Performance Last Week
The best word to describe the play of Virginia's defense and special teams against BYU last week would be opportunistic. The Wahoos blocked a punt that let their offense start in the red zone. A slippery ball led to Virginia forcing a safety. An interception with 2:47 left in the fourth quarter set up the game-winning touchdown for Virginia to win 19-16.
Virginia runs a conventional 4-3, meaning four down linemen and three linebackers. However, with the number of receivers Oregon often plays with and the speed on offense, Virginia might opt to put more speed on the field and play the majority of the game with their nickel package. The defensive line for Virginia is pretty beefy with defensive end Jake Snyder weighing in at 270, tackles Brent Urban and David Dean weigh 295 and 290, respectively, and other end Eli Harold weighs 230. The linebacker unit lost the two leading tacklers from last year's squad so this is a fairly inexperienced group. However, the defensive secondary returns all of its starters with the nickel back corner looking impressive in the offseason.
Rob Moseley wrote a great article talking about the dynamic four-man front Virginia runs. Coach Steve Greatwood states that the line does a lot of slants and twists that can change the angles of blocks. Grasu followed up saying that a four-man front is easier to count and identify responsibilities and that Oregon's zone blocking scheme will hopefully make all the movement easier to pick up.
While Virginia did go 4-8 last year, they had a bit of bad luck their way. The Cavaliers were -14 in turnover differential and lost four games by seven points or less. This means that their schedule could have been noticeably different if the ball had bounced differently. What happens happens, but Virginia is probably better than their record indicates.
Advanced Stats (If you're a nerd)
When looking at advanced stats the greatest indicator of future performance is past performance. This season is still one game young so I had to refer back to last year's S&P+. On standard downs Virginia was 38th in defensive efficiency, but in passing downs they were ranked 68th. Probably most important to Oregon fans is that Virginia was 50th against the run. Against the pass Virginia was ranked 47th. I would expect based on the 7 returning starters that Virginia will perform at about the same level or slightly better.
At this point the Oregon offense is still somewhat of a mystery in terms of play selection and types of plays called.
Against Nicholls State Oregon threw a total of 26 passes and rushed 45 times. If we look at the attempts of the biggest players who played in the first half, Mariota, Thomas, and Marshall, then we end up with 21 pass attempts and 31 rushing attempts. I have suspected that Helfrich will be closer to 50-50 in passing attempts to rushing attempts and we might see more balance this weekend against a quality opponent.
I'm looking at De'Anthony Thomas to be a workhorse back this year for Oregon. One of the first trends I took note of Saturday was how often Thomas was getting handed the ball and that most his carries were between the tackles. Many moderators here at ATQ have said multiple times that Thomas runs well between the tackles, best seen against Stanford when that was the most effective play, and I expect more of the same this Saturday. Don't be surprised if Thomas carries more than 20 times.
The vertical threat that Oregon appears to have now at receiver, in my opinion has been the missing component of making Oregon's offense virtually unstoppable. Against Nicholls State Josh Huff had 5 receptions for 118 yards. Mariota attempted a noticeable number of deep passes of 20 or more yards and Huff was able to get separation from the defensive backs. The quarterbacks also did a great job of spreading the ball around with spreading the ball around as 8 different receivers recorded receptions against Nicholls State.
Against Virginia I'm hoping to see Huff stay as the go-to receiver. I'm also hoping that another receiver, possibly Bralon Addison who showed great flashes Saturday, can emerge as a second consistent receiver.
Also, Thomas Tyner will probably get some carries and everyone on the Internet can overanalyze 7 carries at a level equal to that of the Zapruder film.
David M. Hale of ESPN's NoleNations wrote an article on Virginia defensive end Eli Harold and the coaching staff addressing Oregon's tempo. The Cavaliers believe that since they kept up with BYU it shows they can handle a no-tempo. There might be some backing for their claim because Hale states that the Cavaliers have had their scout team running two huddles throughout fall camp in order to simulate Oregon's up-tempo, so they simply aren't running more wind sprints the week of and expecting to catch up to Oregon's conditioning. I expect Oregon to run tempo as fast as possible with the Cavaliers caught off guard with how fast Oregon's players and offense really are.
It is too early to know for sure how good Virginia's defense really is and it's too early to know exactly how the offense will change with Helfrich running the show and Scott Frost calling plays. We do know that Oregon will use tempo and that while Virginia has some experience with up-tempo there is nothing like the real thing. Oregon has speed at every position and I'm looking to see if De'Anthony Thomas continues to be a workhorse, between the tackles back and if Huff can continue his dominance as a vertical threat.