This week, I enlisted the help of Andrew Ramspacher, who covers Virginia football for The Daily Progress in Charlottesville to help preview this week's game between the Panthers and Cavaliers. Here are Andrew's responses to a couple of questions...
1. After averaging less than four yards a carry in his first two games, running back Kevin Parks broke loose with a 135-yard, two-touchdown performance against VMI. Was that mostly just due to facing a much less talented opponent, or do you think it signaled some sort of breakout for Parks? Is he the key player Pitt is going to have to stop on Saturday?
Virginia wants opponents to think stopping Kevin Parks is the key to stopping the Cavalier offense. That means the rushing attack poses something of a threat. Since coordinator Steve Fairchild's hiring in January, there's been a repeated goal by coaches and players to become a power football team. Through two games this season, however, UVa ranked 99th nationally in rushing, getting just over 116 yards a game.
The VMI breakout was part-Parks and part-the opponent. Parks is a talented guy. His 1,443 rushing yards after two years at Virginia are the second most of any Wahoo after two years in the program. This is his first year as the feature back and there's a lot expected of him. Perhaps taking advantage of a lesser foe was what he (and the line) needed to get going.
2. The Cavaliers only have two senior starters on the defense. Has that been a cause for concern through the first three games? How are the young guys adapting to playing such a large role in the defense? Since they have some returning starters in the secondary, does that project as an area of strength for the defense?
The defense is not loaded in senior experience, but it has plenty of playing experience. With the exception of strong-side linebacker Max Valles, a freshman expected to make his start on Saturday, the rest of the regulars all got significant, if not starting, reps last season.
Through three games, that's been a positive. Take away the Oregon game — not a shocking result when you consider the opponent — and Virginia would rank first in the country in total defense. This athletic group has adopted well to new coordinator Jon Tenuta's aggressive, pressure-heavy style.
The secondary is a major strength. It lacks interceptions (just one), but it's been doing the job on incompletions. Consider: Opposing quarterbacks have just 37 completions on 100 attempts.
3. Virginia made two fairly high-profile assistant hires this off-season, bringing on Tom O'Brien as an associate head coach and Jon Tenuta as defensive coordinator. Have you seen any significant changes or impact because of those hires through three games? Is either one installing drastically different system from what Virginia had in the past?
Defensively, Virginia played a very conservative "read and react" style under former coordinator Jim Reid. It led to solid numbers, but added little in the game-changing play categories. With the hiring of Tenuta, UVa vowed to be the opposite. The Cavaliers wanted to be the aggressor or, as Tenuta puts it, dictate to what the offense is doing and instead of vice-versa. Through three games, the 'Hoos have six sacks, another 16 tackles for loss and three takeaways.
The offense got a staff makeover with changes, but the style hasn't differed much. Under Bill Lazor, now the Philadelphia Eagles' QB coach, it was a pro-style with some elements of the spread mixed in. The look isn't all that much different with Fairchild. Tom O'Brien is the associate head coach for offense and the tight ends coach. He's a little more hands-off in play-calling and things of that nature. He'll help in time management on the field and plays a significant role in organizing recruiting off it.
4. After a successful 2011 season that almost saw the Cavaliers in the ACC championship game, there was some regression last year to a 4-8 record and no bowl game. What caused the slide back to a losing record last year? How much confidence is there in Charlottesville that Mike London is the right guy to build a consistently winning program there?
The 2011 and 2012 seasons really weren't all that different from each other. In '11, Virginia went 8-5. Throw out a 40-3 rout of William & Mary in the opener and the Cavs won games by an average scoring margin of 6.1. In '12, Virginia went 4-8. Four losses came by seven points or less. The little things went UVa's way one season. They didn't the other. In '12, UVa was near the bottom of the country in turnover margin as well as being one of the most penalized teams in the ACC. Those things added up in tight games.
London was the 2011 ACC Coach of the Year, but the Charlottesville honeymoon certainly ended a year later. But not all hope is lost. The fourth-year coach continues to recruit well (see a 2014 class with two five-stars) and there is a sense of patience for it all to develop. If London manages six wins and a bowl out of this season, that's a huge plus going into next year where expectations should be high.
Thanks a lot to Andrew for helping out. You can follow him on Twitter to stay up to date on Virginia as they prepare for Pitt this week.