CHARLOTTESVILLE—Virginia sits atop the standings in the ACC Coastal Division after five games. But the No. 23 Cavaliers know they’re not likely to stay there if the remain in last place in the league when it comes to running the football.
“Man, you’re not going to be a great team unless you can run the rock,” sophomore center Olusegun Oluwatimi said. “That’s the step we have to take.”
Virginia (4-1, 2-0 ACC) is averaging 107.6 yards rushing yards per game, last in the ACC, and getting just 3.4 yards per carry, tied for the worst mark in the conference.
In Saturday’s 35-20 loss at No. 9 Notre Dame, the Cavaliers were officially credited with four rushing yards on 29 attempts, a number that was dragged down by eight sacks for 55 yards. But even after removing the lost sack yardage, UVA’s run game produced 59 yards and 21 carries, with 26 of those yards coming on runs by quarterback Bryce Perkins.
The team’s running backs? They managed just 30 yards on 12 carries.
Virginia wasn’t very good running the ball a week earlier when it had to rally past Old Dominion, either, putting up 69 yards on 29 carries in a game Oluwatimi missed with a thumb injury on his snapping hand.
“You can win against some teams like this,” UVA coach Bronco Mendenhall said. “You won’t able to win against teams to take over our league to compete at a higher level, which is where we want to go from last year’s 8-5 team. So the run game development is foundational.”
That was evident Saturday as the lack of a run game—despite Oluwatimi’s return to the lineup—forced Virginia to throw the ball 43 times, making the play-calling more predictable, which, in turn, made the line’s job pass protecting more difficult.
“We have to generate a run game at a much more consistent level,” Mendenhall said. “It’s not only quarterback driven. That when we hand the ball off we can run the ball effectively and get yards so there aren’t as many pass attempts. … The lack of balance or inability to run the ball effectively is the backstory to the point I’m making about protection [issues].”
A year ago, Virginia had a workhorse back in then-senior Jordan Ellis running behind an inconsistent offensive line. Ellis carried the ball for 215 of the team’s 278 non-quarterback runs. Still, UVA managed a far-more-respectable 173.2 yards per game.
This season, the Cavaliers have used sophomore Wayne Taulapapa as their primary ball carrier, with PK Kier spelling him. True freshman Mike Hollis has appeared in all five games this season, meaning he won’t be redshirting. But Hollis has mainly worked on special teams. His only experience running the ball came in UVA’s blowout win over FCS William & Mary, when he rushed 11 times for 79 yards and two touchdowns. Taulapapa missed that game with an injury.
As Virginia hits its first open date, fixing the running game figures to be near the top of its to-do list.
“This game really kind of opened our eyes,” said quarterback Bryce Perkins. “That’s definitely going to be a point of emphasis going into the bye week and the next week.”
Saturday’s game at Notre Dame may have also opened the eyes of opposing defenses to the potential impact of Virginia’s wide receivers. Joe Reed and Hasise Dubois combined to make 18 catches for 250 yards and two scores.
But if future opponents—Virginia plays at Miami, the ACC’s best run defense, on Oct. 11—recognize the weakness in the Cavaliers’ running game, they’ll be able to devote more attention and more bodies to stopping the duo.
“After this performance with me and Joe, teams are going to try to double team us,” Dubois said. “The run is going to help it open up.”
If Virginia is to make personnel changes, other than getting Hollins more involved, they’ll have to come up front on the offensive line. The Cavaliers have used four different starting lineups over five games and have juggled their personnel even more in-game.
“We’ve got to go back to our preseason training, try to figure out what lineup works and what we have to do to run the ball and to protect Bryce,” Oluwatimi said. “We definitely have to fix things up front and get better, to not put our team at risk.”