Virginia-FSU: A Defining Moment For Both Programs

By Jerry Ratcliffe

FSU mascot Chief Osceola (Photo by Phil Kelly, seminoles.com).

It is difficult to accurately assess exactly what football program has the most on the line on Saturday night when struggling Florida State comes to Charlottesville to battle No. 25-ranked Virginia.

Is it Bronco Mendenhall’s Cavaliers, trying to rebuild from the ashes, score a meaningful win as a ranked team, attempting to lure a fan base that has been mostly apathetic for the past decade, and trying to impress the state’s top recruits that they should give UVA a shot?

Or is it Will Taggart’s Seminoles, which have plummeted from past glory as one of college football’s most successful and exciting programs? FSU has fallen upon hard times, and its fan base, diminished over the lack of success the past two seasons, is weighing whether or not Taggart is the guy who can turn things around.

Much is at stake when the Tomahawk Chop arrives at Virginia’s Scott Stadium in a game televised by the ACC Network.

A bowl win over an SEC opponent tantalized Wahoo fans last December, giving them hopes of things to come. Bronco’s team was picked to win the ACC Coastal Division this preseason and hasn’t disappointed thus far, knocking off defending division champ Pitt on the road, then utterly annihilating William & Mary last Friday night.

There are even rumors of a potential sellout, something we haven’t seen in these parts since 2008, when No. 3-ranked Southern Cal came to Charlottesville and whomped Al Groh’s Cavaliers, 52-7, before the largest crowd in Scott Stadium history: 64,947.

Kudos to Virginia AD Carla Williams and her team for making Scott Stadium a more enjoyable atmosphere for football. Still, Williams, who came here from Georgia, knows that nothing puts fannies in the seats like a winning football team.

That’s where Mendenhall comes in, and so far Bronco’s team has won 10 of its last 15 games and his defense has not allowed an offensive touchdown in 10 of the last 12 quarters.

Certainly that has caught the eye of new Florida State offensive coordinator Kendal Briles, considered one of the country’s offensive geniuses.

“[Virginia’s defense] is good,” Briles told Seminoles.com this week. “They’re really physical up front. They’ve got guys with experience, they’re really long. It’ll be a challenge.”

UVA’s defense, which returned eight starters in addition to players that were forced into action when some of last year’s starters went down with injuries, has looked the part of a veteran unit in the first two weeks.

The Cavaliers are ranked 14th nationally in total defense, allowing 228.0 yards per game and have slammed the door on opponents’ running games, holding both Pitt and W&M to an average of only 70.5 yards rushing, which is also top 15 in the country.

Briles was brought in from Houston, where he directed a high-octane offense after formerly working for his dad’s Baylor program before that staff was fired in the aftermath of a scandal.

Briles has dramatically improved the Seminoles’ offense, which has put up an average of 38 points per game as opposed to 21.9 a year ago when FSU’s 36-year bowl streak, longest in the nation, came to an end. Last week, his offense put up 45 against Louisiana-Monroe and needed every one of them in a one-point, overtime victory when Monroe missed an extra point to end the game. FSU lost the previous week, also at home, after Boise State stormed back late in the game.

Taggart, who said earlier in the week that FSU would have to play its best game in order to beat Virginia, said he was pleased with what Briles has brought to his program.

“I think Kendal is doing a good job,” Taggart said. “He’s learning the personnel. He’s learning our guys. He’s learning how our guys respond in games, how they play in games, and from a conversation standpoint, we talk about what’s going on with the defense and what plays we can run to try to counter whatever they’re doing to us. So more of that communicating, more than anything, is what can we do to counter what they’re doing defensively.”

FSU quarterback James Blackman, who was thrust into action two years ago when then-starter Deondre Francois suffered a season-ending knee injury in the opening game against Alabama, has established himself as the starter after a rocky 2018.

“James played well on Saturday,” Taggart said. “He graded out higher than he did the week before. He did make better reads than what he did the week before.”

Equally important to UVA’s defense is Seminoles running back Cam Akers, who was the league’s highest-rated last weekend with a 193-yard rushing performance. The Cavaliers must stop Akers in order to keep the “Gulf Coast” spread offense under control.

On Monday, Mendenhall noted that he saw nothing on film to indicate that the Seminoles are down.

Statistics would back up his analysis. According to ESPN’s advanced stats-based rating system, Briles’ FSU offense is ranked the ninth-best in the country.

Meanwhile, Taggart knows that his defense, which has surrendered 80 points in the first two games, must contain UVA QB Bryce Perkins.

Easier said than done.

While the head coach was somewhat pleased with the effort put out by Briles’ unit, the FSU defense…not so much.

“No, I wasn’t happy with the way our defense played,” Taggart said. “I don’t think anyone was happy. I don’t think our defense was happy or anyone associated with Florida State football was happy with the way our defense played. We have to play better. We have to find ways to make sure we fix the problems and make sure we put our guys in the best position to make plays.”

Virginia will counter with one of the nation’s most balanced offenses  (52-48 run/pass ratio). What has surprised many Wahoos fans, and perhaps even Mendenhall himself, is that offensive coordinator Robert Anae’s offense ranks 10th nationally in average time of possession (35 minutes, 28 seconds per game), something that started in the bowl game and has bled over into this season.

Mendenhall expressed excitement over the fact that more than 45,000 fans turned out for UVA’s home-opening win over William & Mary, coached by his predecessor in Charlottesville, Mike London. Mendenhall said he hopes that is just the beginning of a new era in support for his program.

Virginia was ranked No. 23 last year on Nov. 2, but failed miserably to follow through, losing a lopsided home game to Pitt. In fact, one has to go all the way back to Groh’s 2007 team to find a UVA nationally ranked team winning, absolutely stunning a favored Miami team, playing its last game in the old Orange Bowl, 48-0 on the road.

For Taggart, Saturday night is a huge test. Win for a second weekend in a row and knock off a ranked team on the road, and Seminole Nation might cool the hot-seat talk, at least temporarily.

Lose, then watch out. The temperature is likely to shoot through the top of the thermometer.

“This is an incredible opportunity for our football team,” Taggart said. “We have an unbelievable challenge in front of us, and we’re looking forward to it.

“It’s big for a lot of reasons, for where we’re trying to go with our football program, for what we’re trying to accomplish as team goals and winning the conference. So the conference games are always important. It can add much-needed momentum to our football team.”

Ditto for Mendenhall’s team. It has been a long time since Wahoo Nation has had something to get excited about on the gridiron.

It’s about time that changed.



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