Virginia’s 2-10 record and subpar defensive stats from the 2016 season may indicate an easy opponent on paper, but IU Coach Tom Allen isn’t overlooking the Cavaliers.
This weekend’s opponent for IU won’t match the level of the Ohio State defense that wore down IU last week with NFL-caliber talent and elite recruits. But with two preseason All-Americans and a majority of their defensive starters returning from last season, Virginia Coach Bronco Mendenhall and his Cavaliers have Allen’s attention.
“They give you a lot of challenges because they are hard to run the ball on by structure; that’s kind of how they are built,” Allen said. “And their head coach is a defensive coach, too, and he's the one kind of orchestrating all that.”
Senior safety Quin Blanding and senior linebacker Micah Kiser, both members of the AP’s preseason All-America Second Team, bring a combined 254 tackles back from last year. They lead Mendenhall’s defense, which last season ranked in the bottom half of the FBS in every major defensive stat, including points (33.5) and yards (439.5) allowed per game.
Numbers aren’t everything to Allen and offensive coordinator Mike DeBord, they both said, though, and they said they know that a road game against a Power 5 opponent cannot be taken lightly.
By virtue of playing their opening game against the Buckeyes on a Thursday night, the Hoosiers had a few extra days to prepare for their week two opponent. That’ll help, DeBord said, because Virginia’s defensive scheme is unlike Ohio State’s.
“They’re an odd defense, which means you’ll have a nose guard right over the center,” DeBord said. “You’ll have two tackles, two defensive ends over our tackles and two outside linebackers and two inside linebackers. So the scheme, the front, is totally different.”
As far as his offense goes, DeBord won’t be concerned much about his passing game. Senior quarterback Richard Lagow, who’s already proven himself this season with more than 400 passing yards against Ohio State, should be able to throw plenty against the Cavaliers. They allowed 8.4 yards per pass attempt, good for 113th out of 128 teams, in 2016.
What DeBord said he will looking for improvement from, however, is the Hoosiers’ ground attack.
IU had just 17 total yards rushing against Ohio State, which the Hoosier coaching staff said they felt comfortable attributing to blocking issues and the gifted Buckeye defensive line. Against Virginia, which allowed 168 rushing yards in a win over FCS opponent William & Mary last week, the IU backs will get a chance to break out.
IU’s ability to block for its runners figures to be a key facet to watch this Saturday, as junior offensive lineman Brandon Knight could return from injury to play his first game of the season. DeBord also said the tight ends, most notably senior Ian Thomas and junior Ryan Watercutter, would work on improving their blocking in practice this week after struggling a bit against Ohio State.
Cook and Blanding, who had 25 tackles between the two for Virginia last week, present a potent duo for IU to go up against when the Hoosiers have the ball. The rest of the defense may not have as much star power, but Allen said he’s working hard not to let his team suffer a hangover from the hyped Ohio State game. He’s putting just as much focus on the Cavaliers as he did on the Buckeyes, and he expects his team to, as well.
“I told our guys when we met on Saturday: Virginia is the biggest game of the season,” Allen said. “Why? Because it's the next game. And that was the approach. There's no question there's a lot put into that."
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