As a result, the Cavaliers have seen several sustained drives end without points and also struggled with field position - particularly last week against the Tarheels. On Saturday, it's imperative that the Cavaliers vertically stretch the field to get some of the quick scores and momentum building plays that have been missing to this point in the season. Mike Rocco can start with the aforementioned Tim Smith, who has shown the speed and hands necessary to go and track down the long ball. More importantly, the Cavaliers need to find ways to get true freshman Darius Jennings and Dominique Terrell the ball. Coach London made a commitment to play these guys due to their big play making ability and it's time they get the chance to live up the billing.
Getting the Ball Into the End Zone
As I mentioned in the last Cavalier Rewind, watching the Wahoos in Chapel Hill was as equally encouraging as it was frustrating last Saturday. Encouraging in that, behind a very strong offensive line, Virginia had little trouble moving the football against a stout Tarheel defense. Frustrating, on that other hand, because the Cavaliers routinely saw promising drives stall without points. With the Virginia defense still going through some 4-3 growing pains, the Golden Eagles will put some points up on Saturday behind the school's all time leading passer (no, not Eagle legend Brett Favre - instead, talented senior QB Austin Davis). This means that the Cavaliers will need to be efficient with the ball and take every advantage of scoring opportunities in what is likely to be a high-scoring affair on Saturday. While the Cavaliers should be able to rely heavily on the running game, it would be nice to see Rocco thrown a pair of TD passes against Southern Miss. Virginia will need to cap off long drives with touchdowns, and not field goals, this weekend.
Stopping the Run
222 rushing yards. That was the total number of yards given up on the ground last weekend by the Cavaliers. Virginia defensive tackles were routinely pushed out of the way and the ends consistently stood up, allowing the Carolina backfield to run up and around the Cavalier defense. This Saturday, Virginia will face a pair of backs - Kendrick Hardy and Jamal Woodyard - who have rushed for a combined 374 yards and 2 touchdowns through 3 games. In other words, the Cavalier defense will again face a capable running game. Even more troubling, the Virginia defensive front has struggled to contain the qaurterback in two consecutive games - letting UNC QB Bryn Renner and Indiana QB Ian Baker-Wright make plays with their feet and keep plays alive. The going will not got any easier on Saturday as the Cavaliers will face a proven QB in Austin Davis who knows how to move in the pocket. Containment, along with stopping the run, will be key on Saturday. Virginia's linebackers will need to do a better job of wrapping up the defender as well - with UNC's backs breaking through many tackles last Saturday. If the Cavaliers are able to upset the Eagle's balanced offensive attack by shutting down the run, the Virginia defense will have some success on Saturday.
As previously mentioned, Virginia's front 7 have had a difficult time getting to - and sacking - the quarterback. As a result, opposing QBs have been able to keep plays alive and find receivers downfield once escaping the pocket. The Cavalier defensive line needs to step up on Saturday - not only getting Davis on the ground but also applying consistent pressure, forcing him into bad throws. If not, Davis will carve up Virginia's secondary on Saturday. And speaking of the Virginia secondary, when the chance for a big play is there, these guys haven to make it. Rodney McLeod dropped what would have been a huge interception last Saturday inside of the Cavalier 30. Moving forward, these types of plays need to be made for Virginia to win ballgames. The good news for Virginia is that the Golden Eagles have struggled in pass protection to date, giving up 7 sacks through three games - include 5 in their loss to Marshall. And this pressure has led to turnovers, with Southern Miss turning the ball over 9 times on the season already. I expect Will Hill and Justin Renfrow to see more of the field on Saturday, which should increase the defensive line's productivity. As a result, I also expect Chase Minnifield to have a big game this weekend. It is imperative that the Cavaliers get to the QB this weekend. Virginia must also win the turnover battle against Southern Miss - something they couldn't do a week ago in Chapel Hill. If these two things are accomplished, Cavalier fans will very enjoy themselves on Saturday. Defensive disruption will be a key storyline this weekend for Virginia.
[caption id="attachment_261" align="alignright" width="241" caption="Will T-Fr Dominique Terrell break through in the return game this weekend? Photo / Virginia Media Relations / Jim Daves"][/caption]
Robert Randolph's foot has been golden, and Matt Conrath had what proved to be a huge blocked field goal against Indiana 2 weeks ago. Virginia's return game, however, has been anything but special. Communication issues aside against Indiana, Virginia's return men have yet to make any significant contribution on the field. As part of what has been a constant rotation on receiving kickoffs, Earl Scott did have a nice return in his first action of the season in the second half of last weekend's game - so look for him to get more chances returning kickoffs this Saturday (well, hopefully not too many). Dominique Terrell and Darius Jennings have both shown quick first steps returning punts, but have had little room to breathe. Punt blocking needs to improve dramatically. For a team still learning how to win, special team points can make a huge difference. And while it's certainly not a must this weekend, the Cavaliers need to show serious improvement in the return game heading into the middle third of the season. Here's to Virginia taking their first big step in the return game this weekend.
This is a hard game to predict, as there is just as much uncertainty with the Golden Eagles as there is with the Cavaliers at this early point in the season. As always, the turnover battle will likely dictate the pace and the outcome of Saturday's contest. Though Southern Miss has nice overall team speed and a solid passing QB, I expect Virginia's offensive line to wear down the Eagle's defense - Kevin Parks and company should have a nice little outing on Saturday. On the other side of the ball, Southern Miss' propensity to allow their QB to get sacked and turn the ball over should give the Cavalier defense plenty of opportunities to make plays. Virginia will come out and play inspired football this weekend - getting a much needed win in the first of a 4 game home stand that will ultimately tell the tale of the 2011 season for the Cavaliers. Wahoowa!
Virginia 31 - Southern Miss 21Back to the Virginia Cavaliers Newsfeed