Cavaliers vs. Bruins Recap
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that when a team’s quarterback has departed in the NFL draft, that when a team has a top-notch defense, that when the team’s running back led the Pac-12 in rushing the previous year with over 1,500 yards, and that when the coach has publicly criticized his own quarterback, the team shall run the ball.
Unfortunately for the Cavaliers, UCLA head coach Jim Mora seems to suffer from cognitive dissonance as he fully handed over the reins to his true freshman quarterback, Josh Rosen. The Hoos were off to an auspicious start on a well- balanced drive featuring Taquan Mizzell’s shifty running, nifty wide receiver screens, and quarterback Matt Johns’ sixth sense for oncoming pressure and timely escapability. Though the drive stalled out, Ian Frye connected on a 42-yard field goal that immediately gave the team an unanticipated lead. Matt Johns could be seen patrolling the sidelines and barking commands to his revamped offensive line. UCLA’s opening play call left analysts and Bruins’ fans alike scratching their heads. Rosen dropped back, briefly surveyed the field, and unleashed an over-50 yard strike on target that hit his receiver in stride but was dropped.
Consequently, UCLA faced a second-and-long and punted on a quick three-and-out. Up a field goal and after a quick stop by the defense, things appeared to be set up for a tougher battle than UCLA had anticipated at its unique home, the Rose Bowl, with the pictorial San Gabriel Mountains looming nearby. However, the lead that had instigated the onslaught of fiery emotions from Johns quickly evaporated. Unfortunately, the rest of the day was not filled with drops on Rosen’s later strikes. Josh Rosen looked every bit the part of freshman quarterback and Heisman contender we have come to expect after Johnny Football and Jameis Winston; however, both of those players won the trophy as redshirt freshmen with a year of practice under their drawstrings.
Nonetheless, Rosen’s polish and composure shone through. A five-star recruit according to every agency, the top quarterback in the 2015 class according to two services, and the number one overall recruit according to one premier agency, Rosen was unfazed by the result of his first pass. This was evidenced by his later unfathomable consecutive completion strings of 7, 8, and 9 passes against a Cavalier defense expected to be the lone bright spot of this squad. His 28 completions on 35 attempts resulted in 3 touchdowns to his credit. His 80% completion percentage, fine arm slot, and excellent footwork have NFL scouts drooling already. However, as an opposing fan, most impressive were the true freshman’s composure and willingness to stand tall in the pocket despite facing multitudinous different looks from a defense coached by Jon Tenuta, well-known for the pleasure he derives from varying defensive alignments that would leave the typical freshman scratching his head, and consequently, with turf in his facemask.
Defensively, the Cavaliers seemed unprepared and overmatched by UCLA on Saturday, but that cannot come altogether as a surprise. No one anticipated the UCLA playbook being very open on Saturday given the combination of star tailback and a freshman quarterback, but it was clear from the time UCLA first snapped the ball that full trust had been placed in Rosen. The Cavaliers looked as though they were not prepared for the possibility of a pass-happy Bruins offense, so some of the worry that might arise after watching the Cavalier defense might be mitigated.
Offensively, Virginia espoused its strong desire to return to its run-first identity with Johns under center as opposed to the shotgun looks frequently featured last season. However, few coaches are willing to gamble on running the ball on second-and-long, which was the situation in which Mike London’s offense frequently found itself as a result of the offensive line’s inability to move the interior of UCLA’s defensive line, which maintained low pad level and push throughout the game. Consequently, UVA ended up throwing the ball more frequently than it ought to, and in a vicious cycle, the interior of the UCLA defensive line faced fewer rushing plays and remained fresh throughout the game. UVA’s running backs were facing a defensive line that had not been softened up even by the fourth quarter. UCLA’s impeccable linebacking crew, led by star Myles Jack who also plays running back, flew to the ball and made contact with authority.
Do not misunderstand me; I loathe excuses. Virginia went out on the football field on Saturday and lost 34-16. However, football is a tactical game and a mental game as well as physical one, so losing a season opener does not necessarily mean fans should not hope for better results going forward. Here are a few reasons for cautious optimism:
First, though the Hoos were unable to get to the end zone other than on a single occasion, Virginia had several solid drives. Matt Johns’ feet enabled plays to be extended and to avoid sacks. Taquan Mizzell displayed incredible evasiveness in his first opportunity as the premier back. In his hybrid role, he caught 8 passes for 100 yards and ran for 45 yards. In order for the offense to be effective, Smoke (as he is affectionately known) needs to be able to gain yards between the tackles. However, he demonstrated that he has the shiftiness to make defenders miss; the offensive line needs to step up, too, and raise the physicality one notch.
Second, ball security, which was a major issue last year, seemed much improved. Johns threw a single interception, but he was also throwing the ball much more than anticipated, and the UCLA defense was absolutely flying to the ball on Saturday. When an anemic offense loses the turnover battle, losing is all but assured, but the Hoos held onto the ball well on Saturday despite some whopping hits.
Third, aside from a single out-of-bounds kickoff, special teams looked solid. Ian Frye connected on field goals from 42, 31, and 19 yards. He made kicks from tough angles and did not seem deterred by the big stage. Nicholas Conte booted four punts for a very impressive average of 50.5 yards but we nonetheless hope to see less of him going forward.
Next week, Notre Dame and its accompanying fanfare will be making its first visit to Charlottesville. Going into Saturday, Notre Dame was ranked 11th in the country. However, this averaged ranking reflected a stark difference in opinion between two camps. One held that Notre Dame has the talent and depth to contend for a berth in 4-team College Football Playoff. The other insisted that the Notre Dame defense that turned the ball over incessantly in the final 5 games of the season and gave up just under 40 points per game in those 5 contests was the real Notre Dame, and that this season would bring more of the same. The wheels fell off of Notre Dame’s season last year after a loss in Tallahassee from a top-5 matchup between the Fighting Irish and the Florida State Seminoles. Ironically, Notre Dame’s starting quarterback of yesteryear, Everett Golson, transferred to Florida State where he is starting this season.
However, the boisterous camp that evaluated Notre Dame as mediocre this season will have to wait at least one more week for any potential chance to say “I told you so” after Notre Dame’s very impressive total dismantling of Texas in a 38-3 win under the lights on Saturday night in South Bend. Notre Dame anticipated relying heavily on junior running back Tarean Folston this season, who went down with an MCL tear in his knee and is out for the season. Fortunately for them, quarterback Malik Zaire embraced the situation and passed the ball efficiently while also taking advantage of designed quarterback runs. However, Notre Dame’s only other returning tailback, CJ Prosise, is also a slot receiver; thus, one of Notre Dame’s two true freshman running backs will see extensive carries going forward. That happened to be Josh Adams on Saturday, who ran for two touchdowns, but it is unclear who will shoulder the load for the Irish going forward.
Regardless, the Cavaliers must hope that the friendly confines of Scott Stadium pay grand dividends next Saturday if they are to contend with a talented and physical Notre Dame squad in the home opener this coming weekend.
By The Virginia Advocate Sports Staff