Craig Has The Scout - Virginia 2021
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Who: Virginia Cavaliers
When: 10:00 am - September 4th, 2021
Where: Scott Stadium, Charlottesville, VA
How: ACC Network (FYI, Scott Stadium has some funky camera angles so be ready)
Head Coach: Bronco Mendenhall Mendenhall's hire by Virginia was one of the biggest hiring surprises of recent memory. Prior to moving to Virginia, Mendenhall spent almost all of his coaching career out west. Mendenhall took over as head coach at BYU in 2005 and led them to 11 consecutive bowl games. He also had five seasons with 10 or more victories. A coach from the west with sustained success abruptly leaving for a Virginia team that Mike London ran into the ground was certainly odd. Mendenhall is .500 at Virginia and showed improving records in his first four years, including a division title in 2019.
Offensive Style: Power Spread with tempo. Robert Anae is the OC at Virginia, and a lot of Cavalier fans want to see the back of him. Virginia plays big boy football, something Illinois is striving to achieve. Virginia though prefers to use the QB as part of the rushing attack. Virginia used 4 QBs against William and Mary and likes to use the QBs similar to the way Anae used Taysom Hill at BYU. Brennan Armstrong is the passing QB and went 20-30 for 347 yards last week. He's not a dynamic passer, but similar to Frank Harris, he is a solid runner and an adequate passer.
Defensive Style: 3-4 base with Cover 4. Virginia has co-DCs, but Nick Howell is the primary play-caller for the D. The defense is an aggressive 3-4 that has safe coverage on the back end, not allowing deep balls. Virginia, similar to the Illini 3-4, will turn into a 2-4-5 Nickel. The Cavaliers are going to bring pressure, Illinois needs to identify the pressure and put the ball into space vacated by the pressure.
Specialists: Virginia lost both kickers off of last year's team. Last week was a good start, the punter averaged 45 yards per punt, and the kicker made both field goal attempts (25 and 39 yards).
Three Things to Watch
Quarterback rushing attempts vs. running back attempts. When the offense is clicking, the quarterback takes bulk of the carries. Last week against William and Mary the QBs carried the ball 20 times, while the RBs only had 11 carries.
Virginia TFLs. William and Mary ran 53 plays on Saturday. On those 53 plays,Virginia had 7 TFLs. The Illini offense has shown little resiliency when getting behind the sticks so far this year and the Illini need to avoid doing so against Virginia.
Illini pass plays over 20 yards. Last year Virginia allowed almost 4 plays per game of 30+ yards. Virginia finished 123rd last year Passing Yards/Attempt allowed, and 124th in passes greater than 20 yards allowed. For reference, both are worse than the Illinois pass defense last year, and side by side with LSU.
Scouting Review - Offense
Robert Anae continues on as the OC at Virginia. Anae came up through the ranks as an offensive line coach. Thirony is the the biggest weakness of Anae's Virginia offenses has been the offensive line. It is hard to tell if the challenges are talent identification or talent development. With the OL, it is a crapshoot.
Anae's offense has some advantages this season though. QB Brennan Armstrong returns as the main signal-caller this year. Anae also has a deep stable of other QBs they use in multiple positions and wildcats. Armstrong is the perfect dual-threat threat Anae needs. Last season, Armstrong led the team in both rushing and passing. The offensive line this year is experienced, as all five of the starters from the end of last year return. Last year might have been the most competent OL of the Mendenhall era, but it was still weak. The OL struggled to sustain a rushing attack, but they were solid in pass protection. The rushing attack starts with Armstrong who will get his yards. The running back corps is quite mediocre. The talent is the younger members, but Taulapapa will be the primary ball carrier. The receivers are middling, but Oklahoma State TE transfer Jelani Woods is returning this week after missing last week with an injury.
The offense Anae wants to run is the Taysom Hill offense he ran at BYU. It looks similar to the Tebow offense at Florida and JT Barrett at Ohio State. Anae will run the QB early and often. The primary run play is the inside zone read option set. Here is a straight-ahead blocking scheme (hard to tell if this is a Duo block or a zone scheme to me).
When they block straight ahead like this, there is very little read. I only saw Armstrong give in this look. Here is a similar look last year they ran when Armstrong was hurt.
Armstrong is the only QB they have that mixes passing and running ability. The next best quarterback is being used as a "Football Player", a position made up by Mendenhall. Armstrong is really solid in the option read.
Armstrong read the blitz early on this one. If the Illini DTs can't hold the point of attack, Virginia will give to the back and take chunk yards up the middle. Anae will mix up the looks on the blocking scheme, including the Wham block.
The RB in this play graduated, and none of the remaining options have shown this vision. If the Illini DTs do get penetration there is a great chance this is a TFL.
Anae prefers to run the QB though and mixes in a triple-option look with WR motion. The motion look typically means Armstrong is about to get a carry. The offense likes to use the RB as the lead blocker for the QB. The play allows the offense to have the numbers in the box as the QB is unaccounted for with the WR splits.
Anae will mix in different looks to run the QB, and every formation is open to being used in the run game.
The Cavaliers are in an empty set with 2 TEs in that play. Boston College has five players in the box against 7 blockers and the QB. The play took too long to develop in this case, but the power blocking scheme takes advantage of overly aggressive defenders.
The QB runs are not limited to Armstrong though. The Cavaliers run a version of Wildcat using the "Football Player" position. The FBP, as listed on the depth chart, is Keytaon Thompson. Thompson transferred to Virginia from Mississippi State with the chops of a Dan Mullen running quarterback.
He moves between RB, TE, and wildcat QB. He is not a threat to pass but is dynamic runner.
Jet motion is a prominent feature of the Virginia offense. They use it to read defenses as well as confuse assignments for the defense. They have multiple run schemes they use out of the motion look. The first play is a Power run with a jet sweep threat.
The WR motion has the CB cheating hard on the run, which is a scouting report move. The RB is Taulapapa, who occupies the safety as a lead blocker springing Armstrong. The Illini LBs will need to read quickly and flow to the play. Both LBs here are frozen by the jet motion. The Cavaliers mix triple option looks out of the jet motion. The play side LB in this play reacts to the jet motion, opening up the hole the back explodes through.
The offensive line does a nice job of moving to the second level. The TE wham block pulled the play-side safety across the formation further vacating the hole. Armstrong will absolutely pull the ball and run if the DE sucks in too far.
The jet motion again pulls the DB across the formation allowing Virginia to spring Armstrong to the outside. The DL penetration prevented the TE from securing the edge which stopped Armstrong from turning upfield quickly. Anae will continue to pressure the defense with the jet motion look, and will include a speed option look.
Again, the motion pulls a defender out of the area they are attacking. The OLB is in conflict and makes the right call taking the pitch. No one filled the alley though, and Armstrong to broke a big run.
One aspect of the offense I find interesting, and it may be something that only interests me, is the footwork of the tailbacks in the offense. My experience as a running back ended in pick-up football, so I don't have the details on the why for this.
On this play, the blocking is a zone scheme, with a wham block by the TE. The footwork of the RB gives him more depth before attacking the hole. Typically, RBs will get more depth at the snap vs. moving backward. The only time you normally see movement like this is with a counter play, and even then it is side to side.
Virginia will also use pro sets by moving a TE into the backfield. The TE is a lead blocker in these sets. Here is the run option.
The look has a pass play they will use as well
The receiver in this play is the 4th string QB, but 2nd string FBP. Anae will move around all the athletes he can in order to get them touches. A similar sentiment to Williams and Spann being moved to positions to allow them to be playmakers, Virginia has moved the QBs to allow them to be playmakers.
Virginia will move other playmakers into the backfield aside from the FBPs. They will also move the WRs into the backfield.
The pass is to Kemp, a WR lined up as a RB. The FBP in this case was the slot receiver, and the primary blocker to secure the edge.
Anae will use the FBPs as decoys as well. In this play, the FBP is running a wheel route. The CB and LB both react to the FBP moving up the sideline, opening a gap for the TE to slide into.
The Illini will need to track personnel, along with where they deploy in the formation. The amount of movement reminds me of Matt Canada's Maryland team. Anae will try to create immediate mismatches with the FBPs, which will challenge the Illini man coverage.
Using decoys to pull defenders is a hallmark of the offense. Anae uses the scheme to create issues with defenders and create mismatches.
The Cavaliers start this play motioning the RB out of the backfield. The RB runs a flat route, pulling the OLB outside as the flat defender. The slot TE over the OLB runs a post, attacking the space vacated by the flat defender, which pulls the safety covering him. The inline TE runs a seam route into the space vacated by the OLB and safety, leaving a wide-open lane for Armstrong to hit the QB. This is a clever concept, and with the challenges the Illini defense had last week in pass defense I expect to see similar plays this weekend.
Armstrong is a proficient passer. Anae runs some basic passing concepts which are effective when paired with a strong running game.
In this play, the OLB has the flat, and the near-side hitch route pulls him away from the TE. The TE is then open on the seam route for a big gain. Here is a play with a similar route package.
The far side receiver runs a hitch, with a seam route by the TE on the same side. The other TE is running a post, and the near-side receiver runs a hitch as well.
The Cavaliers will also utilize Armstrong's mobility by rolling the pocket. Armstrong is an effective thrower on the run, and the boot play gives Armstrong the option to run this if open.
The far side receivers are both blocking downfield (they believe Armstrong is going to run this). The receivers run a hitch route and a go route on the near side. If the go is open, Armstrong will go to that. The next option is the hitch, which Armstrong chooses here. If both receivers are covered, Armstrong will pull this.
If Illinois continues with the heavy rotation of man coverage, Virginia will use pick plays as well.
The TE is running a pick on this opening up the slot to run the slant. Nebraska used the pick quite often against Illinois.
Virginia will also use Armstrong's awareness to negate the Illini pressure. When Armstrong sees pressure coming, he is adept at hitting hot routes.
In this play, Armstrong and his receiver both see the corner blitz coming and run the hot route to a solid gain.
The Virginia offense has some cool gimmicks but the key to the offense is not to beat themselves and execute the fundamentals. Virginia needs the offense to stay ahead of the sticks and protect the offensive line from aggressive defensive fronts. In order to do that, they need to keep the penalties to a minimum. Once the team gets behind, it becomes one-dimensional and exposes the OL.
Scouting Review - Defense
The defense returns seven (six from last year) starters. Virginia statistically was good against the run last year, mainly because the pass defense was atrocious. The defensive line doesn't make a ton of tackles in the backfield, but they are aggressive and disruptive. Virginia has announced a change in the defensive personnel this week, which might signify a new defensive scheme against a run-heavy Illini defense.
Noah Taylor is one of the players with a new position for the week. He is normally a stand-up OLB, but this week is also listed as the starter at the X position. The X position might resemble how the Chiefs used Derrick Thomas, an OLB that moves around the field. The Cavaliers will be relying on him to generate a pass rush. Taylor will not be the only method of generating a pass rush, they will blitz LBs, CBs, and safeties.
The defensive line has depth, but similar to UTSA last week, the depth is young and inexperienced. The secondary is boosted by Joey Blount returning. Mendenhall stressed the defense needs a return to basics. Nebraska's DC had the same thoughts going into the season.
The base defense is similar to the new look Ryan Walters' defense. The base is a 3-4, and they primarily run a Cover 4 on the back end. The defense is predicated on penetration from the defensive line to disrupt the opposing run game. The defense is generally successful in this, but when they don't disrupt the opposing OL, they are prone to being gashed.
To help generate penetration they stunt the line in all downs and distances. One stunt they use is the NT loop. The DT over the OT stunts inside as the NT loops around the outside. Here are some examples.
On the second one, it is obvious how the defensive line getting penetration disrupts the run. The DE getting upfield against the tackle blows up the intended hole and bounces the run. On the first play, when the loop doesn't get home, the pass defense was torched. They will run the sister play to this, the E-T twist as well.
Here, the NT slants out and opens the inside for the OLB to come inside.
The defense loves to blitz. Often they will blitz the two ILBs and drop the two OLBs into coverage.
The cross-dogs action I expect to see to challenge the undersized Illini guards and their issues with containing opposing pass rushes. The Cavaliers will also look to get pressure into the QB's face if possible, as Sitkowski and Peters both struggle with direct pressure.
The defense also will mix the above concepts, which will challenge the Illini OL as well. Here is an ILB blitz, with a twist on the far side end.
The other option is to loop the OLB around the edge.
The loop was deployed against teams with mobile QBs (seen most against Cunningham of Louisville). They ran the cross-dogs more often against the pocket passers.
The Cavaliers love to blitz secondary players as well. Here are two corner blitzes.
The first one features a gratuitous leap at the end. Both are effective at generating quick pressure on the edge. The safeties are used in blitzes as well.
As seen in the second clip, the blitzes are not being done with reckless abandon. The defense is solid and disruptive against the run, but if the blitz doesn't get home the back end is very exposed.
The pass defense needs to improve. Teams that can throw consistently score on Virginia, but balance is required to beat them. Boston College last year ran the go deep offense against Virginia. They threw for 520 yards and lost to the Cavaliers.
What does it mean?
Virginia's run game is heavily reliant on the QB to make the run game go. The offensive line has struggled to consistently move the line and allow too many runs to get stuffed. If the defensive tackles can create penetration, the Virginia offense becomes one-dimensional. The Cavaliers lack reliable weapons at receiver, and the RB room has talent, but it is young and unproven. Armstrong can win a game with his legs and arm though.* *
The defense is disruptive but is the worst pass defense in the ACC. Again, their numbers last year were worse than the Lovie-led Illini defense. If Sitkowski/Peters can reliably take advantage of the pass defense, the Illini should soften the front and it can let the run game get into a rhythm.
For Illinois to Win:
Illinois needs to give the QBs enough time to challenge the Virginia secondary deep. The Illini offense has to establish a viable deep passing threat to open up the run game and slow the attacking front seven of Virginia.
Defensively, the Illini need to take advantage of a mediocre Virginia OL. UTSA consistently moved the ball against the Illini front, and to win Illinois will need to stuff the running of Armstrong. Forcing Virginia to be one-dimensional in the passing attack is the path to victory.
Virginia's last nine losses were the last nine games they lost the turnover margin.
For Virginia to Win:
Virginia's quarterback is experienced and cut in the mold of Frank Harris. The offensive line is a weak link but was solid in pass protection last week. Although they scored 41 points on offense, the offense took a while to get going against William and Mary. The running game last week had too many runs of 2 yards or less (17/31). They need to establish a rhythm at the outset against Illinois. Similar to Illinois, the Cavaliers do not play well from behind. The Cavaliers' offense needs to keep the game close or lead to take advantage of Illinois as the game progresses.
Defensively, Virginia needs to generate enough pressure to prevent Illinois from attacking the secondary deep. The Cavaliers are not particularly great at forcing turnovers, but the pressure defense allows them to get opponents behind the sticks. When Illinois is in obvious passing situations, the offense is predictable and inefficient. Virginia needs to get the Illini behind the sticks.
As an outside observer, I'm intrigued by the matchup. If both teams establish an offensive rhythm, this could be a wildly entertaining game. If both teams play to their floor on offense, it would make the Wisconsin-Penn State first half look delightful. Illinois was able to build a lead against Nebraska and hold on for a win. As a fan though, I have an impending sense of doom. I don't think the Illini are going to build the lead needed to win this week, and Armstrong has the weapons to create enough points for Virginia to cover.
YTD Against the Spread: