Nothing sets the tone of a football season like the opening weekend. So while Notre Dame fans feel an added confidence after watching the Irish dispatch Texas in such a one-sided manner, Virginia fans are feeling… well—pretty much the opposite.
The Cavaliers’ opening game was a one-sided affair, helping UCLA freshman quarterback Josh Rosen announce his presence with authority in the Bruins lopsided 36-14 victory, a three-touchdown win that maybe wasn’t even that close.
So with the seat of Virginia head coach Mike London already a bit sweaty even before the season began, an 0-1 start to the year has many of the Hoos’ faithful on edge.
Getting us ready for Saturday afternoon’s game is Streaking the Lawn‘s Paul Wiley. After a nice offseason check-up, Paul gives us some candid real-talk on the state of the Cavaliers, and it’s safe to say that not all is well in Charlottesville.
Hope you enjoy.
UCLA beat Virginia rather handily in the season opener, not exactly the start to the season that Mike London and his team wanted. Let’s start by being optimists. Did you see anything on Saturday that you thought was better than expected?
Running back Taquan “Smoke” Mizzell lived up to the offseason reports that he’s improved. A highly touted recruit out of high school, he hasn’t been the world-beater that we expected when he first came to Charlottesville. But the Mizzell I saw on Saturday is a runner that is more decisive into his running lanes and sure-handed out of the backfield. He showed great combinations of elusiveness and toughness in the open field against a very talented Bruins defense. Hopefully a harbinger of much more positive things to come this season.
Now the flip-side of that coin. After eight months of offseason work, what was the most disappointing part of the loss?
Same stuff, different day. What’s bothered us Wahoos the most over the past few years has been playcalling that ranges from unimaginative all the way to lackluster, and boneheaded penalties that put our offense behind the sticks or extend the other team’s drives. And on Saturday, there we went again. Coach London and offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild had spent the offseason trumpeting a return to power running; the Hoos averaged 2.9 yards per carry.
The number of drives that went run-run-screen became so predictable that Pop Warner coaches could’ve seen it coming. Virginia committed seven penalties for 45 yards; at just over six yards a flag, that means they were almost exclusively the mental-error variety, and not the playing-too-hard variety. For any fool like me who had spent game week talking himself into thinking things would be different this year, Saturday afternoon was a hard snap back to reality.
How did Matt Johns play? Notre Dame’s front seven dominated Texas up front, especially when the score got lopsided and the Longhorns had to get one-dimensional. The UVA running game struggled against the Bruins. How was Johns when it came to pressure packages and making good decisions when the game was put on his shoulders?
I gotta give credit where it’s due: Johns was better than I expected. I had been firmly in Camp Lambert during the offseason, as I thought Greyson had more talent and could stretch the field a bit more. Once Lambert left, I’ve been wary in coming around to seeing the positive in Johns’s play. But it was there on Saturday. 21-of-35 for 238 yards, with touchdowns even to interceptions, is a competent game-manager’s stat line. The pick was Johns trying to do too much, which was a recurring theme from last season. So too was a backwards pass that was fortunately reversed on replay (somehow).
Johns has a playmaker’s mentality and that’s what this offense needs when the odds are pretty good the play is going to break down. But he needs to become ok with living to play another down instead of trying to force what isn’t there.
Defensively, the UVa defense got shredded by true freshman Josh Rosen in a very impressive debut. After seeing the performance Notre Dame’s offense put together against Texas, how do you think Jon Tenuta will adjust as he gets ready to play against his former employer?
[Shrug emoji]. Seriously. The defense was supposed to be the unit that carried this team and it got straight torched. What was most troubling was seeing how badly the secondary got torn apart. Some of the credit there is definitely due to Rosen; the TD pass to Duarte over Quin Blanding was a perfectly thrown ball that beat some damn good coverage. The loss of the top two pass-rushers from last year was definitely apparent, as the defense only recorded one sack and no QB hurries. If Malik Zaire faces the same pass rush that Rosen did, they won’t even have to retouch the gold paint on his helmet next week.
If there was a positive, it looked like Smoke Mizzell had a nice game, especially in the passing attack. Is this a direction where you expect UVa to go? Or will they try to get back to the power running game, especially considering the Hoos dominated the time of possession against UCLA.
It’s really hard to tell. A lot of the time it seems like logic and Virginia football don’t operate in the same circles. I’d love to see Smoke get more touches in more creative ways. But I said the same thing about Darius Jennings last year, and Khalek Shepherd the year before that, and E.J. Scott the year before that, et cetera et cetera. I have zero faith that Fairchild or London will stop slamming our collective forehead into the brick wall when it comes to the power running they seem to fetishize, which means poor Smoke will spend the rest of his U.Va. days speeding into non-existent running lanes.
One game doesn’t define a season. But how badly did this take the wind from the sails of the Cavaliers’ fan base? What do you expect the environment to be like on Saturday afternoon?
Whatever pleasant sea breeze there was in our sails pretty quickly turned into little more than a stale fart. By the Hoos’ fourth drive against the Bruins, headed deep into UCLA territory thanks to two drive-extending Bruins penalties, Fairchild got away from the passing attack that had marched the ball down the field and ran Albert Reid out of the wildcat. From the 19 yard line, U.Va. managed 8 yards on three carries and settled for a field goal. That’s about as much Fairchild-in-a-nutshell as one can get. As soon as it happened, my dad and I agreed the game was over; we’d simply seen this series of events too many times to hope for anything better.
Scott Stadium may be two-thirds full on Saturday, but I 100% expect Notre Dame fans to make up close to a majority of the attendees. There are just too many better things to do in central Virginia on a fall afternoon than watch this coaching staff embarrass the players whose talents and effort we admire.
On a scale of one (not happening) to ten (get ready to storm the field), what are you hopes/expectations for an upset and Virginia ending Saturday with a record of 1-1? What needs to happen for the Hoos to pull it off?
Does your scale allow for negatives? Seeing what the Irish did to Texas leaves me absolutely zero hope of a U.Va. win on Saturday. Notre Dame at -10.5 in Vegas is pretty much free money. If D’Brickashaw Ferguson, Branden Albert, Eugene Monroe, and Heath Miller all decide playing college football is better than the NFL, and all of them got the most bizarre NCAA waivers ever, and all of them suited up on Saturday, I bet Virginia could cover. Barring that, it should be a happy flight home for the Irish.