After an unsatisfactory 2020 season in which Virginia ranked in the back of the pack in the ACC for most major defensive statistics, the UVA defense was challenged this offseason to be much better in 2021.
Through the first two games of the season, the Cavaliers have delivered.
Virginia is the only team in the country which has given up zero red zone touchdowns through the first two weeks of the season. The Cavaliers have allowed just 14 points through the first two games, their lowest since they shut out both of their opponents to start the 1952 season.
“So far our team has responded really well to both challenges, exactly as I would have liked them to,” said UVA head coach Bronco Mendenhall. “They’ve given me no reason to expect they won’t do the same to No. 3.”
Virginia has allowed an average of 155 passing yards per game, a far cry from last season’s figure of 304 passing yards per game, which was last in the ACC.
That being said, the competition of William & Mary and Illinois is not quite on the same level of UVA’s next opponent, North Carolina, especially in terms of explosiveness in the passing game.
Quarterback Sam Howell is already the career leader in passing touchdowns at UNC and was a preseason First-Team All-American as the best quarterback in the country in preseason polls.
Howell and the Tar Heels torched the UVA defense in each of their last two meetings. In 2019, Howell had 353 passing yards and four touchdowns and in 2020, he amassed 443 passing yards and four touchdowns. In both games, however, Virginia came away with the victory as the Cavalier offense was able to keep pace with the Tar Heels and the UVA defense made just enough stops throughout the game to secure the win.
North Carolina lost several key weapons at skill positions following the 2020 season, including All-ACC wide receivers Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome and All-ACC running backs Javonte Williams and Michael Carter. But with Howell still under center, UNC figured to have a potent offense in 2021.
Things did not go as planned for the Tar Heels in their season-opening game against Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. UNC managed just 208 passing yards, 354 total yards, and only ten points and lost to Virginia Tech 17-10.
And while we generally try to avoid giving the Hokies credit for anything, they provided a model for how to beat the Tar Heels.
Virginia Tech pressured Howell throughout the game and forced him to make errant throws. The Hokies sacked Howell six times and intercepted him three times. Virginia Tech also dominated time of possession, as North Carolina only had the ball for 25:03 in the game, including just over nine minutes with the ball in the first half. UNC was also just two of ten on third-down conversions. It appears that the recipe for keeping the Carolina offense at bay is to take advantage of potential weaknesses on the UNC offensive line, put pressure on Howell in the pocket, and get (and keep) the Tar Heels offense off the field.
In week two against Georgia State, North Carolina looked much more like the dynamic offense everyone expected them to be with 406 passing yards, 201 rushing yards and 607 yards of total offense in a 59-17 victory in Chapel Hill. Howell completed 21 of 29 passing attempts for 352 yards and three touchdowns, while also running for 104 yards and two touchdowns, including a 62-yard rushing touchdown.
The Hokies showed how to beat the Heels, but Georgia State showed what can happen if you do not put a lid on Sam Howell.
Virginia’s penchant for yielding big plays doomed the Cavaliers last season and the Hoos have been much improved in that area so far this season.
“I don't think I'm ever satisfied with anything, and my team knows that, and I do my best to promote confidence while making sure they know there's always something to work on,” Mendenhall said of the Virginia secondary. “I'm not easy to satisfy. But I am pleased with how we played and what we've done in week one and week two, really all across the board, and so yeah, I would say so far, so good.”
And while UNC is without the familiar offensive superstars who terrorized the UVA defense in the shootout in Charlottesville in 2020, the Tar Heels have a number of talented players for Howell to distribute the ball to this season.
Wide receiver Josh Downs was solid in both games, recording eight receptions for 123 yards and a touchdown against Virginia Tech, and recording eight receptions for 73 yards and a touchdown against Georgia State. Receivers Antoine Green and Emery Simmons also had touchdown receptions versus Georgia State. In the ground game, Ty Chandler leads the Heels with 25 carries for 124 yards and a touchdown through the first two games of the season.
Bronco Mendenhall sees a similarly potent offensive design for North Carolina this season even with the new faces at the skill positions.
“The scheme is well thought out. It's very well-coached,” Mendenhall said of UNC’s offense. “I think like every team every year, you learn about maybe the impact of losses of personnel as you go versus different match-ups. The running game and the running backs from a year ago, the receivers from a year ago, the personnel was very strong, and I think it's still strong, but it is different. But the system is more similar than different than it was.”
The Tar Heels clearly still have the potential for an offensive explosion in any given game, but Virginia Tech exposed flaws that the Cavaliers ought to try to take advantage of on Saturday night.
The Virginia defense has been solid through the first two games, but the Cavaliers will certainly have their work cut out for them on the road in Chapel Hill against a Carolina team which will be eager to put an end to a four-game losing streak against the Wahoos.