From time to time the Tar Heel Blog staff exchanges questions and answers about an upcoming game with the SBN blog staff for the scheduled opponent.
This week, THB’s Jay Exum and streakingthelawn.com’s Caroline Darney exchanged questions about the UNC-UVa matchup. The questions that Jay answered for Carolina can be found at this link. Here were our questions to the UVa blog, and their answers:
Jay: I think almost everyone was surprised when Bronco Mendenhall left BYU to come all the way to Virginia to take on the ACC, with no real roots or connections in the area. What’s the reception been like, and how has Mendenhall adapted to the new environment and recruiting territory?
Caroline: I think it's tough for any coach to come into UVa after pretty much a decade of bad football. Fans are clamoring for success and a team that can go out and get to a bowl game. For the most part, I think Coach Mendenhall - while still being 2-4 - has shown that the team will continue improving throughout the season and that's huge for fans. As far as recruiting, the east coast offers up so much talent, and with guys like Marques Hagans and Ruffin McNeill (ECU) on staff, they lend a familiar face to the local coaches. On top of that, there are fewer faith-based restrictions coaching at Virginia rather than BYU, so that opens up a whole group of players to Coach Mendenhall and his staff, while still maintaining some of the ties they had out west.
Jay: Bronco’s known as a defensive coach, but so far UVa is allowing over 32ppg on defense. What do you think has been the source of the struggle, and what needs to get better for the defense to improve?
Caroline: The biggest issue is that they don't yet have players to fit their scheme. Coach Mendenhall runs a modified 3-4, but doesn't have the players to match it with the folks he inherited from Coach London. In the first game (that loss to Richmond), the defense was given too much too soon. They weren't able to grasp the schemes and execute, and it was evident. As defense became simplified, the players started to look more comfortable and were able to make plays. Injuries also haven't helped, but some of the younger players like Jordan Mack, transfers like Jack Powers, and senior leaders like Micah Kiser have really played well.
Jay: Where do I go to get a cool nickname like “Smoke”?
Caroline: Hahah great question. If you find out, let me know. I will say it's good to see him out-run some folks this season, because there isn't a lot of leeway when you are called Smoke and get tracked down from behind.
Jay: Virginia seems to have suffered an unusually high number of injuries in the defensive backfield lately, losing Darious Latimore and Myles Robinson last week, and Tim Harris not long before that. Who’s going to step in to fill those holes?
Caroline: Bryce Hall and Juan Thornhill have performed admirably in the position following all the injuries you listed. Against Duke, the duo combined for four of Virginia's five interceptions. Additionally, pressure on the QB has improved, but Virginia was unable to disrupt Nate Peterman from Pitt as much as I would have liked. Kareem Gibson, a RS FR, has also started a game or two, but at 5-11 doesn't have as much range against some of the bigger receivers in the league.
Jay: After some episodes of struggling to defend the pass earlier in the season, Virginia held Pitt to 137 yards passing last week despite the injuries I just mentioned. What do you think accounted for this?
Caroline: I feel like that game was just so weird. I thought Virginia had done a good job containing the pass, as evident in their 137 yards with no single pass play going for more than 38 yards. Pitt got (only?) 92 yards rushing from James Conner, but had three other players with rushing totals in the mid-to-high 20s. In all, it felt like they had way more than 224 yards rushing. Really, the defense did well enough to put the Hoos in a position to win the game, but giving up a kick return for a TD and a pick-six was pretty much the difference in the game.
Jay: Virginia began the season scoring 20, 26, and 10 points, but has shown significant improvement, putting up 49, 34 and 31 in the last 3 games. What do you think accounts for the improvement?
Caroline: Kurt Benkert has definitely gotten more comfortable in the offense. Pitt got to him a few times in the second half, but overall, the offensive line has really improved when it comes to giving him time. The receiving corps is fairly balanced with four guys (Keeon Johnson, Olamide Zaccheaus, Smoke Mizzell, and Doni Dowling) all having more than 20 catches on the season. Zaccheaus has been so impressive over the past few weeks, and I would say he's our biggest threat in the receiving game with 29 catches (second on the team) for 423 yards (leads the team) and five touchdowns (leads the team).
As far as the running game, I have frequently heard people say that Virginia has no running game, which I would respectfully disagree with. While it is true that the run may not be used as frequently, Albert Reid and Smoke Mizzell have combined for over 700 yards and nine touchdowns, and both are averaging about five yards per carry. They aren't blowing opponents out of the water, but they are both solid RBs.
Jay: What does Bronco have to do (in the long run) to restore Virginia to Welsh-era glory?
Win? I would just love to see a bowl game at this point...haha. No, Coach Mendenhall and crew need to find players to fit their scheme, schedule smartly in the non-conference, and produce a winning product on the field. I think this is a process that will take time to develop, but that could have sustained success down the road.
Thank you to Caroline and streakingthelawn.com for helping us get ready for this weekend’s showdown.