A new season but some of the same problem persists for Virginia football. No. 13 UCLA was too much to handle for the Wahoos who fell 34-16 to the Bruins in their opening game on Saturday. The story of the game was really about the brilliant play of Josh Rosen.
The UCLA freshman quarterback was as good as advertised. The former five-star signal caller finished the game 28 of 35 for 351 yards and three touchdowns.
It didn't start all doom and gloom for the Cavaliers, however. The 'Hoos started the game moving the ball extremely well offensively in the first half. UVa quarterback Matt Johns went 4-for-4 in the opening drive for 51-yards for the first score of the game, a 41-yard field goal from Ian Frye. The Cavs took two trips to the redzone following that opening drive score, only to settle for field goals each time. All this while Rosen started feeling more confident.
Where's the Pressure?
The UVa defense struggled to provide the pressure they wanted on Rosen, missing pass rushers like Eli Harold and Max Valles, but a lot of credit goes to the Bruins offensive line, who were tremendous at protecting the freshman quarterback. Micah Kiser led the team with tackles with 12 (10 solo) and one for a loss. Kiser definitely was a bright spot on that defense, and really made an impression on his debut. David Dean recorded UVa's lone sack of the game. The secondary struggled at times with coverages, however, Kelvin Rainey showed he can contribute in the back with Quin Blanding.
Establishing the Run
Virginia really struggled to get any sort of momentum in its ground game, which affected the passing game. The Wahoos finished with just 98 yards rushing on Saturday, with Taquan Mizzell leading the way with 45 yards on 16 attempts and averaging under three-yards a carry. Daniel Hamm only featured on special teams, because, according to Daily Progress' Andrew Ramspacher, he is wearing a soft cast due to a "wrist issue."
The issues on the ground are attributed to the offensive line. The battle of the trenches was easily won by the UCLA's front seven, and the running backs struggled to gain anything.
Grading Matt Johns and the Passing Game
The offensive line also did not help the passing game. Unlike Rosen, who was given plenty of time, Johns felt plenty of pressure. The UVa junior finished the game completing 21 of 35 for 238 yards, one touchdown and one interception. Although the wide receivers amounted for just 84-yards receiving, Mizzell proved to be a bright spot in the passing game. The running back had a career-high 100 yards receiving on eight catches, and recorded a touchdown late in the fourth quarter.
I think Johns overall did fine. The playcalling, well that was disappointing to put it mildly. What did we hear all offseason? They have confidence in Johns. Then show it! He is capable playmaker that has the ability to make things happen. So why not expand the playbook? I'm all for playing conservative when you are on the road, if the game is close. At some point though, you have to take a risk. At some point you have to play to win and not to lose. At some point you have to play for your jobs.
Another bright spot was tight end Evan Butts, who caught two passes for 42-yards, showing glimpses of his potential.
Making the Opportunities Count
UVa fans have come accustomed to the phrase "Virginia settles for a field goal." This game would have a different feel completely if the Cavs could convert in the redzone. Last year the 'Hoos only converted 47% of their chances in the red-zone, the Cavaliers went 0-for-2 in that first half after two very promising drives. At the end of day controlling possession won't get you too far, if you can't convert at the end.
End of the Day..
A shot of reality, the Cavaliers were facing the 13th best team in the country with a stellar quarterback protected by a very good offensive line; while the 'Hoos' line struggled to provide the protection the offense needed to remain consistent. There were some glimpses that the 'Hoos have skill to make themselves competitive. Matt Johns has the ability to throw some nice balls-if given the opportunity-while Mizzell can be quite the threat in the slot. Maybe with some more inspired and gutsy play calling things could be different. But I think also a little perspective is needed here. UVa faced a top 20 team with some of the best players in the country. Of course some things need to improve-offensive line play, the run game, inspired play calling, the pass rush- but the loss to UCLA should not be a true metric for where the team stands.
HOWEVER, there is a point when the run,run, screen/short pass needs to stop happening. An offense that is predictable does no score in the redzone. Even if you are not facing top 20 team, a team like lets William and Mary (no offense William and Mary) can figure out the pattern.
Maybe a little silver lining in a very dark cloud?
The 'Hoos will face Notre Dame next at home on Saturday.