By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — A quarter of the way through the regular season, the University of Virginia football team is averaging 26 points per game. UVa’s running game has produced modest numbers — 111.7 yards per game — but quarterback Matt Johns has been sacked only three times, and that protection has contributed to his 66.7 completion percentage.
Heading into the season, an experienced offensive line overseen by assistant coach Dave Borbely was expected to be one of the Cavaliers’ strengths. Borbely’s assessment of his group’s play so far?
“It’s a work in progress, and it will be all year long,” Borbely said after practice Tuesday. “As I tell them, our objective win or lose is to come out every week and try to be one week better. We’ll have to play better this week than we played last week.”
At 8 p.m. Friday, in a game ESPN will televise, UVa (1-2) hosts Boise State (2-1) at Scott Stadium. The Cavaliers are coming off a 35-29 win over William & Mary, the only Football Championship Subdivision opponent they will face this season.
“Overall, I thought last week we played pretty clean,” said Borbely, who joined head coach Mike London’s staff in January. “We had very few mental errors, and we got hats on hats. We played fast. We played with a lot of tenacity, and that’s the standard that we set. We need to be get better, though.”
Here’s why: Boise State has a formidable defense. The Broncos average 2.7 sacks per game and rank second nationally in rushing defense.
“I think their front seven is really good,” Borbely said. “They’ve got some guys that are buzzsaws in there. They play with a lot of intensity, and they play with great effort. I think they’re great hands players, which I think is something that’s very overlooked in football. They’re extremely well-coached. They know how to disengage from blocks, and they’ll be a big challenge for us.”
The Wahoos have already faced two elite defenses. Virginia opened the season with a 34-16 loss to UCLA at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. A week later, at Scott Stadium, UVa fell 34-27 to Notre Dame.
In the latest Associated Press poll, the Fighting Irish and the Bruins are Nos. 6 and 9, respectively. Boise State is as strong on defense, Borbely said, as Notre Dame and UCLA.
“Will it help us? Yeah, it should,” Borbely said of Virginia’s non-conference schedule. “I think it’s helped our confidence level, and hopefully that can carry us the rest of the way, and we can grow on that.”
Injuries have hit the offensive line hard. Sophomore Eric Tetlow, redshirt freshman Jake Fieler and true freshman R.J. Proctor are out with season-ending injuries, and junior Ryan Doull, who started six games in 2014, has yet to play this season.
“It is what it is,” said Borbely, who added that his healthy “guys are playing at a fairly high level right now.”
In all three games, junior Mike Mooney has started at left tackle, junior Jackson Matteo at center, graduate student Ross Burbank at right guard and junior Eric Smith at right right tackle. Sophomore Jack McDonald started the UCLA and Notre Dame games at left guard, but Borbely went with junior Sean Karl against W&M.
“At the beginning, he was the fifth guard. He’s a starter now,” Borbely said of the 6-6, 310-pound Karl.
Karl, who’s from Manorville, N.Y., appeared in only one game in 2013 and played primarily on special teams last season.
“He’s the most improved guy of the group,” Borbely said. “He’s made great strides, and I like how he’s playing. I like having him in there. He plays tough. He’s big, he’s strong, and he’s got a great understanding of what he’s doing.”
McDonald played in reserve against W&M and remains an option for Borbely.
“Jack’s a tough guy,” Borbely said. “Plays hard. But I think Sean is the better player right now. As I told [the linemen], I owe it to everybody to put the best five guys on the field, and they get it.”
Also in the rotation is 6-6, 315-pound Jay Whitmire, a graduate student who started four games at right tackle and eight at right guard in 2013. Whitmire missed last season with a back injury.
“I like what Jay’s doing,” Borbely said. “He’s extremely smart. I roll him in there sometimes at guard [during practice]. I haven’t played him in a game at guard yet, but he’s become a multi-position player for us that way, and has played very consistently. I like what he does and I like the football intelligence that he plays with.”
WAITING GAME: The `Hoos, who had 29 takeaways in 2014, have yet to force a turnover this season.
“That’s a concern,” London said Monday. “Pass breakups are good, but if you get your hands on the ball, you want the interceptions. [William & Mary players] put the ball on the ground twice and they recovered it. We weren’t around there. We need to be very cognizant of turnovers and the things that we have to do defensively in order to get them or cause them.”
Members of UVa’s defense are confident the breakthrough is imminent.
“It’s unfortunate that we haven’t forced any turnovers, but if we keep playing in our scheme, we’re going to be forcing turnovers,” junior linebacker Zach Bradshaw said Monday. “It’s just a matter of time.”
Tackle David Dean, a graduate student, said UVa defenders must “have [an aggressive] mindset whenever they get around the ball. You gotta be thinking, `Get the ball back.’ Whenever the ball is in the air, your DBs have to think that it’s their time. Whenever you’re coming in for a sack, you gotta be thinking that you’re not only trying to tackle the quarterback, but also strip the ball as well.”
From last year’s defense, UVa lost six starters: end Eli Harold, linebackers Max Valles, Henry Coley and Daquan Romero, cornerback Brandon Phelps and safety Anthony Harris. That turnover has contributed to the Cavaliers’ struggles on defense this season.
“The linebackers [are first-year starters], and we got guys stepping in at defensive end [who are] not technically new, but they’re new to starting,” Dean said. “But as the season goes along, I expect that everyone will start getting acclimated to the speed of the game and just play even faster and start thinking more about the strips and the interceptions.”
That Virginia’s pass rush must improve is no secret. The Cavaliers, who totaled 34 sacks in 2014, have six this season.
“The pressure is what creates the turnovers, basically,” Bradshaw said. “So if we’re not rushing the quarterback and making him make quick, not-smart decisions, he’s just going to sit back there and make throws and be able to read the defense. And DBs can’t cover forever.”
INSTANT IMPACT: Coley’s replacement at middle linebacker, redshirt sophomore Micah Kiser, has impressed in his first season as a starter. Kiser, who starred in the powerful program at Gilman School in Baltimore, leads UVa in tackles (32), tackles for loss (4.5) and sacks (3.5).
“I’m not surprised at all,” said Bradshaw, one of Kiser’s best friends. “Obviously I think Micah’s a great linebacker. Also, just the scheme of our defense, it allows the [middle] linebacker to make a lot of plays, which he has done, too … Micah is just playing tremendous.”
BY COMMITTEE: Sophomore Daniel Hamm (three rushes, 6 yards) and redshirt freshman Jordan Ellis (five rushes, 50 yards, one touchdown) each carried for the first time this season against William & Mary.
“Each one of them has a specific role,” London said. “Each one of them does something that can help this football team win … To have a group of guys that can help us offensively, it bodes well for us. Plus, there’s no egos in that group. They all want each other to succeed.”
Mizzell leads the team with 155 rushing yards, but he’s been more effective in the passing game. He has 17 receptions for 233 yards and a team-high two TDs.
FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS: Friday night games are rare for ACC teams, and this will be the first for UVa at Scott Stadium. The players like the late kickoff.
“It’s going to be cool,” Bradshaw said. “It’s going to be like high school all over again, only on a bigger stage. So we’re excited, and I’m sure we’ll come out firing on all cylinders.
“There’s just something about Friday nights. I don’t know what it is, whether it’s bringing back memories of high school or whatever, but it certainly brings a little extra excitement.”
Dean said: “It’s awesome. Any time you have a night game, just the energy of the town’s a little bit different. You’ve got a huge buildup, hours for people to tailgate and have a good time. It’s always awesome to bring that to Charlottesville, and I think the crowd will show it come Friday.”
BACK TO BASICS: Missed tackles plagued UVa against William & Mary, which scored on each of its first four possessions and finished with 371 yards. In practice this week, fundamentals have been stressed even more than usual.
At Monday’s practice, Dean said, defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta and Virginia’s other coaches “emphasized not reaching to tackle people. If you reach, you’re wrong, as Coach Tenuta always says. So we’re just working on running our feet to the ball, getting around the ball, bringing our hips and feet and just wrapping up the ball-carrier.”
HIGH STAKES: UVa, which is off next weekend, visits Pittsburgh on Oct. 10. To enter ACC play at 2-2, instead of 1-3, and on a two-game winning streak would be huge for the team, Virginia players say.
“Everything is off of momentum,” Johns said. “If you can get some momentum going and get the snowball rolling downhill, that’s really what you need, and that’s what we’re going for this weekend.”
Dean said: “We moved on [from the Notre Dame loss] to William & Mary, we got a win under our belt, and now we’re just looking to take this momentum into next week and get a streak going.”