In college football, every week poses a new challenge.
In week one, the Virginia defense was challenged to start the 2021 campaign off strong after a 2020 season in which defensive lapses cost the Hoos a number of games. The Cavaliers responded well, holding William & Mary to less than 200 yards of total offense in a 43-0 shutout, an impressive feat regardless of the opponent.
In week two, the challenge was to play to that standard again versus a Big Ten opponent in Illinois. The defense delivered once again, shutting out the Illini in the first and fourth quarters and holding them to just 14 total points.
In week three, the difficulty level of the challenge was elevated again in Chapel Hill against a North Carolina offense with a ton of firepower. It was the first real test for a Cavalier defense which had looked like a strength of this team so far this season.
The Virginia defense did not pass the test.
The Cavaliers gave up more total yards (699) and more points (59) to UNC than they did to William & Mary and Illinois combined. The Tar Heels recorded more passing yards in the first half alone (338 yards) than Virginia had given up all season and they recorded more rushing yards in the second half alone (246 yards) than UVA had given up through the first two games.
Sam Howell exposed the Virginia secondary early and often, showing that the Cavalier defensive backs could not keep up with the speed and route-running of UNC’s receivers, or tackle them after they made the catch, as shown by Josh Downs’ 59-yard touchdown on the first drive. Howell also frequently threatened to beat UVA over the top and Virginia fans had to hold their breath every time Howell dropped back to pass. Khafre Brown’s 75-yard touchdown gave the Hoos plenty to fear whenever Howell decided to test the long ball.
Howell needed just 14 completions on 21 passing attempts to rack up 307 passing yards and five touchdowns. Four different UNC players recorded touchdown receptions.
What was perhaps even more demoralizing was that UVA yielded these substantial passing numbers to UNC, but failed to stop the Tar Heels’ run game as well, giving up 392 rushing yards and three rushing touchdowns. Ty Chandler led the way with 20 carries for 198 yards and two touchdowns, while Caleb Hood added 66 yards and a touchdown on nine carries. Even Sam Howell had success in the running game with 15 carries for 112 yards.
Virginia could not stop North Carolina no matter what play the Tar Heels decided to run. UNC dominated the line of scrimmage, giving Howell all day to throw the ball on passing plays and creating huge holes for UNC’s running backs such that they ran several yards before making contact with a Cavalier defender.
“I didn’t see really anything that was positive today,” said head coach Bronco Mendenhall after the loss. “From run fits to execution to tackling to mindset.”
After forcing William & Mary to punt eight times and Illinois to punt seven times, the Virginia defense failed to force a single North Carolina punt.
The Cavaliers have a surplus of issues to address on the defensive end but do not have a surplus of time to do it, as Wake Forest comes to Scott Stadium on Friday night. The Demon Deacons are not exactly a tune-up opponent either, as they bring an experienced and efficient offensive attack to Scott Stadium.
Wake comes into the game fifth in the ACC in scoring with 39.3 points per game, just behind Virginia in fourth with 41.3 points per game. The Demon Deacons defeated ODU 42-10 and Norfolk State 41-16, before taking down Florida State 35-14 last week.
Redshirt sophomore quarterback Sam Hartman has been impressive thus far, completing 57 passes at a 68% rate for 691 yards and six touchdowns with just one interception.
“He's tough, he's competitive, he throws the ball well,” said Mendenhall of Sam Hartman. “So when you add the right system to a quarterback that can do all that, then yeah, you end up scoring a lot of points.”
Like UNC, Wake has an assortment of weapons for Hartman to distribute the ball to. Running back Christian Beal-Smith has recorded 229 yards and four touchdowns on 39 carries this season. A.T. Perry leads the Deacs with 255 receiving yards on 13 catches, averages 85 receiving yards per game, and has two touchdowns on the year. Jaquarii Roberson, who was a Second-Team All-ACC wide receiver in 2020, has 12 receptions for 154 yards and two touchdowns this season.
Not exactly a respite for a battered UVA defense in serious need of a bounce back performance.
Wake Forest is not generally perceived as a football powerhouse, but Virginia has no issue giving the Demon Deacons the respect they deserve, as UVA has lost both meetings between the two programs since Mendenhall became Virginia’s head coach.
“That really hasn't taken any motivation on our part,” Mendenhall said on respecting Wake as an opponent. “We have plenty to work on, and this opponent we're viewing just like we always have because they've beaten us twice. They've earned our respect.”
In the last meeting in 2020, Wake Forest defeated Virginia 40-23 in Winston-Salem. The Demon Deacons amassed 483 yards of total offense against the UVA defense. Hartman completed 16 of 27 passing attempts for 309 passing yards and a touchdown. Wake was able to establish an effective rushing attack as well with 174 rushing yards, including 128 yards and three touchdowns from Kenneth Walker.
Somewhat of an underrated program, Wake Forest joins Clemson as the only two teams in the ACC to average at least 30 points per game in each season since 2018.
“I don't know how the rest of the world views Wake but in the ACC they're a good football program. They win a lot and they do it at a place that's pretty challenging,” Mendenhall said, adding that it is not tempting to underestimate Wake Forest since “we’ve played them twice in my tenure here and they’ve beaten us both times in really hard contests… the week is just a very difficult one to prepare for.”
It is certainly a tall task for Virginia to fix its many defensive flaws and prepare for a formidable Wake Forest offense all in a short week, but some in UVA’s camp are actually receptive to the added pressure.
“I’m glad we get to go out faster and come back,” said linebacker Nick Jackson, who had 10 tackles against North Carolina.
“This might be counterintuitive: I see it as an advantage: urgency, urgency, urgency,” Mendenhall said. “When you have a week like that and you have weaknesses exposed or you don’t play to your potential or you’re disappointed after some hard setback. I like kind of being under the gun to go, and so sincerely I believe that could be helpful.”
In college football, every week poses a new challenge. Facing an undefeated Wake Forest team on a short week might be a welcome challenge to some in Virginia’s camp, but it is a challenge nonetheless. Let’s see how the Hoos respond.