FTRS: It's been an up and down season for Virginia football. What were the expectations like in Charlottesville before the season started? How do you feel the team has lived up those expectations?
STL: Pre-season expectations were weird. That's the best way to put it: just plain strange. With so much talent returning, it seemed worth hoping that there could be a break-through season in the works for the Hoos. Of course all of that talent was returning from squads that had won 6 games in two seasons. There were the invariable QB questions but a belief that last year's aggressive defense could play with more consistency.
Eight games in, both those questions and that belief have held true. From game one, it's been the Johns & Lambert show. Each has shown periods of brilliance and periods of inefficiency-or worse. The defense has been every bit as good as we hoped it would be. It's fast, it's big, it capitalizes on mistakes, and it's done more than its share to keep us in games. In short, four wins at this point in the season is maybe one game ahead of where most fans expected and right on pace with what some of the more optimistic among us had hoped for.
FTRS: Looking at the scores, it seems that Virginia could have won every single game it's played this year. What've been the factors that have contributed to such close losses? After starting league play 2-0 with some impressive victories over Louisville and Pitt, what happened in the last two weeks against Duke and UNC?
STL: Coaching. Plain and simple. Find me another team that has lost two games in three seasons because of illegal substitution penalties that gave the other team a first down to run out the clock. Go ahead, I'll wait. ... I see you're back empty-handed.
One of our writers, Tim, did a great job running through the litany of what frustrates U.Va. fans. We can out gain the other team, win the turnover battle, commit fewer penalties-achieve every benchmark that usually indicates a winning effort, and end up taking the L anyway. Coach London has done a great job restocking the talent on this team; Al Groh left behind a pretty bare cupboard. He's gotten that talent to believe that it can win and that it should win, something that (again) was apparently absent in the closing days of the Groh tenure. London deserves credit for those accomplishments and all the respect in the world for being an incredible role model, father, and human being. But he's a pretty crap football coach. And eventually, being a nice guy needs to stop winning out over actually winning.
FTRS: The Cavaliers haven't had much success in stopping the options offense at Tech as of late - giving up 33 or more points in four of the last five meetings. Do you expect a seemingly improved Virginia defense to be able to slow down Tech this year?
STL: I'm not sure. I love this defense more than any I've seen in a long time. They're good for satisfying bloodlust that's built up through a decade of subpar football. It's cathartic. But for all the aggression, they are prone to giving up big plays. Last week against UNC-Chapel Hill, the Heels' first three touchdowns all came on plays longer than 50 yards. The fact that one was a busted QB keeper on an option play makes me nervous for this week. If Tenuta can drill into his guys the importance of playing man-assignment football, and channel the aggression into playing hard without playing out of position, I think there's a chance to slow Tech's offense enough to keep Virginia in the game.
FTRS: Speaking of the defense, other than BYU, it seems this defense has done very well to limit teams so far this year. What is the scheme ran, and what do they do particularly well?
STL: It's a very aggressive defense that plays primarily out of the 4-3. Tenuta mixes up blitzers to come from all angles. He has a great set of edge rushers in DE Eli Harold and OLB Max Valles (a converted TE). Mike Moore is more a set-the-edge DE who can still disrupt the backfield in the right packages. MLB Henry Coley has played very effectively as a QB spy over the middle, really limiting UCLA's dual-threat QB in Brett Hundley. The safeties are the real standouts. SS Anthony Harris led the nation in interceptions last year and can play a spy/rover role that allows Tenuta to send LBs. Freshman five-star FS Quin Blanding has been leading the team in tackles, cleaning up spots left open when the defense sends the extra man.
More than anything, what this defense does well is disrupt plays in the backfield, whether that's by sacking a QB or taking down a RB behind the line of scrimmage. They are aggressive on early downs, which sets them up to go to 11 on third-and-long situations. Teams that have had success this year have managed to use that aggression against Virginia, or have had the protection to give a QB time to find the weak spots (generally our corners, generally against deep balls). If Tech can get UVa's defenders too far upfield to defend the option, it'll be a long day for Virginia fans.
FTRS: Give me three players Tech fans should watch out for during the meeting on Saturday.
STL: First is Kevin Parks. The senior RB is leading the team in carries and yardage; even on last year's abysmal offense, Parks still managed to rack up 1,000 yards on the ground. He's a bowling ball who runs all shoulders and knees, and with hate in his heart. The second is QB Greyson Lambert, a Georgia native. Greyson missed a few games with an ankle injury, and Matt Johns was a capable replacement. But Greyson's arm and his grasp of the offense makes things move more smoothly. If he controls the ball and can make a few big plays, Virginia's offense will be in much better shape. And as a related third player, look out for WR Darius Jennings. Although Jennings' first few years in Charlottesville didn't live up to all of the hope surrounding his arrival, he has emerged as a real threat out of the slot and in the return game. You give him a crease or two, and all of a sudden it's 20 to 30 yards of ground gained in Virginia's favor.
FTRS: With four tough remaining games left for UVA, what is the feeling around Charlottesville about the chances Virginia is able to win two out of four and make it to a bowl game?
STL: Guh. No really, that's the feeling. I want a bowl game for the guys that have been around this program a few years and whose only bowl experience was getting trounced by Auburn in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl. I want a bowl game to build momentum for the program and enthusiasm among the fans. But I don't want a bowl game if a bowl game means Mike London is coaching in Charlottesville next year. And given that a bowl game is an obvious measuring stick for progress in a program, I fear that going to a bowl game means London's ineptitude gets papered over.
As far as chances of that happening? Well Virginia Tech looks eminently beatable, more than they have in any recent years. But that game is in Blacksburg and if the Hokies aren't going to a bowl game then keeping their win streak over Virginia alive could add an extra jolt to their sideline. A win over Miami is of course possible, but Al Golden's squad looks like it's been moving in the right direction; the more experience Brad Kaaya gets under center, the more dangerous that team becomes. Florida State in Tallahassee? We haven't had a true "WTF?" win this year and that would certainly count but I'm not going to bank on that for bowl eligibility. If I had any confidence in this coaching staff, I would bet the talent is there to win two more and play in December. As things stand, I have got no idea what team shows up week to week.
FTRS: Finally, what is your prediction for the game on Saturday?
STL: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ and lots of derp, probably in the most important moment for Virginia. Georgia Tech's defense does not instill any fear into me whatsoever. But the last two weeks we've played teams with suspect defenses and potent offenses ... and we've lost both times. I'm going to say 35-25 Georgia Tech, because 25 points is one of the dumbest football scores I can think of without being patently absurd and is thus exactly what I expect from the Hoos.