Virginia’s search for offensive consistency seems to be going in reverse.
The Cavaliers have had trouble getting plays signaled in to quarterback Matt Johns and in the last two games, they’ve had trouble giving him enough time to look for a receiver downfield.
Virginia’s quarterback has been sacked eight times in the past two games, and Johns has absorbed seven of them. He’s also thrown a league-high seven interceptions.
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The Cavaliers (1-4, 0-1 Atlantic Coast Conference), whose play signaling problems have led to three delay of game penalties, hope to end those backward trends on Saturday when they host Syracuse at Scott Stadium.
The blame does not rest solely with Johns, coach Mike London said.
”He’s a guy that wants to make plays,” he said. ”He wants to do the right thing. Just take the coaching and teaching, and I believe Matt will do that and look for him having one of his better games. He’s going to have to.”
The Orange (3-2, 1-0), like Virginia, will be looking to end a two-game losing streak.
Syracuse is tied for fourth in the ACC with an average of 2.6 sacks, and had two last week against South Florida, but also let dual-threat quarterback Quinto Flowers run for 55 yards and a touchdown, and throw for two TDs.
”It’s always exciting facing someone who can’t run away from you,” Orange linebacker Zaire Franklin said, comparing Johns’ drop-back preference to Flowers. ”That’s always better. The quarterback at USF was really quick. He was basically another running back back there.”
The Orange, who beat Wake Forest early in the season, are one of six teams still unbeaten in ACC play, and they view heading into the meat of their conference schedule as an opportunity to surprise some observers.
”We’re really confident we’re going to change this thing around immediately,” wide receiver Steven Ishmael said.
Here are some things to watch when Syracuse visits Virginia:
BALL SECURITY: Freshman Eric Dungey is a dual threat quarterback for the Orange who hasn’t made a lot of mistakes. He’s thrown for seven touchdowns and just one interception, and will be going against a defense still seeking its first interception. The Cavaliers have just two takeaways, both fumble recoveries, in five games.
EXPERIENCE: Virginia leads the nation with 13 players who are graduate students, while the Orange is at the other end of the spectrum. So far, true freshman account for two-thirds of Syracuse’s total offense this season.
FLIPPING THE FIELD: Cavaliers punter Nicholas Conte leads the ACC with a 46.8 average, but Virginia has still come up well short in the field position battle most games. The Cavaliers have started 21 drives inside their 20 yard-line, while opponents have started just four. With an offense that is struggling, getting some short fields to work with might help Johns and the Virginia playmakers make things happen.
RED ZONE: The Orange (15 of 16) and Cavaliers (9 of 10) rank first and third in the ACC in red zone conversions on offense, although Virginia has by far the fewest such opportunities in the league. In what figures to be an evenly matched game, limiting your opponent to field goals can go a long way toward coming out on top.
CROWD ENGAGEMENT: Attendance has been up significantly at Virginia so far this season, largely because the Cavaliers have played No. 14 Notre Dame and No. 21 Boise State at Scott Stadium. The Orange don’t figure to draw anywhere near a full house, and Virginia could help itself greatly with early success to get the crowd excited.