It’s September, and Virginia football is ranked. For the first time in September since 2005, the No. 25 Cavaliers (2-0, 1-0 ACC) are in the top 25. Virginia’s decisive wins against both Pittsburgh and William & Mary have the hype surrounding the football program as high as its been in a decade.
“One of my favorite things from Friday night was our student section," Coach Bronco Mendenhall said on the student turnout — which, at 10,027, was the highest figure at Scott Stadium in 11 years. "It was jammed. It was so much fun.”
Now, historically great Florida State is coming to Charlottesville in a key ACC matchup this Saturday. The Seminoles (1-1, 0-0 ACC) have struggled mightily defensively in their first two games, giving up a combined 80 points. That said, ESPN’s advanced stats-based rating system S&P+ ranked Florida State as the No. 9 offense in the nation. Sophomore quarterback James Blackman has already passed for over 600 yards and six touchdowns, and junior running back Cam Akers — this week’s ACC Running Back of the Week — has rushed for 309 yards and three touchdowns on 6.1 yards per carry.
"They're dynamic and explosive and capable of putting a lot of points on the board and doing it really quickly," Mendenhall said.
The Seminoles are desperate for a conference win, and playing against a ranked opponent will be extra motivation. With the game fast approaching, let’s take a look at some players to watch and keys to the game under the lights at Scott Stadium Saturday night.
Players to watch:
Senior defensive tackle Eli Hanback
Senior defensive tackle Eli Hanback has played in every single one of Virginia’s last 40 football games. He has seen the transformation of Virginia football — from a 2-10 record his freshman season to The Standard this season.
"When I came in here, football wasn't our big team at U.Va.," Hanback said. "I've been able to be a part of a program that's gotten better each year, and we're becoming a big part of this University. It's really cool to be a part of and to see everyone get behind us and really be excited about the future of U.Va. football."
Hanback recorded 46 tackles, 2 sacks and 2 fumble recoveries last year, and he is the anchor of the defensive line. Coming into this year, rush defense was a big focus. In 2018, the Cavaliers’ rush defense allowed 4.3 yards per carry — placing them No. 68 in the nation. The goal has been to turn that 4.3 yards per carry into 3.5 yards per carry, a number that Virginia’s rush defense has easily eclipsed so far. Hanback has been a crucial part of a rush defense that is currently tied for No. 14 in the nation with 2.2 yards per carry allowed. This success needs to continue Saturday night, particularly with the talent the Seminoles have in the backfield.
Senior transfer wide receiver Terrell Chatman
Senior quarterback Bryce Perkins has multiple weapons at his disposal this season. Against Pittsburgh, Perkins completed passes to seven different receivers, and last Friday against William & Mary he completed passes to 10 different receivers, none with more than four receptions. Senior wide receiver Joe Reed, senior wide receiver Terrell Jana and senior transfer wide receiver Terrell Chatman have stood out. The Seminoles’ talented corners will try to shut down Reed, especially after his breakout game last week, leaving room for the other three to step up. Chatman, who made a name for himself last week with three receptions for 44 yards and a touchdown, is poised to make an impact. Chatman’s size — he is 6-foot-3 — and athleticism were on full display last Friday night.
“Ever since he got here, he’s had a little different feel that I’ve never really played against,” junior cornerback Nick Grant said. “He has the speed of [former Virginia wide receiver Andre] Levrone, but he has more of like a suddenness to him.”
When the Cavaliers need a big play, look for Chatman to be the guy to win 1-on-1 battles and come up with receptions in the end zone, just like he did against William & Mary.
Keys to the game:
Shut down Cam Akers
Akers’ talent is no secret — he was the highest-rated running back in the Class of 2017 in the ESPN 300. After a productive freshman season, Akers averaged just 4.4 yards per carry last year, suffering from injury, poor blocking and growing pains in Coach Willie Taggart’s first year. This year, however, he has been on a tear. In Florida State’s overtime win over UL Monroe last week, Akers had 36 carries — a program record — for 193 yards and two touchdowns, along with five receptions for 55 yards and a touchdown. Akers is the centerpiece of Florida State’s offense, and Virginia’s rush defense will need to be on its game Saturday.
"I think this is definitely going to be a very good test to see where we're at in the run game," Hanback said. "[Akers] has NFL potential. He's very fast, very physical and strong, and he's behind a very talented O-line, with very talented skill guys on the edges.”
While the rush defense has fared well so far, it hasn’t been tested by a playmaker of Akers’ caliber yet. The Cavaliers’ front seven must keep an eye on Akers at all times, and not let him escape to the outside and turn on the burners. He is also dangerous in the passing game, taking a screen pass 44 yards to the end zone against UL Monroe. Look for inside linebackers — senior Jordan Mack and junior Zane Zandier — to make some key plays to stop him.
Balanced, patient offense — make the Seminoles’ susceptible defense tired
Despite its talent, Florida State’s defense has been vulnerable so far this season. Boise State had 621 yards of total offense against the Seminoles, and UL Monroe had 419 total yards. The Seminoles appeared to have overcome their defensive woes against UL Monroe, going into halftime up 24-7. UL Monroe came out of the break, however, with 14 unanswered points and pushed the Seminoles to the brink.
“I don’t think our defense was happy, or anyone associated with Florida State football was happy with the way our defense played,” Taggart said about the UL Monroe game in his Monday press conference. “We have to play better.”
Virginia’s dynamic offense can punish the Seminoles’ defense by leading a balanced, drawn-out attack. The Seminoles’ fast-paced offense means the defense gets little time to rest. The Cavaliers are known for dominating time of possession and third-down conversions. If they do this against Florida State, they will be in good position to win. This means a strong run game going is crucial — whether it’s sophomore running back Wayne Taulapapa, junior running back PK Kier or freshman running back Mike Hollins, who stood out against William & Mary with two touchdowns, the Cavaliers have multiple good options in the backfield.
Despite the Seminoles’ inconsistency in the early running this season, their talent on both sides of the ball is undeniable. So far, however, Coach Willie Taggart hasn’t been able to produce a good final product. Like they did against Miami last year, the Cavaliers are ready to take down a national giant under the Saturday night lights in Charlottesville.
Kickoff is slated for 7:30 p.m. from Scott Stadium. The game will be broadcasted on the ACC Network.