CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. And welcome to Scott Stadium. It’s North Carolina vs. Virginia here today: The Oldest Rivalry in the South, they call it. And what a gorgeous day it is, indeed, here at Virginia. Game time is quickly approaching so let’s get right to it: a quick question-and-answer session with Andrew Ramspacher, who in addition to having an enviable first name also covers Virginia for The Daily Progress.
Andrew Carter: This doesn't look like a great match-up for Virginia. The Cavaliers are a poor rushing team, which makes it seem unlikely that they'd be able to take advantage of UNC's not-good run defense. And Virginia is bad at defending the pass, and UNC's strength is probably its passing offense. What gives the Cavaliers hope entering a game that doesn't look good for them on paper?
Andrew Ramspacher: Throw in UNC's recent dominance of this series and, yep, the Cavs don't have a lot going for them in this one.
Their chance, I believe, exists if they can pull off a performance similar to what they showed at Duke on Oct 1. Kurt Benkert threw for over 300 yards and the defensive created six turnovers that afternoon in Durham as UVa beat the Blue Devils by a couple touchdowns.
Benkert, who's on pace to shatter the school record for passing yards in a season, can really sling it and there's just enough speed at receiver -- see Olamide Zaccheaus -- for the Cavaliers to pose a deep threat every time they have the ball. UVa had seven pass plays of at least 12 yards at Duke, including a couple topping 30. Meanwhile, the defense, normally this team's weakness, got hot in the secondary in Durham. But do I see Virginia intercepting Mitch Trubisky five times? No, considering the UNC QB has two picks all season.
AC: I've been asking a variation of this a lot given that UNC is playing seven teams this year with new head coach: What's different at Virginia under Bronco Mendenhall? What are the most noticeable changes since he took over for Mike London?
AR: Schematically, UVa's gone from a pro style to "Air Raid" offense and a 4-3 to 3-4 defense. But Mendenhall's done his best to change just about everything else with the program, too. The Cavaliers went through all of spring practice and the majority of fall camp without jersey numbers as they had to "earn" them. They essentially had a number draft near the end of August. Draft order was chosen by the players — and it wasn't predictable. For example, reserve running back Jordan Ellis got the first pick because he, according to teammates, he consistently showed good work ethic.
Numbers are now placed on the left side of Virginia's helmets, just one of the wrinkles to uniforms that are new in the Mendenhall era. Saturday, the Cavaliers will once again be in a look they used to only wear as "throwbacks" in the Mike London era.
These changes, though, have all led to a 2-4 record through six games, matching UVa's halfway point mark of three of the last four seasons.
AC: Along those lines, how far away is Virginia from being competitive in the Coastal Division? The win at Duke had to be a nice boost. What's the realistic timetable for the Cavaliers to rise out of the dungeon where they've been stuck in recent years?
AR: With the current staff in place, I think next season could lead to a slight rise. Of Saturday's projected starters, as many as eight could be back on defense and seven on offense, including Benkert. And by "slight rise," I mean 6-6 is a realistic possibility considering the schedule.
Mendenhall took over a very thin roster. A lot depends on the current freshmen developing and as well as members of the next recruiting class. If those groups can help with depth, there should be enough front-line talent for moderate success.
Benkert is key to the whole thing. UVa's been to two bowls in 10 years. A big reason why? An ongoing QB carousel. Should Benkert stop it and continue thriving in 2017, the Cavaliers should be in good shape.
AC: They call this The Oldest Rivalry in the South and, well … it hasn't been much of a rivalry in a while, because both teams have gone on long runs against the other. UNC is in the midst of one now, having won six straight in the series. Is that something that sticks in Virginia's craw or does its recent shortcomings in this series not register all that much given its other recent problems?
AR: Prominent UVa football alumni will tell you that's something that's been lost on the Cavaliers in recent years, a sense of rivalry. Six straight to UNC and 12 straight losses to Virginia Tech, that stings former players. As for the current Cavs, I'm not sure if it's totally grasped. It's hard when you're on the wrong end all the time, I guess.
What Virginia needs is a moment to hang on to from these games. Had it not blown the 2014 game to the Tar Heels, the Cavaliers likely go 6-6 and get to a bowl. That pumps up the pride. Perhaps a Saturday upset in Mendenhall's first matchup with UNC gets it going again.
Thanks to Andrew for his time. Almost game time here.