A gnarly weather forecast in Charlottesville due to Hurricane Florence has the Hoos on the move this week for an impromptu road trip to Nashville. Despite the location, the opponent will still be the Bobcats of Ohio, the preseason MAC favorite according to their league coaches. Known for a stout running game, what will it take for UVA to earn their second win of the season?
In football, the audibles are usually called on the field. When the Hoos returned home from Bloomington, they were faced with an entirely different audible called by Mother Nature. Now, the season's second home game is at a neutral site in a different state with a different playing surface probably in front of a nearly empty stadium.
In order to make the trip to Nashville work, the team had to depart Charlottesville a day earlier than normal for a road game. And last minute accommodations in Nashville were such that the team had to check out of one hotel and into another instead of the typical road game arrangements.
Add it all up and the team is faced with a highly unusual situation that will put their ability to focus to the test. If they cannot adapt and overcome, they will likely lose.
In comments Friday, Bronco indicated that the team is relying on their less drama, more work principle. This situation will be a good test of how engrained the program's new culture has become.
Another Run Defense Test
The first real test of the run defense was last week against Indiana. A passing grade was not earned. Indiana ran for 237 at 5.4 yards per clip. To beat Ohio, there needs to be marked improvement. And Ohio won't make it easy.
Frank Solich's squad comes into the game with a reputation as a formidable running team. It's largely based on what they accomplished in 2017 and those were impressive results. Ohio's rush offense ranked 16th in the country at 244.5 yards per game. The Bobcats nearly fielded two thousand yard rushers as well with both players back for more in 2018. Senior RB AJ Ouellette posted 1,006 yards on 5.24 yards per carry and 7 touchdowns. Junior QB Nathan Rourke ran for 912 yards on 6.66 yards per carry and an insane 21 touchdowns.
But what if that scary rushing attack really isn't that scary? Against FCS Howard in their season opener, Ohio rushed for only 146 yards on 40 carries (3.7 yards per carry). Ouellette ran for only 59 yards on 17 carries. And Rourke, who was pulled for his backup after starting 2 for 8 passing, ran for only 16 yards on 5 carries. Ouellette led the team in rushing in the game and Rourke's backup, Quinton Maxwell gained 21 yards on 8 carries. Maxwell did score two touchdowns on runs of 1 and 10 yards.
Peeling the onion back a little further shows that the 2017 was a bit of an outlier for Ohio's rushing attack.
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Given how easily Indiana ran the ball against the Hoos, Ohio should still be considered a threat on the ground. But not one that is insurmountable. However, if the Hoos struggle stopping the run this week, it should raise a bright red flag heading into conference play.
The Hoos have forced three turnovers through two games this season. All three turnovers are interceptions. If they're going to give up yardage on the ground, they need to be opportunistic when the ball is in the air. The defensive backfield will probably operate without the luxury of a dangerous pass rush all season, so the talent in this unit will need to carry the day.
Ohio didn't commit a turnover against Mike London's Bison in their opener. Backup QB Quinton Maxwell did put the ball on the ground once, however. With Ohio's somewhat uncertain QB situation, there's an opportunity there for UVA's defense to attempt to exploit.
Against Howard, Ohio gave up a ton of yards and 32 points in the win. Howard's QB is Cam Newton's younger brother. And like Bryce Perkins, he's also a dual threat QB.
Caylin Newton was able to run for 93 yards and 1 TD while also passing for a staggering 439 yards and 2 TDs. No one is expecting Perkins to deliver 400 yards plus in the air but UVA's offense needs to deliver a strong performance against the Bobcats. Improved execution across the board is the road map to achieving that goal.
The offensive line needs to improve its blocking, especially in passing situations. RJ Proctor's play in his return to the field against Indiana was a positive. His insertion into the starting lineup, if fully healthy, would go a long way towards stabilizing the OL's performance.
The receivers need to get open. And when open, they need to catch the ball. Normally sure handed Evan Butts dropped a couple balls against Richmond. And in the Indiana game, OZ had two drops that would have been long gains had he made the catch. One of those drops was a key 3rd and long conversion during UVA's attempted comeback. On a team with a small margin of error, UVA needs its offensive leaders to make the routine play.
And Perkins needs to keep refining his game. As he gains experience at this level, the Hoos need him to make his reads on option plays and in the passing game more quickly and accurately. In both games this season, he's made a late throw across the middle. Richmond cashed it in for a pick six. Indiana was unable to convert the interception. But it's a trend worth watching as Perkins is playing with fire in those situations. The Hoos are counting on Perkins to make their offense go. Based on Newton's success against Ohio, Perkins should have a big game against Ohio.
And offensive execution doesn't only rest with the players. The plays called need to make sense and need to be set up for success. The offensive staff has been with this group long enough to know what works, what doesn't, and if certain plays have become too predictable. If OZ goes in motion, opponents are keying on a jet sweep. Joe Reed has more to offer than swing passes behind the line of scrimmage. And he's only played two games in his career but it's quickly becoming obvious that Tavares Kelly is probably on the field to run a go route.
It feels like UVA sports continually find themselves in odd situations. Here we are yet again as the football teams hits the road for a home game in a SEC stadium. Fans have been nervous about this game since the 2018 schedule was released. Frank Solich has a solid reputation, for good reason, in the college football world. Ohio is working on a streak of three consecutive bowl appearances and eight in the last nine seasons. And they were the preseason pick to win the MAC in their coaches' poll.
But this is still Ohio, not Ohio State. The circumstances surrounding this game are not ideal. And a loss would deal a serious blow to UVA's bowl hopes this season. After the Indiana loss and surprise change of venue, we'll learn a lot about the character of this team in Nashville.
For now, I believe they get things done. The game projects as a nailbiter with the Hoos scoring late to win.
UVA wins 28 to 21.