This week, I enlisted the help of Andrew Ramspacher, who covers Virginia football for The Daily Progress (Charlottesville, Va.) to help preview this week's game between the Panthers and Cavaliers. Here are Andrew's responses to a couple of questions...
1. What the heck is going on with Virginia's quarterback situation? It looked like both Matt Johns and Greyson Lambert were getting time before Lambert got hurt against BYU, and then Johns played the whole game against Kent State? Could we see both guys on Saturday? What are their various strengths and weaknesses and how do they complement each other?
All spring and summer, Greyson Lambert was the no-doubt No. 1 QB. Heck, he was named a co-captain in April, despite being a redshirt sophomore and never starting a game in his career. With training camp came all kinds of features on his leadership and how he was the one to finally stop the decade-old UVa QB carousel.
Well, that lasted for all of eight series against UCLA in the opener. Lambert threw two early picks that were returned for scores and the staff turned to little-known Matt Johns, who nearly rallied the Cavaliers from a 21-3 second quarter deficit.
At first, it appeared Virginia had another quarterback controversy. The two split time against Richmond in Week 2 before Lambert outperformed Johns in the Week 3 upset of Louisville. Despite the continued "or" on the depth chart, Lambert was the guy for BYU and did a nice job, setting career highs in passing and rushing yards, before going down with the ankle injury late in the third quarter. Naturally, Johns comes in and leads UVa to 17 points.
Lambert was a no-go against Kent State, giving Johns his first start. Two early interceptions were eventually made up for by a couple scores and guiding the offense to 520 yards.
Lambert's a "gametime decision" to go against Pitt. If he's 100 percent, he'll likely start. Lambert and Johns don't differ much — both 6-5 with decent mobility — but Lambert has the better arm and is least likely to make a mistake. He's UVa's best option. Then again, Johns has proven success. There's a good chance you could see both Saturday.
2. Kevin Parks is obviously the workhorse for this Virginia team. Has he taken a step forward as a senior? How have the Cavaliers done mixing in guys like Taquan Mizzell? With the quarterback situation a bit unsettled, how has Virginia gotten the ball in the hands of its playmakers?
It's been a playmaker-by-committe deal all year. Parks, coming off a 1,000-yard season, has had his load lessened a bit because of better health to Mizzell. Senior Khalek Shepherd is also very much in the mix. That trio combined for 138 yards and two touchdowns on 26 carries last week, its best performance to date. Still, this is an average rushing team (69th nationally), mainly because of a line that's struggling to replace a pair of draftees — left tackle Morgan Moses, now with the Redskins, and center, Luke Bowanko, now with the Jaguars.
Fourteen different Cavaliers have caught passes this season. Canaan Severin leads the team with 20 grabs, good for just 10th-best in the ACC. While Parks remains the No. 1 back, I wouldn't say Severin is the team's No. 1 WR. Contrary to Pitt, I'm not sure UVa has a No. 1 WR — and the 'Hoos are cool with that. They're fine spreading the wealth.
3. The defense appears to be improved even off last year's solid unit. What are the keys to this defense, particularly when it comes to its great success forcing turnovers? Anthony Harris is obviously a star, but what are the other key areas where the defense has improved this year?
The key is a second year in Jon Tenuta's system. Very blitz-heavy, it's a unit that needs takeaways and sacks to be successful. Last year, it showed flashes (see a shutdown of BYU, seven sacks at Pitt, forcing five TOs vs Georgia Tech), but it was fairly inconsistent. Bring back nine starters and add the nation's best high school safety — Quin Blanding — and Tenuta's crew is humming.
Harris is the leader on the back-end, but he's got plenty of help in Blanding — the team's leading tackler — and corner Maurice Canady, a junior quickly turning into one of the ACC's top cover guys. Linebackers Henry Coley and Daquan Romero — a combined seven sacks and four forced fumbles between them — are off to All-ACC starts. Same goes for D-ends Eli Harold and Max Valles and their 10 combined sacks.
Areas of weakness are tough to find in this entire group.
4. At least through five games, Virginia appears to be one of the most improved teams in the ACC this year. Were the close loss against UCLA and win over Louisville enough to save Mike London's job, or he still on the hot seat for the rest of the season? Can Virginia be good enough on a week-to-week basis to be a factor in the wild Coastal Division race?
It's tough to say. Right now, his job looks pretty safe. He's taken on one of the nation's toughest schedules and has three wins with two very competitive losses to Top 25 teams. But it wasn't long ago when Virginia was on a 10-game losing streak. This season can certainly spin downward in an instant, sending him right back to the hot seat.
Win Saturday, and, yes, UVa is good enough to be a factor in the Coastal. It'll be 2-0 in the league with an extra week to prepare for a trip to Duke. All of sudden, the script goes from "Can London save his job?" to "Does London win ACC Coach of the Year?" The defense has already proven it can carry this team. Meanwhile, the offense has put up back to back 500-yard games. If the two catch up to each other, Virginia has a great chance in a WIDE-OPEN division.