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Countdown Q&A - Week 4, Virginia Cavaliers

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NCAA Football: Richmond at Virginia Amber Searls-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome back one and all to Week 4 of the ‘Countdown Q&A’ where CardinalStrong and a representative from the Cards upcoming ‘foe’ discuss how people who unironically speak in the third person are the absolute worst and should be banished from society…but that’s just CardinalStrong’s opinion.

Today’s unlucky participate is the very gifted Caroline Darney who is the Bo Jackson of blogging, covering numerous Virginia athletic programs for our friends over at ‘Streaking The Lawn’ and doing a ‘dang-tooting’ good job at it as well. Things may get testy, things may get uncomfortable, but I have faith in Caroline escaping unscathed…

Virginia Cavaliers (ACC; 2-1, 0-0)

CS: Before we get too deep into the weeds, I have to be honest with you Caroline. When the Cards officially joined the ACC back in 2014 and the cross-division rival was confirmed to be the constantly overdressed Wahoo’s…it didn’t really get my blood pumping. The two seasons prior to the Cards addition the Cavaliers had posted 4-8 and 2-10 records on the gridiron, not exactly awe-inspiring for even the most dedicated fan, but since the ‘rivalry’ has commenced there have been some….to put it eloquently…slobber knockers between the two teams. With the exception of last year every game has been within a touchdown when the final whistle blew and there has been plenty of back and forth within the lines to help fuel the ‘designated rivalry’ that neither fan base anticipated, but on our end at least, has become a little chippy. How do Virginia football fans, in your opinion, view UofL now almost five years into the league?

CD: It’s been interesting...as you mentioned, somehow the Cavaliers have hung in there for most of the matchups (and even won one!). I think for the most part, fans are with you in the initial assessment about still trying to get over the feeling of the ‘forced rivalry’. The 2016 last second loss to y’all when you were No.5 is one that will stick in my craw for awhile, and has absolutely helped make this relationship more of a rivalry. The moment Lamar Jackson found Jaylen Smith for the touchdown, my heart fell out of my body. They were so close to sacking Lamar and getting away with the win...then that. The basketball games have definitely helped build this chippy relationship, but a win for Virginia here would be huge. All I know is it’s gonna be crazy, y’all.

To get a little timelier in my questioning, let’s discuss ‘Virginia Football: 2018 Edition’. The Cavs are sitting at 2-1, the same record as the Cards three weeks into the season, but both got there a little bit differently. While Virginia handled their two ‘over-matched opponents’ with ease and got a bit surprised by a somewhat emerging Indiana Hoosier squad back in Week 2 while the Cards have struggled to get into any type of rhythm since the season began, with one large issue being their defensive front. Conversely, one bright spot for Virginia has been Senior running back Jordan Ellis, who sits at second in the ACC with 126.7yd/game and tied for first in the conference with 5 touchdowns. Does Virginia lean heavily on their backfield or has some of the success just been a result of the time/situation in the early games?

Give. The. Ball. To. Jordan. Ellis. I cannot say enough about the way he’s running the ball right now, and I think his numbers say way more than I could. He’s averaging 126.7 yards per game (2nd best in the ACC), 7.5 yards per carry (best in the ACC among those with 50 attempts or more), and five rushing touchdowns (tied for best in the ACC). After the Hoos went away from Ellis at frustrating times last season, it’s amazing to see him used so much and so creatively.

NCAA Football: Richmond at Virginia Amber Searls-USA TODAY Sports

With regards to leaning on the backfield, it’s definitely been that way early. Bryce Perkins, the transfer QB out of junior college, has 239 yards and two touchdowns on the ground himself to go with 670 yards and seven touchdown passes through the air. His versatility opens up a lot for Ellis, and when Ellis gets moving...look out. The Perkins-Ellis combo is the only way the Hoos get to where they’re going from where they were.

Another running back who has now become a legitimate threat in the passing game is Olamide Zaccheaus. The 5-8/190lb speedster out of Plainfield, NJ has become a significant issue for opposing defenses when he catches the ball in open space, having notched an 86 yard TD and a 77 yard TD last week alone. Since we’re in the trust tree here Caroline, those numbers make me pee my pants a little because the Cards secondary, and tackling in general, has been somewhat “iffy” in 2018. I’m naming you my new Defensive Coordinator and asking…how in the heck do we stop that from happening this week?

You have to wrap him up in the open field. Don’t let the guy get that head of steam or let him tip-toe along the sideline. He’s so crafty, and honestly is making Perkins’s numbers look even better with those hugely long runs. He had some drops against Indiana in the rain, and I think he set himself a personal challenge to improve against Ohio. Clearly he did that with the huge receptions, but he’s also clutch with the short distances and in small spaces. Both Ellis and Zaccheaus are fast and strong, which has shown early this season.

On the other side of the ball I’m having a difficult time figuring what one might pinpoint as Virginia’s defensive identity three games into the year. Many assumed that bringing in Bronco Mendenhall back in 2015 would allow UVA to slowly transition into a defense first mentality but I’m not really seeing that yet. Statistically UVA is a Top 5 defense in conference only allowing 325.3yd/game but the rushing defense isn’t spectacular and the passing defense isn’t really lighting the world on fire either. Where do you think the Cards offense can cause the most damage? Air it out, or ground and pound?

Wheeewwww this is a great question. [Editors Note: That was a great question] The defensive line is the beginning and end of all questions about the defense. Ohio found success in the passing game last week not so much because the secondary was terrible, but because Rourke had ALL DAY in the pocket from midway through the second quarter on. Indiana used a bowling ball of a running back to gash the middle in the monsoon we played in, so I don’t know how much to take away from that. In all, I’m mostly concerned about Cunningham breaking out of the pocket and either creating on the fly with his arm, or picking up huge chunks of yardage with his feet. Bryce Hall and Juan Thornhill have been fantastic in the secondary, and Jordan Mack and Chris Peace have been outstanding. This team isn’t without some individual superstars, but the youth of the line is the most concerning. Sorry for the roundabout answer...can’t give y’all all the offensive keys to the game.

One interesting aspect of this game is that it appears Malik Cunningham will be getting his first start at QB for the Cards right there in Scott Stadium. For those who just want the Spark Notes on the new QB, think of an unpolished Lamar Jackson, with a smaller arm, and who only has about three-quarters of a game of Division-I experience. BUT…even though he isn’t the sharpest passer yet he can certainly extend a play with his feet if he needs to. Do you think Coach Mendenhall and the defense send the cavalry at Malik and force the young QB to make a play under pressure, or sit back, eliminate his scramble ability, and force him to make throws?

I can see them sending the cavalry early and seeing what kind of pressure they can get on him. Virginia forced a fumble on the first drive against Ohio and they can be disruptive, but as mentioned above, they have depth and consistency issues on the line which will make it tough to continually pressure Cunningham. I watched Louisville’s game with Western Kentucky, and something that stood out is how little help the receivers gave him with dropped passes. If the Hoos can create problems for receivers that exacerbates those issues...I’ll feel much better. Listen, I’m just so glad Lamar Jackson is gone because holy hell what a player and person he was.

And finally, due to Internet Blog Rule 27.84 Subpart B, all formal ‘Q&A’ sessions must end with a prediction question. So, who do you think wins the AFC North this year? What happens on Saturday when the dirty birds come to Hoo-ville?

I have to do this because I picked in our preseason podcast, but I think Virginia actually wins this one. They need to get out to a quick start offensively, but a bigger key to the game for me is how solid the defense performs against Cunningham. Let’s go 28-13 Virginia.

This has been fun Caroline, how about a couple quick hitters to wrap it up…

Where do you stand on the formal game day attire at UVA? Are you riding “guys with ties and girls with pearls” until the wheels fall off or are you ready to rock a t-shirts and shorts?

I say wear what makes you happy. Traditions at games are fun, which is what the guys in ties and girls in pearls is. There aren’t any rules that you *have* to wear a sundress, but hey if you want to, go for it! Want to wear a tee-shirt? Hell yeah, you’re cool. I’ve done both. I’ve also worn a million layers trying to maintain feeling in my feet. I just want more people to go and watch this fun team.

How fun was it to say ‘Kurt Benkert’ (previous starting QB) the last couple years?

Honestly, I miss it a lot. He’s such a good dude and can really throw a football. It’s a name that just rolls of the tongue.

I know this is a football Q&A but if you’ve been itching to get a 0.9 second joke in.....now is your time.

You didn’t leave me much time here at the end, but I guess it’s still plenty.

I’m assuming you won’t embed the video of De’Andre Hunter here, huh?

Under normal circumstances I

May retaliate with a joke of my own

But having turned over a new leaf, it’s just not in my

Character to respond. You go low, I go high, Caroline.

***

Massive thanks to Caroline Darney once again for her help this week. Feel free to go and check out her work over at ‘Streaking The Lawn’ or give her a follow on twitter. If you enjoy tweets about football, the ACC, and the Red Sox I may have just found your spirit animal. Come back next week as I chat with someone from over at ‘Tomahawk Nation’ about how swimmingly things are going down in Tallahasee this year…

Should be a blast.