Following a 41-23 defeat at the hands of defending ACC champion Clemson, Virginia football returns home for a matchup against NC State Saturday. The Cavaliers (1-1, 1-1 ACC), who dropped their last game against the Wolfpack (2-1, 2-1 ACC) in 2018, will look to bounce back from a shaky performance a week ago and return to the winner’s circle.
NC State comes to Charlottesville riding off of an upset victory over then No. 24 Pittsburgh, who scored the go-ahead touchdown with less than 30 seconds left. While the Wolfpack’s defense has been less than stellar this season — allowing just under 39 points per game — their passing game has started to click under sophomore quarterback Devin Leary. Similarly, Virginia’s offense seemed to work out more of its kinks against Clemson last week despite the loss and could have a big afternoon against the porous Wolfpack defense. All in all, the two teams are quite evenly matched in a game that could see lots of points scored and potentially go down to the wire.
Players to watch:
Junior running back Wayne Taulapapa
If there is one key to the Wolfpack’s success on defense, it is stopping the run. In its two wins against Wake Forest and Pittsburgh, NC State allowed 264 yards on the ground combined. Their only loss of the year came when they let the Hokies run free to the tune of 314 yards and 7.7 yards per carry. Taulapapa, who totaled 149 yards and 2 touchdowns on the ground during the Cavaliers’ previous two games, has been a vital part of the Cavaliers offense so far, showing a strong ability to shed would-be tacklers and gain yards after contact. Similar to the way the Hokies opened up the run game, the Cavaliers will want to get Taulapapa going early and often. Once the Cavaliers soften the Wolfpack front seven, the field will open up for sophomore quarterback Brennan Armstrong, who is looking to bounce back after an up and down performance against a top-tier Clemson defense.
Sophomore quarterback Devin Leary
One of the major reasons for the Wolfpack’s success this season has been their quarterback play. Leary — who replaced junior quarterback Bailey Hockman mid-way through the game against Virginia Tech — already has 501 yards to go with 5 touchdowns and no interceptions. In his first start facing a ranked Pittsburgh squad, Leary threw for 336 yards and 4 touchdowns, 2 of which came in the fourth quarter as part of a late comeback. The Cavaliers — who let Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence throw for 329 yards and 3 touchdowns in last week’s loss — know how out of hand the game can get if the opposing quarterback gets hot. Leary certainly has the potential to get into a rhythm quickly as he displayed against the Panthers. While the offense showed flashes of promise against Clemson and Duke, Virginia would prefer to avoid a shootout, as Armstrong continues to acclimatize himself with the offense. It may be difficult to completely neutralize Leary, but if the Cavalier secondary can find a way to contain him, then Virginia could very well be on their way to securing its ninth-straight home win.
Keys to the game:
Get pressure on the quarterback
Part of the Cavaliers’ inability to control Lawrence revolved around the fact that they could not get consistent pressure on him. Outside of two sacks, Lawrence had a relatively clean pocket to work with from start to finish. The strength of the Cavalier defense lies in the front seven, with veteran linebackers senior Zane Zandier, junior Noah Taylor and senior Charles Snowden leading the way. In 2019, the trio combined for 16.5 sacks and will have to do much of the same Saturday to give Virginia a solid chance to win. The Cavaliers showed this ability to get to the quarterback against Duke, sacking Duke junior quarterback Chase Brice five times and pressuring him into throwing four interceptions, but if Leary is able to drop back without feeling pressure, Wolfpack coaches will give him the green light to throw wherever he desires, allowing for big plays down the field. Whether it be through a myriad of blitz packages or simple four man rushes, Virginia must make Leary uncomfortable in the pocket.
Take shots down the field
Even though Armstrong will be making just his third career start, he has shown the ability to be Virginia’s leader. Furthermore, the emergence of freshman wide receiver Lavel Davis Jr. has given the Cavaliers a true downfield threat. He has averaged 26.5 yards per catch on six catches so far this season, opening up the offense for Armstrong and often giving him a safety valve when defenses penetrate the pocket. With threats like Davis Jr. and senior wide receiver Terrell Jana, Armstrong has a loaded arsenal to work with. Opening up the deep passing game not only keeps the Wolfpack honest over the top, but it opens up gaps in the running game. As a dual-threat quarterback, who has seen bounds of success on the ground thus far, Armstrong would love to be able to expose the Wolfpack front seven and run free. If Armstrong can connect on a few deep passes, this will force the NC State safeties to play deep and let Armstrong use his legs to make plays.
Virginia takes on NC State Saturday at Scott Stadium. Kick-off is set for 12 p.m. and the game will be broadcast live on the ACC Network.