At this stage of the reclamation project that is Virginia football, I think the highest compliment that for the program in any given week is that they took care of business. On Saturday against the UConn Huskies, Virginia took care of business.
Virginia was the better team on Saturday. They had better athletes, they were better prepared, they had the better coaching staff. For this those who have been following Virginia football since the departure of George Welsh, that is usually a recipe for disaster. Another chapter in the on-going Virginia Athletics saga “Can you believe we lost to…”
Not so Against UConn. It has been a long time since a game seemed like it was never in doubt from start to finish – in Virginia’s favor. Virginia’s offensive line, which saw personnel changes from last week’s loss to Indiana was effective all day. Kurt Benkert consistently had time to check down to secondary receivers, who were frequently wide open, sometimes well behind the UConn defense. Gone were “the drops” from last week and well-thrown Benkert passes were hauled in for big gains. Jordon Ellis, Olamide Zaccheaus, and Daniel Hamm had seams to run and were often able to get outside of the Huskies’ containment.
Virginia’s defense was not dominant but played outstanding assignment defense. They were in the position to make plays and far more often than not kept the UConn offense off balance and between the 20s. While Micah Kiser had his usual all-American performance (15 tackles & 2 sacks), the most exciting defensive performance came from Brenton Nelson. Formerly a member of the Virginia track team, Nelson looked more like Kenny Easley than Carl Lewis. He had an athletic interception that killed a promising UConn drive and 2 pass break-ups, one of which prevented a UConn touchdown, to go along with 8 tackles. Virginia’s defense often depends on its defensive backs being on islands and playing 1:1 defense. Nelson, Thornhill, Blanding, and Hall showed well all day, allowing Virginia’s front several to focus on controlling the line and penetrating the UConn backfield.
Heck, Saturday was so good for Virginia that kicker AJ Mejia kicked a season-best FG of 28 yards. It is my opinion that it had enough leg to be good from 35 yards. While we are not ready to declare the kicking game effective yet, it has improved and needs to continue that trend if Virginia has any chance to go bowling in 2017.
While Virginia was dominant the entire afternoon, a couple of issues raised their heads that Virginia needs to clean up before they head west to Boise. After 2 weeks of very clean play, Virginia committed 9 penalties for 109 yards. Some of these penalties were classic bonehead mistakes. Two chop-blocks and one very bad targeting penalty accounted for 45 penalty yards and the ejection of Andrew Brown. Virginia was a good enough to get away with these mistakes against UConn. Boise State is likely to make Virginia pay if they commit similar mental errors next week.
Virginia’s kickoff team also needs to improve its performance. Despite a tremendous kickoff coverage hit from former walk-on Ben Hogg that pinned UConn back at their 15-yard line in the 4th quarter, Virginia allowed over 31 yards per kickoff return. Virginia can give up field position against UConn, but you can bet your last dollar that Virginia Tech, Miami, and Louisville, will convert field position advantages into points. Virginia has a very thin margin for error as they rebuild the program. Mistakes like these can turn potential wins into frustrating losses, prolonging the rebuild of the program.
Rolling into week 4 of the ‘17 season, the good news is that Virginia has matched its win total from last year and has a winning record for the first time since 2014. The sobering news is that Virginia is heading into the meat of its schedule. Virginia has some tough contests ahead, starting Friday night in Boise. Call me crazy, and clearly the hope was that Virginia would be 3-0 heading to Boise this week, but I am becoming more optimistic about the game this week and the rest of the season.
Virginia has not been spectacular in their first 3 games, but they have been well prepared. With a few exceptions, Virginia has avoided the self-inflicted wounds that have deflated so many potential wins the past several years. We have the right players on the field at the right time and are making more plays than not. The weaknesses that have plagued Virginia in the early games this season seem to be trending in the right direction.
I hate making predictions because I usually get them wrong. My good friend Nick is much better prognosticator of Virginia fortunes than I am. I usually defer to his predictions. However, I am encouraged by the progression of the program in the first three weeks of the season and I expect Virginia to be very competitive against Boise State this weekend. Okay, I’ll say it. Despite opening as a 13 point dog on the Vegas meeting line, I think Virginia takes care of business again this weekend and comes home with a hard-fought and much-deserved win. I hate making predictions and I hate making bets. At least the prediction won’t cost me any money.