The No. 25 Virginia football team puts its perfect record on the line Saturday night in its first game against Atlantic Division ACC rival Florida State since 2014.
The Cavaliers (2-0, 1-0 ACC) are coming off convincing wins over Pitt and William & Mary, and they need the win to take another step in head coach Bronco Mendenhall’s rebuild and to keep their postseason aspirations on track.
Florida State (1-1) is coming off a blown lead against Boise State and a one-point win in overtime against Louisiana-Monroe. The Seminoles are still trying to find their footing under head coach Willie Taggart, and they’re coming to Charlottesville as a 7.5-point underdog.
Chaunte’l Powell, who covers the Seminoles for the Orlando Sentinel, and Matt Baker, who covers FSU for the Tampa Bay Times, were kind enough to field a few questions ahead of Saturday night’s game.
1. How much of a transition was there from what the offense ran last season to the new scheme under Kendal Briles?
Baker: There wasn’t a huge transition because the schemes were similar. The roots of Willie Taggart’s Gulf Coast Offense came from a visit he took to Baylor when he was coaching at South Florida, so Briles and Taggart have similar philosophies. Briles might push the tempo a little more, and I’m sure they have some different tendencies and preferred plays, but there weren’t any major changes.
Powell: Willie Taggart made it known from the start he wanted to go fast and run his Gulf Coast offense, so there wasn’t a huge adjustment period when it came to the tempo and style. The adjustment so far has been in the minute details such as skill players helping with blocking duties and learning Briles’ play calling style to ensure they’re getting up the field fast yet efficiently.
2. The defense has been gashed the first two weeks of the season. Especially for a unit with so much name recognition, what isn’t working?
Powell: The defense is still trying to find its identity under Harlon Barnett. The plan was to become more multiple and run a 3-4 defense to utilize the depth they have at defensive back. Against ULM, they moved away from that and back to more of a four-man front. Alignment is something the coaches have cited as something that needs to be corrected.
Baker: Only the tackling, alignments, assignments, third-down failures and penalties. Other than that, everything’s going pretty well defensively. What’s most astounding to me is the run defense. FSU is allowing four yards per carry, which ranks No. 80 nationally. But that doesn’t really do it justice. Boise State’s top running back, Robert Mahone, averaged almost six yards per rush. Louisiana Monroe’s top back averaged 4.8. Only 10 teams in the country have allowed more rushes of at least 10 yards than FSU (14). The Seminoles’ defensive front has been getting gashed and pushed around by Group of Five teams.
3. The Seminoles have outscored their first two opponents, 35-6, in the first quarter of games this season but have been outscored, 54-14, in the second half. Is there a common thread to their first two second-half collapses?
Baker: In some ways, this problem predates 2019. FSU was outscored 180-138 in the second half last year. Taggart’s lone Oregon team was outscored by an average of four points per game in the second half. Taggart was pretty vocal in the offseason about how FSU didn’t handle adversity well in 2018. I think the second-half struggles are a continuation of that.
Powell: To finish games they must get out of their own way. Against Boise, the offense stalled out, but there weren’t a lot of mistakes aside from a few missed reads by quarterback James Blackman. In the ULM game, Blackman threw a pick six and that was followed up with a fumble on the next possession. FSU also had a touchdown waved off due to an ineligible receiver. They’ve shown they can get the ball down field efficiently, now it’s about not undoing their own work.
4. How close was the starting quarterback competition in camp, and what did James Blackman do to beat out Wisconsin transfer Alex Hornibrook?
Powell: According to head coach Willie Taggart, very close. He said their production on the field was almost identical, but it ultimately came down to Blackman having the team behind him already. Having played an entire season, Blackman was able to win the locker room over, though Taggart said Hornibrook fit in with the team very well up to this point.
Baker: It was closer than I expected. Hornibrook won a lot of games at Wisconsin (including an Orange Bowl win over Miami), but there were reasons he was in the transfer portal. Blackman had familiarity with Taggart, the team and the system, too, which gave him an edge. The final decision came down to Blackman simply having the team, according to Taggart. His teammates knew him already, and they respect him a lot as a leader on a team that needed one last year. Those intangibles are why he earned the starting job.
5. Especially with how the first two weeks have gone, is there a sense in the locker room that the team needs this win to keep the season from veering off the tracks and protect Willie Taggart's job?
Baker: I wrote that the Boise game was the second biggest of Taggart’s career because he had a chance to show growth and proof of concept to a fan base that had quickly grown skeptical. We all saw how that turned out. But this one is huge, no question. I don’t think players would tell you that they have to win to keep the season on track, but winning sure wouldn’t hurt.
Although I don’t think Taggart is in must-win mode to save his job, the situation is getting worse. Taggart’s buyout at the end of the year would be about $17 million. That’s a lot for any program, let alone one that has had some well-documented financial problems. But the fan base is restless.
Powell: Expectations are obviously high for a team with the history and championships like FSU, so a one-point win against a Group of Five opponent hasn’t been received well by fans. Taggart has been adamant about pointing out the growth and improvement in his team when it comes to changing the culture and a win against Virginia would be a great way to make that evident to the fan base.