Duke Now

Duke at Virginia: Ask an opponent’s beat writer

I might be in New York with basketball this weekend, but the football team is still heading to Charlottesville to take on Virginia. And for more information on the Cavaliers, the Charlottesville Day Progress’s Andrew Ramspacher has the 411. Check out his work here.

Also, for my thoughts on similar questions about Duke, check out the Q&A I did with him.

1. From a distance, it looked like UVA’s season was effectively over after the 56-14 home embarrassment to Boise State on Friday, Sept. 25. But the Cavaliers have been competitive in recent losses to Miami and Louisville. Is it in fact the case that the players have continued to fight the good fight for embattled coach Mike London?

Undoubtedly. London, for all his coaching flaws, is a great person. He’s run a clean program with good kids who truly bond with their head coach. This team’s been over-scheduled for most of the last two years, but rarely has completely laid down for an opponent. Boise State was up 7-0 within seconds of that game (see a Matt Johns pick-six on the first play) and the Cavaliers just couldn’t recover. They got hit by an absolute buzzsaw.

On Oct. 10 at Pitt, Virginia’s first game following the Broncos’ six-touchdown whipping, the Cavs trailed 17-3 after the first quarter, but only lost 26-19. It was a sign these guys weren’t going to quit this season. Since, they’re 2-3 with defeats by an average of 8.6 points.

2. Speaking of those Miami and Louisville losses—by six and seven points, respectively—what has prevented UVA from turning those into wins?

Here’s where London’s flaws come in. Such defeats aren’t unique to this season. Since the beginning of 2014, Virginia has lost nine games — NINE! — by eight points or fewer. Instead of finding ways to win, the Cavaliers find ways to lose.

UVa rarely wins the “little things” battle. Against Miami, they had five pre-snap penalties while also allowing six plays of 20 yards or more. Against Louisville, special teams botched three major opportunities. Trailing 24-17 in the third quarter, Ian Frye missed a 24-yard field goal. With the game tied at 24 in the fourth quarter, Olamide Zaccheaus muffed a punt, which the Cardinals recovered and eventually used for their go-ahead touchdown. Trailing 38-31 with 1:16 to play, Virginia had a recovered onside kick nullified by an illegal formation penalty.

It’s feels like Groundhog Day every Saturday with this program. It’s a culture thing at this point.

3. For a few weeks there, it looked like UVA had made the wrong choice keeping quarterback Matt Johns over Greyson Lambert, who found brief success at Georgia before that crashed and burned a bit. How has Johns been this year?

Johns enters Saturday coming off, arguably, his best performance of the season at Louisville. His 260 yards and four touchdowns were great, but he managed to avoid an interception against the ACC’s most ball-hawking defense. He hadn’t produced a pick-free game since Sept. 12 against Notre Dame.

With a strong finish, Johns will throw for more yards than any quarterback of the London era. Granted, UVa hasn’t been QB U over the last six yards, but that gives you an idea of his production. His turnovers have been costly (see FIVE in the second half alone in the 26-13 loss to North Carolina on Oct. 24), but I think his overall game ?— plus Lambert’s recent struggles at Georgia (see a benching against Florida) — has helped in fans realizing Johns just might have been the better choice.

4. Give me a bright spot for the offense

Running back Taquan “Smoke” Mizzell has gone from potential five-star bust to Virginia’s most valuable offensive player. The Cavaliers are a screen-heavy team that LOVES to get the ball in Mizzell’s hands. He leads the nation’s RBs with 63 receptions and 628 yards. He’s also carried 136 times for 577 yards. Once an east-west runner, Mizzell, thanks to the addition of first-year RBs coach Chris Beatty, has adapted a north-south style that’s proved beneficial.

5. And, hey, while we’re at it, one for the defense, too.

The sophomore combination of safety Quin Blanding and linebacker Micah Kiser ranks 1-2 in the ACC in tackles. While Blanding, the league’s reigning defensive rookie of the year, has been exposed in coverage this season, he’s still one of the most physical Cavaliers. Kiser, a first-year starter, has star potential. He’s not blessed with great size (6-2, 240) or speed, but he’s got a nose for the football. UVa fans should feel good about Kiser anchoring this defense for the next two years. He’s second on the team in tackles for loss (10.5) and is the co-leader in sacks (5.5) and forced fumbles (three).

Thanks to Andrew for his time.