CHARLOTTESVILLE – It’s offensive line deficiency exposed in a big, eight-sack way in a road loss to Notre Dame, Virginia’s football team spent much of the bye week trying to correct its protection issues going into Friday night’s game at Miami.
UVA quarterback Bryce Perkins was sacked eight times as the Fighting Irish handed the Cavaliers their first loss of the season.
“Second half, some things showed up,” offensive coordinator Robert Anae said Wednesday. “Obviously any time you’re on the road, a really good opponent, you find out about yourself. We did. We found out we’re not as sound up front as we want to be.”
The No. 20 Cavaliers (4-1, 2-0 ACC) had already allowed 16 sacks in the first four games of the season, so their protection hadn’t been outstanding, but against Notre Dame, that unraveled. Virginia gave up three sacks in the first and five in the second.
“Once we got exposed, it just crumbled from there,” Anae said.
And, as coach Bronco Mendenhall said this week, that crumbling brings down the entire offensive unit.
“Our offensive front is really the position group right now that’s controlling the speed in which we can progress,” Mendenhall said. “Because of its effect, direct effect on the run game and the pass game, there’s really no offensive play where that can be a workaround. It has to go through the offensive line.”
As they have most of the season, the Cavaliers rotated and shuffled their lineup in-game against the Irish. This week, their depth chart for the Miami game lists undecided starters at three of the unit’s five positions.
Left tackle is listed as sophomore Ryan Swoboda or sophomore Bobby Haskins, left guard as sophomore Ryan Nelson or redshirt freshman Joe Bissinger, and right guard as junior Chris Glaser or true freshman Ja’Quay Hubbard.
Nelson and Glaser are the only linemen to start every game so far.
Center Olusegun Oluwatimi has started four of the five games so far, only missing the Old Dominion game after suffering a thumb injury on his snapping hand the week before against Florida State.
UVA’s backup center, Tyler Fannin, suffered a season-ending toe injury, which means junior right tackle Dillon Reinkensmeyer becomes the likely replacement if Olusegun were to go down.
Sophomore Ryan Swoboda started the first game against Pittsburgh at left tackle and then, two weeks later, started at right tackle against Florida State. Against Notre Dame, he came off the bench and played on both sides of the line, but struggled with the speed and athleticism of the Irish ends.
“A lot to work on, right?,” Swoboda said when asked to assess his play. “I think as a unit we’re all working on certain things and every practice we’re trying to be deliberate with everything we do. I would say that I’m trying to put new things together every single game, and I’m still trying to do that every game.”
Of course, Swoboda wasn’t alone. Mendenhall and Anae said many of the protection breakdowns against Notre Dame came from linemen simply being beat one-on-one by rushers, or from a pair of linemen mixing up their communication and getting split.
And, on the line, if one player messes up his assignment, the entire play can implode.
“Everybody’s involved in contributing,” Anae said. “And when one guy doesn’t contribute at a high enough level, then you get exposed.”
Friday night, the Cavaliers face a Miami team with plenty of speed and athleticism on the defensive front in its own right. The Hurricanes – who lost a bizarre 42-35 game to Virginia Tech on Saturday – have 13 sacks in their first five games.
“There is no comfort zone for our offensive line, there’s continual expectation, asking and directing and prompting and driving, and they want to get better, they need to get better, and they’re working hard to get better,” Mendenhall said. “That’s just a matter of factually where we are.”