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Meet the resurgent Virginia Cavaliers, now featuring a ground game

The Cavs are trending up in Bronco Mendenhall’s third season.

Virginia v Indiana Photo by Bobby Ellis/Getty Images

I’m beginning to suspect this Bronco Mendenhall fellow knows what he’s doing. After UVA went 2-10 in his first season, the Cavaliers managed six wins and a bowl bid last year, and after a 3-1 start to 2018, the odds are good that they will improve on that 2017 win total. S&P+ projects seven or eight wins to be the most likely outcomes for UVA at this point.

The Cavs’ defense has been good this season, but the eye-grabbing difference to the Hoos this season is its rushing offense—after averaging 93.5 yards per game on 3.1 per carry in 2017, they’re managing 216.5 yards per game in 2018.

This is shaping up to be the most potent UVA offense in a long, long time, and junior college transfer quarterback Bryce Perkins is the primary reason why. Perkins has not only been good through the air (65.7 comp%, 8.5 YPA) but he is also averaging nearly 80 rushing yards per game on 5.1 per carry. He is the Cavs’ second leading rusher.

Here are a few things to watch, on both sides, come Saturday afternoon:

1.) The UVA offense vs. the NC State defense on standard downs*

(A standard down is: all first downs, 2nd-and-7 or fewer, 3rd-and-4 or fewer, 4th-and-4 or fewer. See Bill Connelly’s stats glossary for more.)

Virginia’s offense has done well in standard downs, keeping the Cavs consistently on schedule. The Cavaliers rank 32nd in standard-down success rate and 15th in explosiveness in those situations. NC State’s defense ranks 20th and 7th in those two categories.

The UVA passing game can still be a liability at times, and the Hoos’ efficiency numbers drop off considerably in passing downs.

2.) The NC State offense vs. the UVA defense on passing downs

NC State has been stuck in a lot of 3rd-and-longs this season—nearly 59% of its third downs have been of the long-yardage variety, which ranks an abysmal 114th nationally. (This tends to happen when you cannot run the ball.)

But Ryan Finley has been brilliant in compensating for this. The Wolfpack has converted half of its 3rd-and-long plays into first downs in 2018, and that ranks second in the country. The offensive line has kept Finley clean, and as a result State is thriving in passing situations.

Virginia’s defense has been a monster on passing downs, ranking third in success rate and fourth in explosiveness (in a defensive context, explosiveness refers to the prevention of big plays). Something’s gotta give here.

3.) The UVA offense vs. the NC State defense in scoring territory

The Wolfpack defense has been fantastic on its own side of the field this season, limiting opponents to an average of 2.75 points per trip inside the State 40. That number ranks third nationally. State has been elite in terms of success rate between the 21-30 yard lines and inside its own 10.

The Cavaliers offense, meanwhile, ranks only 58th on points per drive inside the 40, and they have especially struggled to stay on schedule between the 21-30 yard lines and inside the 10.

NC State has done a fair bit of bending in between the 30s but has locked things down in scoring range, and if the Cavaliers can’t figure out a way to break through for more touchdowns in this area, it’s hard to see them leaving Raleigh with a win.