The Virginia football team returns home at 3:30 p.m. Saturday as the Cavaliers take on the Syracuse Orange for Homecomings weekend.
Virginia (1-4, 0-1 ACC) is attempting to rebound from a disappointing loss at Pittsburgh, in which its attempt at a last-minute game-tying drive fell short.
The Cavaliers were partly in a position to tie the game back up thanks to an impressive comeback by their defense. The Virginia defense yielded 17 points and 217 yards in the first quarter, but only nine points and 146 yards in the remaining three quarters while also getting its first turnover of the season.
“[We’ve] got to have that type of focus for four quarters at the beginning of the game all the way to the end,” coach Mike London said.
Virginia will look to stretch that same success across all four quarters against Syracuse (3-2, 1-0 ACC) this week.
To do so, it will need to stop a Syracuse offense led by true freshman quarterback Eric Dungey, which is no small task considering the Orange are averaging 31 points a game. Dungey leads the ACC in passing efficiency and has thrown seven touchdowns to only one interception.
Virginia will face an equally difficult challenge in jumpstarting its own offense against a talented Syracuse defense, albeit one that is coming off a lackluster showing in giving up 45 points to South Florida.
London acknowledged the challenge Virginia will face Saturday.
“Syracuse is a very fast defense,” he said. “They run to the ball well … So [it’s] going to be important for us to protect our quarterback.”
It will be up to junior quarterback Matt Johns to perform under pressure, something he’s struggled with in recent games. Despite having the third-highest yardage total among ACC quarterbacks, Johns has thrown the most interceptions of any ACC signal-caller, a problem London thinks Johns is capable of fixing.
“[Matt’s] a guy that wants to make plays,” London said. “He wants to do the right thing. Just take the coaching and teaching, and I believe Matt will do that, and look for him [to have] one of his better games.”
Johns will have to look to the Virginia running game for aid, as it’s coming off its best performance in weeks. Behind a combination of three running backs — junior Taquan Mizzell, junior transfer Albert Reid and sophomore Daniel Hamm — Virginia ran for 139 yards last week, its largest total of the season.
London was pleased with his backs, and stated his intent to continue with the three-running back approach.
“We need to keep finding ways to be productive like that,” he said.
Virginia had struggled gaining yards on the ground this season until averaging four yards per carry against Pitt. However, most of Virginia’s success came on one play: Reid’s 71-yard run on his team’s first offensive series. Consistent yardage still eludes the Cavaliers.
“We’ll have to look at ways to continue to use the type of players that we talked about for positive gains from that standpoint,” London said.
Reid — who transferred from Maryland during the offseason — missed most of 2014 after suffering a knee injury early on, but he is healthy now and scored his first touchdown as a Cavalier last month against Notre Dame.
“Coming here and getting back on the field and just feeling that intensity and just the crowd being in the game and things like that — there’s no better feeling than just getting back in there and scoring the touchdown at the end of the game,” Reid said. “Like, my adrenaline was rushing.”
Picking up yards on the ground will be one of the keys to success Saturday against Syracuse.
This will be the first time Virginia has played Syracuse as a member of the ACC, and the first time they’ve played at all since 2005. Virginia will be searching for its first conference win of the season.