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Virginia football vs. Abilene Christian — a breakdown

The Cavaliers welcome the Wildcats to Charlottesville for their only non-conference game of the season

<p>Junior running back Wayne Taulapapa will have a chance at a big day Saturday as he faces a poor Abilene Christian rush defense.</p>

Junior running back Wayne Taulapapa will have a chance at a big day Saturday as he faces a poor Abilene Christian rush defense.

Virginia returns to Scott Stadium for its only non-conference game of the season against FCS foe Abilene Christian following its 31-17 win over Louisville in Charlottesville last Saturday. The Cavaliers (3-4, 3-4 ACC) will face the Wildcats (1-4, 0-0 Southland) for the first time in program history as they look to topple an FCS opponent for the fourth straight season. While Virginia will have three more matchups before the conclusion of the regular season, this game will be Abilene Christian’s final game of the 2020 season. 

Despite the postponement of the Southland Conference’s football season to the spring, the Wildcats made the decision to exclusively play a fall season, having faced opponents across a variety of NCAA divisions — including FBS foes Army and Texas-El Paso. Most recently, the Wildcats faced Division II Angelo State, suffering a shocking 34-21 loss to the Rams. 

Nonetheless, Virginia fans know all too well the peril of losing to teams in lower divisions, having lost to FCS Richmond just four years ago en route to a 2-10 season. Furthermore, while Abilene Christian fell to a Division II opponent, they narrowly lost to Texas-El Paso 17-13, proving its ability to punch above its weight class at times. Avoiding complacency is key for the Cavaliers as they look to use this game as a confidence booster heading into their final three games of a 10-game ACC slate. 

Players to watch

Virginia running back Wayne Taulapapa

The Cavaliers face an Abilene Christian team that has struggled with running this season, as the Wildcats have allowed 246.8 rushing yards per game, including a whopping 414 rushing yards against Angelo State. While the Virginia offense has thrived off of short and intermediate pass plays compounded with the hard-nosed running of sophomore quarterback Brennan Armstrong, Saturday’s game is the perfect time for the Cavaliers to get Taulapapa back into a groove. After rushing for 95 yards and two touchdowns in the season-opener against Duke, Taulapapa has dropped off since, rushing for just 61 yards total in Virginia’s last two games. However, look for offensive coordinator Robert Anae and the Cavalier offense to take advantage of a sputtering Wildcat defense by rushing Taulapapa early and often. In particular, the Laie, Hawaii native’s physical running style will surely challenge a slightly undersized Abilene Christian defensive line, offering him a golden chance to establish the run and subsequently open up the passing game. Overall, if Taulapapa can get going early and break out on a couple solid runs, Virginia will be well on their way to victory. 

Abilene Christian quarterback Peyton Mansell

While Mansell has only seen extended playing time at the FCS level, he is no stranger to FBS Power 5 football. The Belton, Texas native played at Iowa for three seasons and decided to transfer after losing the No. 2 spot behind former Hawkeye standout Nate Stanley. As such, don’t be surprised if Mansell looks calm and collected against a solid FBS defense in the Cavaliers. In fact, Mansell had one of his best games of the season against an FBS foe, posting 279 passing yards and three touchdowns against Army. When dropping back, Mansell is an extremely disciplined quarterback, posting only three interceptions across five games and — expectedly — has the arm talent of a Power 5 quarterback, displaying exceptional arm strength. If Mansell gets in a rhythm, he can certainly challenge a struggling Virginia secondary and keep the Wildcats in the game. 

Keys to the game

Put the game away early

One of the running themes of this Cavalier squad is their lethargic start to games. However, to defeat Abilene Christian with certainty, Virginia will have to start out fast and strong, using their superior athleticism to overwhelm the Wildcats early. On offense, Armstrong will have to connect with standout freshman wide receiver Lavel Davis Jr. early, and Taulapapa will have to pound the gaps on the ground. On defense, linebackers junior Noah Taylor and senior Charles Snowden must use their exceptional length and speed to get to Mansell. As a whole, there is no doubt that the Cavaliers are the most talented team the Wildcats have faced this season, but Virginia has sometimes succumbed to complacency, playing down to their opponents at times. With a fast start, however, Virginia will be able to build a large lead and shut down any chances for the Wildcats to pull off a major upset. 

Get to Mansell

For Mansell to use his arm to the fullest, his offensive line will have to be on its A-game against a formidable Virginia front seven. As such, the Cavalier defense should strive to bring pressure early — especially with Taylor and Snowden on the edges — in order to rattle the former Hawkeye. Taylor and Snowden have length that the Abilene Christian offensive line hasn’t seen all season, and having them edge rush the tackles will immediately force Mansell out of the pocket to where he is most uncomfortable. Furthermore, if Mansell becomes unsure in the pocket, his decision-making will become hampered, leading to errant throws and potential interceptions that could lead to a short field for the offense and more points on the board. 

Kickoff at Scott Stadium is set for 4 p.m. Saturday. The game will be broadcast live on regional sports networks including MASN in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C. 

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