October 26, 2020

Independent analysis and commentary on UVA athletics

Gameday Guide – NC State

 

After a respectable loss at top ranked Clemson last week, UVA makes its return to Scott Stadium this weekend. The Hoos (1-1, 1-1) will host NC State (2-1, 2-1). State is coming off a one-point, upset win at Pitt last weekend.

NC State will look to continue the momentum gained at Pitt to pull off another ACC road upset. The Hoos will be looking to establish their credentials as a top half team in the ACC.

Kickoff is scheduled for noon.

Game Uniforms

The Hoos will break out their third and final jersey option against the ‘Pack as they go white-orange-white.

While this combo harkens back to home games of the Welsh glory years, I can’t look past the new, trash alternate logo from Nike on the jersey’s collar.

 

 

Series History

Any chance I get, I’m critical of the ACC’s scheduling methods for football. I’m not a fan of playing former Big East / AAC teams at the expense of games against “real” ACC rivals. So it’s great to have a game against NC State on the schedule.

This will be the 59th edition of the rivalry that dates back to 1904.

NC State won the last contest, played in Raleigh back in 2018. The Wolfpack have also won three of the last four games in the rivalry.

The Virginia Sports Twitter account elected to feature the 1996 game on their account this week. The Hoos won that game 62 to 14 as Tiki Barber ran wild on the day. Barber finished the day with 136 yards rushing on 17 carries. He added 2 rushing touchdowns in the contest. And to open the game’s scoring, Tiki also returned a punt 74 yards for a touchdown.

Media Coverage

For the third time in as many games, the Hoos find themselves with television coverage on the ACC Network. Wahoo fans will have to dig deep in order to avoid spending their savings on Tac Shavers and Spurtles.

Wes Durham is scheduled to handle the play by play for the noon contest. Former Boston College QB Tim Hasselbeck will be the color analyst. And Katie George is the sideline reporter.

As usual, Dave Koehn and Tony Covington have the radio call for the Virginia Sports Radio Network. You can find their affiliates list at the link.

Finally, satellite radio coverage can be found at these channels: Sirius – 136, XM – 194, SiriusXM Internet Streaming – 956.

What Worries Me About NC State

Quarterback Devin Leary

The redshirt sophomore entered the 2020 season expecting to be State’s starting QB. He started the final five games of the 2019 season and was named the starter heading into a spring practice that didn’t happen. COVID derailed things again in the fall as Leary missed twenty days of camp due to contact tracing.

That allowed redshirt junior Bailey Hockman to start State’s first two games against Wake Forest and Virginia Tech. Hockman had a decent enough showing against Wake, 16-23 for 191 yards. Hockman threw one touchdown and one interception. He also ran the ball 8 times for 30 yards and another touchdown. The ‘Pack won the game 45 to 42.

But against Virginia Tech, State’s offense looked FCS quality with Hockman at the helm. Against the Hokies, Hockman was 7-16 passing for just 82 yards. He threw for no touchdowns but did get picked off twice. He also rushed for -13 yards on 5 attempts.

Leary relieved Hockman against Virginia Tech and has seized control of the starting job. Against the Hokies, he passed for 165 yards and a touchdown going 12-16. His rushing stats were still poor, -27 yards on 3 attempts. And Virginia Tech won the game easily, 45 to 24, but the passing proficiency was a glimpse of things to come against Pitt.

Leary earned the start against the Panthers at Heinz Field. By the end of the day, he would have engineered a game winning drive and upset of the Panthers that would earn him ACC Quarterback of the Week honors. Against Pitt, Leary went 28-44 passing the ball. He threw for 336 yards, 4 touchdowns, and no interceptions. The last Wolfpack QB to throw for 300+ yards, 4 touchdowns, and no interceptions was Russell Wilson in 2009.

On the game winning drive, Leary was 6-9 for 74 yards.

The game highlights show an accurate passer with good touch, excellent ball placement, and an above average arm.

State’s Red Zone Offense

It’s impossible to top perfection. And through three games, State is a perfect 12 for 12 in red zone scoring opportunities. Under new offensive coordinator Tim Beck, formerly the offensive coordinator at Texas the previous three seasons, the Wolfpack is playing with a ton of confidence once inside the opponent’s 20 yard line.

They’re also putting touchdowns on the board at a high rate. Of their 12 red zone trips in 2020, State has scored touchdowns in 11 of them (6 passing, 5 rushing).

UVA’s defense has allowed opponents to score in all six red zone opportunities this season. The Hoos have given up 5 touchdowns (3 passing, 2 rushing) and 1 field goal.

Against this confident NC State offense, the Hoos would be wise to force the Pack to try to score from distance or have some new wrinkles in place in their red zone defense.

What Worries Me For UVA

Tackling In Space

Missed tackles, especially in space, are the bright, glaring warning lights for the Hoos’ defense so far this season. Both Duke and Clemson were able to exploit this weakness for chunk plays.

Against Duke, the issue was ultimately harmless. But Clemson was able to exploit it, especially with passes to Travis Etienne (5 catches, 114 yards, 1 TD) on the edge. Etienne was especially lethal in space, also turning in one highlight rushing touchdown (14 carries, 73 yards, 1 TD) where several Hoos were unable to handle him in space.

To be fair, Etienne is lethal against nearly every defense in college football. But his big plays against the Hoos do a good job demonstrating some of the issues UVA’s defense is having this year.

They’ll need to improve here against NC State. On the positive side, State’s top offensive skill players are larger players and don’t have nearly as much wiggle as the Hoos saw against Clemson. Wide receiver Devin Carter is listed at 6-4 and 216 pounds. Wide receiver Emeka Emezie is listed at 6-3 and 220 pounds. And tight end Cary Angeline is listed at 6-7 and 250 pounds.

These targets should be easier to hit. The Hoos, assuming the tackling in space issues aren’t going to be an issue the entire season, will need to be extra physical while placing an emphasis on finishing tackles as well.

Turnovers

Because of UVA’s mastery of Duke’s offense, the Hoos still maintain a +2 turnover margin on the season. But giving up 2 interceptions per game is not a sustainable pattern for winning football.

The Hoos are well aware of the problem. You can be sure they’re trying to address the issue.

But as well as NC State’s offense is playing with Devin Leary under center, UVA cannot afford to gift the ‘Pack extra possessions.

Why I Should Worry Less

Circling back to the issue of turnovers, and especially Brennan Armstrong’s interceptions, it has to be noted that NC State has yet to intercept a pass this season. Wake Forest attempted 36 passes against the Wolfpack. Virginia Tech attempted just 17 passes against State. And Pitt threw the ball 40 times against the ‘Pack.

The best way to exploit this weakness of NC State’s defense is to keep Brennan Armstrong’s pocket clean. So far, the UVA offensive line has exceled in pass blocking. To date, they’ve allowed the second lowest pressure rate in Power 5 conferences at just 23.8% per CFB Film Room.

NC State’s defense is also susceptible to the running game. The Wolfpack is surrendering 185.0 yards per game on the ground this season. That’s ranked 57th out of 75 teams currently playing. I’m not sure that the UVA offense is designed to exploit that to its fullest extent, however.

Finally, I have a great deal in faith in the UVA defensive brain trust to devise a plan to effectively limit Leary. They will have had a ton of film to review on Beck’s offense between his tenure at Texas and three full games at NC State. Likewise on Leary, they’ll have a game and a half of 2020 film to review as well as film from his redshirt freshman season in 2019. As a redshirt freshman, Leary played in 8 games while starting 5.

My expectation is that the Hoos will stress HAVOC. Manufacturing pressure on the QB and using multiple alignments and disguised coverages to shake and confuse Leary will be the order of the day. I’m also looking for UVA’s length on the edges to be used to combat those back shoulder throws outside the numbers that Leary seems to favor.

Prediction

The Hoos opened as a 9.5 point favorite. The line has settled with UVA as a 7.5 point favorite.

ESPN’s Football Power Index gives UVA a 62.7% chance to win the game.

It’s safe to say the Hoos are the decided favorite here.

The Wolfpack certainly appear to be better than the 11th best team in the ACC like they were picked in the preseason league poll. And in a game the Hoos need to win to establish themselves as a team that belongs in the top half of the league, I’m reminded that NC State has spoiled things in Scott Stadium before when they were not expected to win.

I’m certainly expecting a much closer game than I would have expected prior to the 2020 season. But I still think the Hoos find a way to earn a victory here.

UVA wins 27 to 23.

 

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