Offensive report card
Above average quarterback, running backs drive increase in point production
Prevalent turnovers and poor timing between junior quarterback Kurt Benkert and his receiving corps, plus a lack of cohesion on the front lines, led in part to Virginia’s 0-3 start to the season.
That said, there were signs of promise in those early weeks, most notably including the three touchdowns Benkert tossed against Richmond in his first Cavaliers start and the 126 yards senior running back Albert Reid accumulated at then-No. 24 Oregon. The Cavalier offense also clicked early on at Connecticut, jumping ahead 10-0 in the first half. But from then on, the unit sputtered, either punting or turning over the football in eight of its last nine drives.
However, against Central Michigan and Duke the past two weeks, the Cavalier attack was potent, producing a total of 83 points. The last time a Virginia offense scored more than 83 combined points over two consecutive games was 2004, when current wide receivers coach Marques Hagans quarterbacked the Cavaliers to 44-14 and 56-24 victories to begin the season.
After totaling four interceptions and five touchdowns through his first four starts, Benkert has since put the ball on the money more often than not. When Benkert can do this, as he did against Central Michigan, he can shred opposing defenses with his arsenal of physical traits.
In his second game at Scott Stadium, the former transfer from ECU threw for five touchdowns and 421 yards, shattering the school passing record. He finally showed off his big arm, connecting with sophomore wide receiver Olamide Zaccheaus for an 82-yard score.
Some doubted if Benkert could answer his career day with another sharp performance at Duke, a tough team that had just upset Notre Dame in South Bend. Although it took a while for him to get going, Benkert finished with 336 yards and three touchdowns. There’s a reason head coach Bronco Mendenhall and staff have oriented the offense around their junior quarterback’s ability to sling the football all over the field.
The Cavalier offensive line has come a long way since allowing nine sacks in the season’s first two weeks. Following the shaky start, offensive line coach Garrett Tujague refocused his players’ attention on the fundamentals, and his decision has paid off. Against both Central Michigan and Duke, Virginia’s offensive line protected Benkert well, allowing him to sit in the pocket and take shots downfield.
It’s a seasoned group, with three seniors and two juniors starting up front, but worries over the unit’s depth and talent are legitimate, as they rank 98th in the country in sacks allowed, with 12 through five games. It’s going to be interesting to see how the veterans do against stronger opponents.
The best part about Virginia’s two lead backs is that they complement one another. Reid sheds arm tackles with his 5-foot-9, 215-pound frame, hits gaps with surprising speed, and blocks ferociously. He is Virginia’s leading rusher in 2016 with 318 yards and four touchdowns, and has added four catches for 21 yards and a touchdown.
As his nickname suggests, senior tailback Taquan “Smoke” Mizzell is elusive. He can operate between the tackles, but Smoke is at his best outside the hashes or in open space in one-on-one situations.
Through five games, Smoke has maintained a healthy balance on the ground and through the air, totalling 260 and 171 yards, respectively. After coughing up the football twice in the loss to Richmond, Smoke has remained turnover-free. That is huge considering ball security has always been one of his limiting factors.
Even behind average run blocking, the duo of Smoke and Reid continues to impact Virginia drives in a variety of ways. The two are not elite running backs by any stretch, but each understands his role in the offense and has been largely effective.
The emergence of sophomore wide receiver David Eldridge last Saturday at Duke was a welcome sign for Mendenhall and staff, who’d witnessed the speedster Eldridge burn Virginia defenders deep in fall camp.
Zacchaeus is a weapon. He may be relatively undersized at 5-foot-8 and 190 pounds, but that doesn’t inhibit him from making plays in traffic or in the open field. Zacchaeus leads Cavalier receivers with 340 yards and four touchdowns. His fellow receivers, senior Keeon Johnson and junior Doni Dowling, both have the prototypical over-6-foot, 215-pound physiques, but are volatile threats in the offense. Johnson has corralled 26 passes for 264 yards and three touchdowns, while Dowling has caught 18 for 277 yards and a touchdown, but both have struggled with mental lapses and drops.
They haven’t exactly been featured in the offensive attack to this point, having combined for only five catches and 31 yards, but redshirt sophomore Evan Butts and redshirt freshman Richard Burney are still contributing to the cause. Butts is still searching for his first touchdown, and has recorded just 28 yards on four catches. Meanwhile, Burney snagged his first career reception and touchdown — a 3-yard connection from Benkert — at the end of the third quarter in Durham.
Overall Grade: B-
Behind newcomer Benkert, Virginia enters its bye week with the No. 32 ranked passing offense in the nation at 291.4 yards per game. The Cavaliers have proven over the last two games they are now capable of lighting up the scoreboard. The offense has brought both an excitement and a fearless approach that have been lacking in recent seasons.
Mendenhall and staff have a quarterback whose arm they trust, at least for now, to air it out 40 times a game. They can then intersperse the run. Virginia has executed this plan of attack the past two weeks. It will be interesting to see how it fares against the best of the ACC.