After taking down Pittsburgh Saturday night, Virginia football is set to play its first home game Friday night at Scott Stadium. The Cavaliers (1-0, 1-0 ACC) will face in-state rival William and Mary and look to win for the fourth straight time against the Tribe (1-0, 0-0 CAA). William and Mary Coach Mike London makes his return to Scott Stadium after six years as head coach at Virginia — from 2010 to 2015. With the game just a few days away, let’s take a look at the players to watch and the keys to the game that may decide the result.
Players to watch:
Junior free safety Joey Blount
While Virginia has multiple playmakers in the secondary, Blount is one of the most versatile defensive pieces Coach Bronco Mendenhall has at his disposal. Blount does it all for Virginia — he tackles, breaks up passes and even gets to the quarterback. Considering William and Mary’s multidimensional rushing attack and inexperienced freshman Hollis Mathis at quarterback, Blount’s role will be critical Friday. If Blount places pressure on the passer either as a part of the pass rush or the pass defense, the Tribe is going to have a difficult time putting together long drives. Similarly, if Blount excels in making tackles, William and Mary’s entire defense may fall apart. In their opener against Lafayette, the Tribe posted 255 rushing yards and added another 163 through the air. Blount will need to maintain his high level of play to stall William and Mary’s rushing attack and force the Tribe to win through the passing game. The Tribe is certainly capable of ripping off big plays, and Blount will be responsible to limit those plays as much as possible. If Blount repeats his performance from last Saturday, Virginia’s defense should be able to handle anything William and Mary throws at it throughout the night.
Sophomore tailback Wayne Taulapapa
There was plenty of uncertainty surrounding the running back position for Virginia coming into the season. After the Pittsburgh game, the future of the unit looked significantly more clear. Taulapapa — after impressive performances during practice — seems set to be the Cavaliers’ workhorse back for the 2019 season. The Hawaii native rushed 10 times for a very efficient 66 yards and a touchdown, having twice as many carries as the next running back. Combining lateral mobility and tough down-the-field running, Taulapapa was able to take advantage of pockets of space. His ability to power through the defense was on full display on his 10-yard touchdown run to cap off the Virginia victory. Lafayette rushed for 157 yards against William and Mary last week, so Taulapapa should have plenty of opportunities to pick up yards against a defense that has few elite playmakers. Taulapapa’s ability to make defenders miss will be crucial in avoiding excellent tacklers like sophomore linebacker Trey Watkins and 2018 All-CAA second-team selection senior defensive lineman Bill Murray. If Taulapapa can be a productive runner, Virginia’s offense will not only be able to run more smoothly but will take pressure off senior quarterback Bryce Perkins.
Keys to the game:
Don’t waste red zone opportunities
Last season, the Cavaliers scored on an ACC-worst 74 percent of their red zone trips — just 52 percent of their trips led to touchdowns. Based on the opener against Pittsburgh, Virginia’s red zone offense still has plenty of room for improvement. Against the Panthers, the Cavaliers reached the end zone on three of their five red zone tips, with multiple drives stalling due to tackles for loss, offensive errors and inaccurate passes. While Virginia does benefit from having a solid kicker in junior Brian Delaney, the Cavaliers will not be able to continue wasting red zone opportunities and win. For Virginia to resolve its red zone pains, Mendenhall has to focus on helping either the rushing or passing attack thrive on a shortened field. Overall, Virginia passed the ball 34 times and rushed 33 times against Pittsburgh, demonstrating a balanced attack. Perkins’ ability to deliver accurate passes can open up running lanes, while Virginia’s potent rushing attack can create space for its wide receivers to thrive. However, when neither are successful, which has often been the case in the red zone, Virginia’s offensive efficiency plummets. Regardless of past woes, the Cavaliers will have the opportunity to refine their game against the weaker defense of William and Mary.
Prepare for the “Go-Go” offense
One of the most exciting changes for the William and Mary football program is newly-hired offensive coordinator Brennan Marion’s “Go-Go” offensive scheme. The “Go-Go” set involves lining up two running backs — usually sophomore Owen Wright and senior Albert Funderburke — either behind or alongside the quarterback. It’s a unique tactic patented by Marion and used first at Howard to incredible success. The “Go-Go” offense emphasizes up-tempo play and numerous play options. First, the offense plays very quickly which allows them to keep defenses on their toes and put up points in a hurry — the Cavaliers struggled with Pittsburgh’s up-tempo pace at the end of the first half Saturday. Second, due to the strange positioning of the running backs, the offense can go in many different directions — including quick passes, handoffs and pitches — on any given play. It forces defenders to have to be ready for many options while keeping up with the fast pace. This puts them in a difficult place. That said, Virginia will have plenty of time to review the “Go-Go” offense and should be well-prepared to handle it. The Cavaliers’ linebacking corps — including senior Jordan Mack and juniors Charles Snowden and Zane Zandier — will be responsible for managing the Tribe’s ground game, while the secondary — including senior cornerback Bryce Hall, Blount and junior free safety Brenton Nelson — will also have to pitch in to prevent big plays like the 49-yard reception and 31-yard run William and Mary used to shred through Lafayette’s defense.
While Virginia usually cruises past William and Mary, a revamped coaching staff and offense could cause problems and can’t be taken lightly. If the Cavaliers can do exactly what they did against Pittsburgh in week one, Virginia should be able to win comfortably, but the Tribe is certainly ready to pull off the upset.
Kickoff is slated for 8 p.m. from Scott Stadium. The game will be broadcasted on the ACC Network.