Elliott expects “Big Boy Football” from Vols; Muskett under 2.8 pressure

Tony Muskett (Photo: Monmouth University Athletics)

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Tony Elliott knows what to expect this weekend out in Nashville when his Virginia football team takes on a highly-favored Tennessee team. Elliott likes to call it “Big Boy Football.”

No. 12 Tennessee is a 28-point favorite by the oddsmakers, and some observers believe that figure is too low. Virginia, coming off a 3-7 season, is still in rebuilding mode and will bring a highly unproven offense to sold out Nissan Stadium (noon Eastern, ABC-TV).

Elliott has a pretty good guess at what the Vols’ defensive game plan will look like.

“I think they’re going to play — in my opinion, what I told the guys — big boy football,” Elliott said in his press conference on Tuesday. “They’re going to line up, be in your face and come after you with six. Then if they can’t, they are going to go seven and play zero coverage and say, ‘Hey, let the best man win.’ That’s what I’m anticipating.”

Elliott and his offensive staff have been researching Tennessee’s philosophy for months and the Vols play an aggressive brand of defense, a particular pattern in almost every game except in the Orange Bowl at the end of last season, when Josh Heupel’s team handled Clemson by a lopsided 31-14 count.

“Now, they played Clemson differently when you watch them on film and I’m still trying to figure out why they did, considering at the end of the season Clemson was down a couple of receivers,” Elliott said. “[Tennessee] played a little bit more two-shell, cover-2.

“Part of it was to try and frustrate and confuse (Cade) Klubnik (then-freshman QB for Clemson) with some variations of coverage.”

Otherwise, the Vols are somewhat predictable and they don’t seem to care. It’s up to the opposing offense to stop them.

One thing immediately jumped out at Elliott on film — Tennessee’s size across the defensive line, particularly the inside guys who weigh in at 320, 340, 310, 301 and 310 pounds.

“That’s big on the interior,” Elliott said.

By comparison, Virginia’s defensive line weighs in at 270, 312, 302, 262.

“They’re not just big two-gapers,” Elliott said of UT’s defensive line. “These guys can move, push the pocket, get off blocks. They can disrupt the run. And then you’re going to have to double them, right? It’s going to be hard to single-block those guys. Roman Harrison and Tyler Baron, man, they’re twitchy, talented. They can get after the quarterback.

“I think their best player is Aaron Beasley (6-1, 225 senior linebacker). He roams, he’s a great pass rusher. Man, he’s a big guy that’s a matchup problem on your backs, doesn’t matter who your back is. Our biggest (running back) is 215. Beasley is listed at 225, but he plays a lot bigger than 225.”

If that’s not impressive enough, the Vols brought in help from the transfer portal in former BYU linebacker Keenan Pili (6-3, 238 senior).

All this could add up to a long day for Virginia quarterback Tony Muskett, who transferred into the Cavaliers’ FBS program from FCS Monmouth, where he had a successful career, but never faced the likes of Tennessee’s pass rush.

“I think they’re going to challenge Tony … they’re not going to let him hold the ball,” Elliott said. “They’re going to be able to push the pocket interior-wise, create pressure and squeeze the pocket coming off the edge, force the ball out of his hand quickly.

“I think they will try and bring some pressure, see if they can overwhelm our backs in protection and get to the quarterback, see if they can rattle him. Hey, I want to see you throw and catch in tight windows, and you better not hold the ball longer than 2.8 (seconds) or you’re going to be on the ground.”

Elliott believes the Vols will play man coverage on the outside and say, “Are you good enough to beat us?” Tennessee will put six men in the box to shut down the run, play cover 1, man coverage, and man free across the board.

This strategy can cause all kinds of problems if Virginia’s offensive line can’t control the line of scrimmage and punch holes in Tennessee’s front with the running game. That would signal to Beasley & Co., to pin their ears back and come after Muskett with a fury.

Should he spend a lot of time on the ground and be forced into throwing mistakes, it could lead to turnovers and a Tennessee cakewalk.

UVA offensive coordinator Des Kitchings and his staff have emphasized to the offensive lines and backs who may pass-protect that they can’t afford to leave any Tennessee defenders unblocked. The Cavaliers may not necessarily have to win the line of scrimmage, they just can’t afford to lose it.

“A tie is a win at the point of attack,” Kitchings said. “Obviously I want to change the line of scrimmage and we can do that and give Tony time to get the ball out. Then we have a chance to move the ball and have the chance to put some points on the board.”

Kitchings is well aware of the damage Tennessee can do with its blitzes. The Vols are a heavy blitz defense.

“Based on last year, they were 47-percent blitz over 13 games, so I imagine it won’t be any less than that, especially with them moving [Beasley] to Will linebacker,” Kitchings said. “He’s the guy that was really good in pressure packages in the past, so I can see that being the case.”

UVA’s offense has had a taste of that in training camp with defensive coordinator John Rudzinski throwing everything, including the kitchen sink, at Muskett in order to get him familiar with what is coming his way.

“There was a lot of crossover from what we saw in camp just from structure, five-man front, four-man front, coverage variations,” Kitchings said.

Tennessee will show more cover-1 than Virginia used in practice, but everything else Rudzinski used was similar.

UVA has stressed to its backs over the past week how important it may be for them when it comes to pass protection.

“[Tennessee] has five-man pressures, they have some six-men against five linemen and our backs are going to have to protect,” Kitchings said. “We have to win one-on-ones. They will try to isolate and create one-on-ones in those situations, and we have to win those.”