So it begins. The 2008 season commences with a long road trip across the country for a battle with the Virginia Cavaliers.
The Cavs were 9-4 last season, and they had a couple of wins over decent teams like Wake Forest and Connecticut. Last season they won with defense, holding opponents to under 20 points and 340 yards per game. They also had a knack for winning the close ones, going 5-1 in games decided by a field goal or less. They were also 5-1 at home last season, so they are more than comfortable in Charlottesville.
Still, this team lost a lot of starters, and in many ways are starting fresh in 2008. Can they give the Trojans a struggle as Virginia Tech did in 2004? I watched their games against Pittsburgh, Miami, Virginia Tech, and Texas Tech recently. Here's what I saw.
Virginia Offense vs. USC Defense
The Cavs are a multiple formation, jack of all trades but master of none type offense. Last season with Jameel Sewell at quarterback, they were able to incorporate some zone read from the shotgun into their regular I-back running game. They preferred to do their outside running with their QB under center, and most of their inside running from the backs came in the shotgun. Now they have to adjust, because Sewell is academically ineligible this season.
Virginia hasn't named a starting QB yet, but my guess is that sophomore Peter Lalich will be the guy. He is more of a classic pocket QB than Sewell, and he was not impressive in action last season, especially against Texas Tech. Scott Deke is pushing Lalich for the job, and may get some playing time. But I expect Lalich to do the heavy lifting.
So the zone read will be gone, as will the threat of the quarterback running at all. That's a problem for the Cavs, who struggled to run the ball last season even with the threat of Sewell taking off. None of their running backs will scare you, although in my opinion Mikell Simpson is better than Cedric Peerman.
The Virginia offensive coaching staff traveled to Lubbock to learn about Texas Tech's offense after the bowl game, and you could see elements of that scheme in Virginia's shotgun looks. The team did a lot of passing in their spring game. But what you will probably see most from this team is multiple tight end sets, which use one TE as an H-back in motion. Out of the I, they will run play action and roll the other way to throw to the TE, much as SC does. They use their tight ends in the middle and on the perimeter with wheel routes and long outs.
The main problem for the Cavs has been a lack of skill position talent. They will probably have the least talented group of wide receivers that we will see all season. When your top three pass catchers and four of your top five are running backs and tight ends, and your top wide out only has 21 catches and two TDs, then you're talking about an underutilized group. Sewell threw a lot to the tight ends, with the top three combining for 93 catches and seven TDs.
Virginia also likes to use the screen play three or four times per game, and they also like to run their WRs and TEs off the line and throw the quick swing. I think with this group we will see more throws to the WRs with a true drop back passer and the return of Kevin Ogletree, who was the team's leading receiver in 2006. He missed 2007 with a knee injury.
The Cavaliers want to keep a balanced offense, but they are going to have a hard time doing it against the Trojans. The offensive line is rebuilding in the interior, and is very inexperienced there. Virginia only averaged four yards per carry in three of their thirteen games. They rushed for -2 yards against Wyoming.
The Cavs are going to have to move the ball through the air with dinks and dunks, and this is why I think they might utilize more Texas Tech offense than they normally would. They will not be able to line up in the I and pound the ball, and they aren't fast enough on the line to run the outside zones that they favor. It will likely be through the air or nothing at all.
Virginia Defense vs. USC Offense
The Cavs front seven did a fantastic job last season of bottling up the run without safety help, and creating confusion with the pass rush. They run a base 3-4 that looks like a 5-2 against most offensive base formations. Most of the time, the nose will line up on the center, with the ends lining up on the tackles.
The inside backers will fill the holes between the nose and ends, and outside guys line up on the line outside of the tackles and tight ends. The main difference is that in the 5-2, there is generally one designated pass rusher and one designated drop guy. In Al Groh's defense, they will rush either guy.
The looks will change when other teams go three wide. Then you'll see six in the box, with an outside backer shading toward the slot receiver. The safeties played back ALL THE TIME in the games I saw, with the exception of the Pittsburgh game, when RB LeSean McCoy would line up in the shotgun and run the option, as Arkansas used Darren McFadden last season. When you look at them on film, you think that it's simple, like ASU, who ran the same look on almost every play. But they play subtle games.
They can pinch the ends in on top of the guards. They will rush from either end, and they love to stunt. They'll stunt tackle/tackle, tackle/end, or linebacker/tackle. They do some looping blitzes with the middle guys too. As a result, they held teams to 2.9 yards a carry and garnered 43 sacks as a team.
They are very experienced at linebacker, and have a playmaker in Clint Sintim, who is probably the best player on the team now that Chris Long is in the NFL. He plays on the outside, and he led the nation in sacks from the linebacker spot with nine. The middle guys are aggressive, but not fast. The problem for Virginia is the line. Besides losing Long, who can't be replaced, they have to groom new starters at the other two defensive line positions, and there is big concern up there. The secondary is average too. Vic Hall is their best player and he's a good leader, but he didn't really stand out on tape.
On the other hand, this team has more talent than Stanford did last season, and the Cardinal was able to befuddle an injury ridden Trojan offensive line by confusing them with a lot of gambling. This USC OL is going to need some time to build cohesiveness, not to mention time to break in a new quarterback who will not be 100%.
Virginia was not a good offensive team last season, and unless Peter Lalich is remarkably better than he was last year, they could be worse this season. They lack skill position firepower, and they rely on tight ends for most of their receptions. I don't see them being able to run the ball much on the Trojans, and I suspect that Pete Carroll is going to come after Lalich a couple of possessions into the game.
I just don't see a way that the Cavs can consistently move the ball on SC without Sewell. With him, it could have been a carbon copy of the Virginia Tech game, with the quarterback's rushing threat and the throws to the tight ends. Without that, Virginia will have to rely on short passes and screens, and the Trojans have been dominant against the screen game.
Virginia can make this game close with their defense. In recent season, Groh has installed his system well, and the Cavs have had some top defenses during those times. The 3-4 can be confusing for the offensive line, and Mark Sanchez could be fooled in diagnosing the blitzes. I'm just not sure that Virginia can stop SC's running game by playing only seven up front. The teams that gave the Trojan running game the most trouble last year (Stanford, Oregon, and Oregon State) did it by bringing up safeties. Maybe Groh will come out with something completely different for this game, but in general, most former NFL coaches don't operate that way. They stress execution.
The problem is that under Carroll, SC has made a living out of executing better than their opponent, especially against non-conference opponents, and especially on the road. Think Nebraska, Arkansas, Hawaii, Notre Dame, BYU, and Auburn. Only the 2005 ND game and the Virginia Tech roadie have been interesting since 2002. This Virginia team isn't nearly as good as either of those teams. I'm still going to need to see the offense before I put too much expectations on its doorstep, but the Trojans will win this one with defense and a grinding running game, saving Sanchez for the Ohio State contest.