Notebook: Virginia's running woes persist in season opener

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

New season.

Same problems.

That’s what the tape must have told Virginia head coach Mike London on Sunday, a day after his Cavaliers fell 34-16 on the road at UCLA. His supposedly run-committed offense was as one-dimensional as ever in the season opener, accruing a grand total of 98 rushing yards and 2.9 yards per carry.

Moreover, backup offensive linemen Jake Fieler and Eric Tetlow went down with season-ending injuries, further hamstringing an already-thin offensive front.

The Cavaliers averaged 137.8 rushing yards per game in 2014, which ranked 100th nationwide. And against Notre Dame, which allowed just 60 — yes, 60 — rushing yards in a decisive 38-3 win over Texas, that number doesn’t figure to improve on Saturday.

Even so, London struck an optimistic tone during his weekly press conference on Monday.

“We're playing some of the best teams that are out there, which is going to require us to execute and perform better,” London said. “This week's preparation has to be an outstanding effort by all — coaches, players, and everyone involved with this.

“So I'm excited about the opportunity for this team to get better, to do the things to minimize those mistakes and errors that cost you, and you're doing it on a national scale and you're doing it against good football players and teams.”

Easier said than done.

MIZZELL MAKES PLAYS

Though Virginia struggled to run the ball effectively against UCLA, Taquan “Smoke” Mizzell certainly isn’t to blame. The 5-foot-10, 195-pound junior running back ran for 45 yards and added eight catches for a team-high 100 receiving yards and the Cavaliers’ only touchdown of the day.

Mizzell was equally versatile last season, stacking up 280 rushing yards, 271 receiving yards and 208 kick return yards in a limited role.

On Saturday afternoon, that role is sure to be expanded.

“A lot of things Smoke did, he did well,” London said of Mizzell’s performance against UCLA. “Obviously he played a productive game as a running back and he was the player of the game for us in terms of his opportunities to extend, to get the first downs, his opportunities to run and catch the ball and the touchdown reception that he made.

“Those are the types of things we need from a guy like that, with his skills. We knew what he was capable of. And he showed a little bit of it on Saturday. He'll have to continue to improve and continue to show that he's capable of running and catching the ball.”

SEPTEMBER SUCCESS

History may be on Virginia’s side on Saturday, even if logic isn’t.

The Cavaliers have pulled a number of high-profile home upsets in the months of August and September in recent years, defeating Penn State in 2012, BYU in 2013 and Louisville last season.

Might the Irish be next in line?

“It’s tied into that Scott Stadium is a great place to play,” London said, when asked for Virginia’s secret to home success. “And those games you just mentioned were games that our players were excited about playing those big-time opponents that have come in, and this is another opportunity.

“I've heard the game is sold out. I'm sure the atmosphere will be electric, and we expect to perform and play well. And that's the expectations for this team and for this game and the approach of this game.”

STRENGTH IN THE FRONT SEVEN

Notre Dame’s defensive front seven is fast.

The Texas Longhorns know it, and the stats back it up.

In the season opener on Saturday, four Irish players – all on the front seven – recorded a sack, as Sheldon Day, Jaylon Smith and Co. swarmed Texas quarterbacks Tyrone Swoopes and Jerrod Heard. Notre Dame conceded just 163 total yards and three measly points in a dominant, overwhelming performance.

After assessing the tape, London’s evaluation was a predictable one.

“I believe that their front seven is very formidable — guys that are again athletic and fast, and we just played a team that was really fast, really athletic,” London said.

“And you look at Notre Dame from guys up front and the linebacking corps, they're capable of running and running out of mistakes. It's going to be important for us to be on schedule, stay on schedule, try to do things that we can that are our strengths and control the football a little bit and make sure we use those players or those schemes that can help us be successful.

“But they're a very good defense. You saw what they did against Texas. And you recognize the fact that there is a lot of talent on that team and on the field when they play.”

mvorel@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @mikevorel

Virginia head coach Mike London yells to his players during the first half of an NCAA college football game against UCLA at the Rose Bowl, Saturday, Sept. 5, 2015, in Pasadena, Calif. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)