Virginia versus Navy — a breakdown


Quarterback Kurt Benkert will need a big game in his final collegiate start to keep pace with Navy's triple option offense.

Sarah Lindamood | Cavalier Daily

With the regular season all wrapped up, the Virginia football team will have one last opportunity to get out on the field and play, as the Cavaliers take on Navy in the Military Bowl. This will be Virginia’s first bowl game since 2011 after coach Bronco Mendenhall helped guide his team to a 6-6 season only a year after finishing 2-10 in his inaugural season at the helm of the Virginia football program. It will be interesting to see how the game plays out and if Virginia can pull off the victory. Here are some players and keys to watch out for Thursday.

Players to Watch

Senior quarterback Kurt Benkert

In his second and final year as Virginia’s starting quarterback, Benkert has taken complete control of his offense and delivered a strong senior year performance. The former East Carolina transfer passed for over 3,000 yards this season — the first Cavalier quarterback ever to do so — while putting up a stellar touchdown-to-interception ratio of 25 to eight. With NFL scouts beginning to take notice of Benkert’s size and skillset, the senior will look to deliver an impressive performance in his final collegiate game.

Just as was the case in many of Virginia’s games this year, the play of Benkert will be the X-factor to the Cavaliers’ success in the Military Bowl. After facing some tough passing defenses over the latter half of the season, Benkert will relish the chance to pick apart the Midshipmen’s mediocre defense. Navy allowed opposing quarterbacks to pass for 221.7 yards per game this season. On the offensive side, Virginia’s rushing has been lackluster, and Benkert’s ability to move the ball will be paramount to the team’s success. If the offensive line gives Benkert enough time to make plays as the unit did against Miami, the senior will put up big numbers so long as he is accurate. If line issues and inaccuracy mount as they did against Virginia Tech, Benkert and the Virginia offense will struggle to stay on the field. 

Junior tailback Jordan Ellis

In their season finale loss against in-state rival Virginia Tech, the Virginia football team struggled mightily running the football, rushing for only five total yards as compared to Virginia Tech’s 202 total rushing yards. Ellis had ten carries but only ran for a net total of nine yards, averaging less than a yard per carry. Virginia’s passing offense has shown to be an explosive and effective one at times throughout the year, but in order for the Cavaliers to replicate that success, they will need a balanced offense. That means effectively running the ball will be important. If Virginia can get Ellis involved early and have the ball moving on the ground effectively early on in the game, it will give their offense an opportunity to stay unpredictable, thus opening passing lanes for Benkert. Virginia’s defense has been a strong point this season, and if the offense can remain unpredictable and consistent, they will have an opportunity to outscore Navy and potentially pull off the win.

Keys to the Game

Learning from Georgia Tech

Navy’s run-heavy triple option offense gave opposing teams fits on defense all season, as very few were able to slow down the Midshipmen on the ground. Navy ranked second in the FBS this season with an astounding 343.0 rushing yards per game. On paper, the Navy offense against Virginia’s defense looks like a mismatch, as the Cavaliers were 82nd in the FBS with 178.3 rushing yards allowed per game this season.

Luckily for Mendenhall, the team has a great deal of film on the triple option this year from its game against Georgia Tech in early November. The Cavaliers allowed 220 yards rushing against the Yellow Jackets in that game — usually a high figure against a pro-style offense, but well below Georgia Tech’s average of 307.4 per game. The key to Virginia’s victory in that game was stopping the Yellow Jacket’s runs on early downs, forcing junior quarterback Taquon Marshall to throw into the tight Cavalier secondary. Navy junior quarterback Zach Abey is even less of a threat in the passing game, having completed only 31 passes for seven touchdowns and seven interceptions this season. If Virginia can correct some miscues from the Georgia Tech game while stuffing the run and limiting big plays, they will be able to frustrate Navy’s offense all day.

It’s still just a football game

Because the Military Bowl will be the biggest football game the Cavaliers have played in since 2011, there is a ton of inexperience with games like this on the team’s roster. Meanwhile, the Midshipmen will be making their sixth straight bowl game appearance Thursday. Navy’s players will come into the game with far more experience playing in games like this. Thus Virginia will have to maintain focus and not let the spotlight of the game distract from the fact that at the end of the day, it will simply be another football game with the same rules and concepts that they’ve been playing with since they were kids. If the Cavaliers are able to maintain focus, their talented offense and strong defense have a chance to take down Navy for a bowl game win.

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