Virginia Pittsburgh Football

Quarterback Bryce Perkins is Virginia’s leading rusher through two games.

Virginia quarterback Bryce Perkins heads into week three as the Cavaliers’ leading rusher. Head coach Bronco Mendenhall is OK with that. He wants Perkins making plays with his legs, whether he’s sticking to the script or making it up as he goes.

“It’s part of our design for him regardless of opponent, and we think that it’s essential that he does run,” Mendenhall said. “That’s one of the things that make him and us difficult to stop when that’s going well. So there are traditional runs and passes and traditional plays, and then there is just Bryce. I’m for just Bryce plays.”

Perkins is going to have a chance to make plenty of plays Saturday night against visiting Florida State — a program he grew up idolizing. The Seminoles come to Scott Stadium as a 7.5-point underdog, and they’re bringing a defense which ranks last in the ACC in total defense (520 ypg) and No. 13 in rushing defense (196 ypg). Only Georgia Tech is giving up more yards on the ground (251.5).

Nobody is more keenly aware of the struggles of a defense that gave up 419 yards last weekend to Louisiana-Monroe than Florida State head coach Willie Taggart, who comes into Saturday’s game with a 6-8 record in his second season in Tallahassee.

“No, I wasn’t happy with how our defense played. 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 how our defense played,” Taggart said. “We have to play better. We have to continue to find ways to fix the problems and put our guys in the best position to make plays.”

This week, Florida State added some experience to the coaches’ room in Taggart’s defensive coordinator at Oregon, Jim Leavitt, who joins the staff as a defensive analyst. Under Taggart and Leavitt, Oregon’s defense went from being ranked No. 115 in the country to No. 32.

“What’s going to help the issues is being fundamentally sound and doing our jobs,” Taggart said.

No. 25 Virginia expects to have sophomore running back Wayne Taulapapa back on the field Saturday after he missed last week’s game with an undisclosed injury. On offense, the Cavaliers (2-0) are confident they can move the ball, but they also know Florida State (1-1) has a reputation as one of college football’s blue bloods for a reason.

“They’ve cemented their legacy in the history of college football. Any time you play Florida State, you know the history of the program and what [former] coach [Bobby] Bowden built,” said Virginia wide receivers coach Margues Hagans, a former UVa quarterback who led the Cavaliers to a win over Florida State in 2005. “We’re going to get their best shot.”

Defensively, the Cavaliers know they’re facing what may be the best running back they see all season in Cam Akers, who earned ACC running back of the week honors after rushing for 193 yards and two touchdowns and adding five receptions for 55 yards and another score in the overtime win over ULM.

“The No. 1 priority for us is that we’ve got to make sure we control the game by stopping the run,” Virginia co-defensive coordinator Kelly Poppinga said. “[Akers] is big and fast and he’s hard to bring down, so it’s not just going to take one or two guys it’s going to take a team of guys to bring that guy down at the point of contact.”

Through two games, the 70.5 yards Virginia is giving up on the ground ranks No. 2 in the ACC. Only N.C. State is giving up fewer with 24.5. And the Cavaliers’ 11 sacks lead the conference. That speaks well for a defensive front seven set to face its toughest challenge to date.

“It’s going to be a great challenge,” Poppinga said. “But the challenge to our guys from the beginning of the year all the way to the end will be 3.5. Hold them under 3.5 [yards per carry] and we’ll set ourselves up for success.”

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