Craig Has The Scout - Virginia 2022
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Day nine of Craig not being able to log into the site. Sunshine turns to darkness and back to sunshine again with little change in demeanor from the troops. Morale is low. Mail from home has not arrived. The skies appear bleak.
(Not really - I just needed an intro to let you know why I'm publishing Craig Has The Scout again this week. Let's get to it.)
Who: Virginia Cavaliers
When: 3:00pm - September 10th, 2022
Where: Home Sweet Home
Head Coach: Tony Elliott. Elliott comes to Virginia after over a decade at Clemson. In 2011, Dabo Swinney lost Billy Napier as his OC and rebooted his offensive staff. The staff was a mix of pure recruiters and solid coaches. Elliott was in the recruiter camp. He was a walk-on WR at Clemson and his senior year WR coach was one Dabo Swinney. Elliott was promoted to Co-OC when Chad Morris took over at SMU. Elliott was part of the incredible staff that propelled Clemson to their historic run and was part of the exodus after last season (and the fans approved). He takes over a Virginia program in good shape but needs a serious infusion of talent to move out of the ACC middle-class.
Offensive Style: Shotgun Spread with zone blocking (normally with 20 personnel) and a general West Coast pass tree. Elliott has historically liked to run the QB. The front is normally a zone blocking scheme with an H-back leading or pulling. Elliott has historically run RPO elements to this. The passing game is screen heavy and utilizes heavy Hitch routes by the perimeter receivers. The offense has shot routes, but with a suspect OL the Cavs will feature more tempo passing. Des Kitchings comes over as his OC. Kitchings was Co-OC at NC State with George McDonald in the 2019 season (which did not go well). He was tied to Robbie Caldwell (Clemson OL coach) which explains the connection to Elliott. He will work to revitalize the run game at Virginia.
Defensive Style: 4-2-5. The DC is John Rudzinski. Rudzinski comes to Virginia from Air Force where he ran a 3-4. The last service academy DC who went P5 didn't pan out so well (Jay Bateman at UNC) so I'm honestly a little surprised by the move. Rudzinski ran a 4-2-5 against Richmond but has stated he may move to a 3-4. Which, by the way, they executed the 4-2-5 makes it merely semantics. The defense had two ILBs, a stand-up Edge, 3 DL with a hand in the dirt, 3 Safeties, and 2 Corners.
Specialists: Virginia brings back an experienced set of specialists. I'm more concerned with the shaky special teams of Illinois thus far.
Three Things to Watch
Pace of play. Illinois ran 86 plays on Saturday, and the game featured 148. Tempro was in full display compared to previous seasons. Virginia will also want to maintain an uptempo pace. Virginia features NFL skill talent, and the higher pace of play allows them more explosive play possibilities.
Average Depth of Completion. Courtesy of John from the Field Pass on Illinois passing against Indiana.
Tommy DeVito average depth of target/attempt - 6.9 yards
Tommy DeVito average depth of target/completion - 3.4 yards
Tommy DeVito average depth of target/incompletion - 12.1 yards
If the Illini do not open up the downfield passing attack, opponents are going to load up on Chase Brown. Lunney and the offensive staff need to clean up the pocket, and create space for opportunities downfield. Then, the players need to catch the catchable passes.
3. Length of Drives. Virginia averaged 8.4 plays per drive last week. Indiana also averaged 8.4 plays per drive. Illinois needs a better stop rate on 3rd down this week to get the Cavs off the field.
Scouting Review - Offense
Tape on Virginia is a bit hard to come by for a fanalyst. The game against Richmond was on a regional sports network and no one I know was able to DVR it. So, the scout will be more based on the historical games of Elliott utilizing some interviews from fall camp.
Elliott cut his teeth on a modern playbook as an assistant under Chad Morris. People forget now, but Morris was a phenom with the rise of DeShaun Watson at Clemson. Morris learned the basis for his running attack in high school by picking Gus Malzahn's brain. The result was not the inverted veer scheme that Malzahn preferred, but a zone blocking scheme using a tailback and H-back.
Elliott, therefore, runs a more traditional run game and will shoot for a balanced run/pass play ratio. The strategy takes away from the most potent weapon on the offense - QB Brennan Armstrong. Armstrong was electric last year. In addition to Armstrong, the Cavs sport 3 NFL quality WRs and two good RBs. The RB issue is a bit moot though with the ability of Armstrong to run.
The major issue is the offensive line. Virginia lost all five OL (four due to transfer) from last year and then lost another due to injury in fall camp.
Tony Elliott was a source of frustration for many Clemson fans by the end of his time there. His offense is hard to stop with generational QB talent, but bogged down the last few years with merely good QB play. The offense is lives and dies off the run game. At Clemson, the core play was an inside zone read-option look, with no TE and an H-back on the same side as the RB.
The H-back is on the same side as the tailback, and they run a zone scheme on the H-back side. The read-option keep is to the stacked side. Here is a couple of the highlights from Virginia last weekend.
This was a pretty standard play at Clemson over the years and a pretty successful one at that. Based on a full 3-minutes of highlight film, it appears it is in full display in Charlottesville as well.
Clemson also mixed this up with the H-back Wham block across the formation and running IZ away from the play side.
With Armstrong at QB, I would expect more of this against Illinois to release Armstrong in the run game.
Clemson's run game also featured some outside zone plays as well. Outside zone tended to occur when the H-back and the RB were across the formation from each other. The zone blocking went in the direction of the H-back (or TE), with the QB reading the backside DE.
The Illini defense can key on the formation to begin a quick identification of the play options. The Wham block is the major change in the execution of the run scheme.
If Illinois does get overly aggressive, the Elliott offense will mix in RPOs and PA passing down the seams.
The Clemson passing attack tended to rely heavily on a strong slot receiver and big outside receivers. The Tigers ran a lot of mirror routes in the last few years to simplify the attack. Virginia should run more of the same. Here is one version, where the outside receivers are running out routes and the inside receivers have option routes but are attacking the seams.
For Clemson, this was about simplifying for DJ last season as he struggled to move the offense. The sheer talent at the outside WR spots kept these routes open. Clemson struggled with a slot option last year, which meant more of the offense was very perimeter-oriented. Virginia has four quality receivers, one of which is former quarterback Keytaon Thompson in the slot. Thompson wreaked havoc last season and is poised for a big year again. Lavel Davis is his primary running mate and electric. Here is a play Illinois should see targeting Thompson in the slot.
The outside receiver is running deep option routes, while the two slots are finding underneath seams.
Brennan Armstrong may be the most talented QB in the ACC. He will be the most dynamic QB Illinois faces this season. The issue is the OL is a complete tear-down and on-the-fly rebuild. The stats suggest Richmond did not really challenge the Cavs' OL. The zone scheme will open up the Cavs to disruption by the Illini DL, who looked very stout against the rushing attack of Indiana. The game will be decided on Virginia's ability to connect in the intermediate passing game.
Scouting Review - Defense
Writers have changed the characterization of Rudzinski's defense in the off-season from a 3-4 to a 4-2-5. This is partially a naming exercise to show a new defense from the previous regime. It is also a reflection of his ability to bring in better talent at Virginia than at Air Force to run his defense.
Virginia finished last year running a 3-3-5, and it failed by the end. Virginia lost their last four, and the defense was torched repeatedly. Rudzinski is now talking of the 4 down lineman, but Illini fans will be hard pressed to differentiate between his 4-2-5 and the Illini 3-4 when Walters goes Nickel.
Virginia went shopping in the transfer portal to rebuild their DL depth. They brought in two edge rushers from Michigan State and Marshall. The LB corps is led by Nick Jackson, who led the ACC in tackles in 2021, but the next line of depth all left in the portal. The secondary saw three graduations but has some experience.
Rudzinski's base defense is very Iowa. The concept is to play stout defense against the run and force passes into tight windows. Here is the base defense last year against Utah State.
The swing pass to the RB in the flat is aggressively pursued by the LB, and it appears they are in Cover 3 behind, but with aggressive man tendencies on the receivers. Here is a touchdown from Richmond last week.
The LB overpursued the back in the flat in this instance, but the defense is exactly the same.
The backend of the defense is generally a Cover 3 in the film I watched, but they did mix in what appeared to be Cover 4. The 3 safeties in the backend though allow one to be a robber. The variations concern me with DeVito and his tendency to sail passes. Here is an example from last season.
The Robber safety will force throws higher, and if the QB is not stepping into the throws they will sail.
This is the defense I expect for most of Saturday.
Utah State moved the ball on the ground, but the Air Force defense bottled up the big plays and made Utah State march down the field. If Illinois starts having success, Rudzinski will add in edge blitzes to force Illinois back to the interior.
The defense last year was a liability, then lost most of the experience on the unit. Virginia had the depth to help recover, but it is hard to believe in a huge turnaround given the magnitude of losses. Virginia may not need to be overly creative though, Illinois has not shown the ability to open the intermediate passing game.
What does it mean?
Penalties were not mentioned above, but may be the key to the game. Illinois has been very penalty prone in its first two games. Virginia looked sloppy as well last week with multiple penalties of their own (especially holding calls).
The Illini rushing attack has been impressive, but if they cannot unlock the passing attack opponents will load up on the run. Virginia opened the season beating up an FCS opponent as expected and was efficient as well racking up 29 first downs. Illinois has a DL to challenge the unproven OL though. Brennan Armstrong is the wildcard in the game. If he can make enough wow plays to bail out the offense, Virginia will keep drives alive and move the ball.
For Illinois to Win:
The defense will need to shut down the Virginia passing attack. The Illini DL has been disruptive but must bring more consistent pressure. The run defense has been good the last two weeks.
The Illini OL needs to keep DeVito clean so that he is stepping into throws. Multiple overthrows this past week put the Illini behind the sticks, and DeVito's jersey was not clean after Indiana. If Illinois can clean up the pocket, the turnovers, and the penalties they have the best unit on the field.
For Virginia to Win:
Tony Elliott will be preaching balance to his team again this week. Perris Jones showed himself to be a competent P5 back last week, and Brennan Armstrong's legs were on display again. The receiving corps is electric. They need both to show up again this week to take the pressure off the OL. If they can help their OL, Virginia is going to move the ball. As long as they are moving the ball they can outscore the Illini.
Defensively, Virginia needs to load up to stop Chase Brown. The Illini rushing attack has been on the mark so far, but that is the only part of the offense on the mark. In a game between gunslinging QBs, I'll take Armstrong.
I picked Illinois to win last week, but they pushed on the spread, so I am officially 1-0-1. That game was a loss all around though.
I don't understand this line. Based on some generic stats, Virginia is about a 2 point favorite on the road. Illinois showed an issue with stopping Connor Bazelak throwing, so one would think that Brennan Armstrong would generate more points. This is a swap from a couple of FBS also-rans to a legit FBS quarterback. With the pace of play Illinois is playing, I'll take the points with the team yielding the explosive offense. Give me Virginia to cover.
Craig YTD Against the Spread: