The Virginia Cavaliers look to keep rolling this weekend in Tallahassee, where they will meet the No. 23 Florida State Seminoles in an important ACC showdown between two of the hottest teams in the league at the moment.
Virginia handled its business last weekend against Duke, beating the Blue Devils 31-21 which gave the Cavaliers their third straight win. Those three victories have come against quality opponents, including wins over Miami (FL) and Maryland in the weeks prior, and Virginia will have a chance to stay in the ACC hunt should it win Saturday. The Cavaliers are currently 4-2 in league play and sit in second place in the Coastal Division, just one game back from 5-1 Virginia Tech. Virginia closes out the regular season next weekend when it hosts the Hokies in what could be the deciding game in the divisional race.
"As far as progress is concerned, I'm pleased with the progress," said Virginia head coach Mike London following the win over Duke. "It's hard enough to win games, and when you have an opportunity compared to what went on last year, to turn around and make some plays and win games, it makes it special with the players and the coaches."
The Seminoles have won five consecutive games, and beat rival Miami (FL) last weekend 23-19 at home. Florida State is 5-2 in ACC play and sit in second place in the Atlantic Division behind Clemson, which clinched the divisional title last weekend with a win over Wake Forest. Florida State still has an opportunity to win nine games and enhance its bowl berth, and following this weekend's matchup with Virginia, will travel to Gainesville for a non- conference rivalry bout with Florida on November 26th.
"We're growing through the season, we aren't just learning and that's what I'm the proudest of," said Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher following the win over Miami. "We've got problems, we aren't perfect but we are figuring out how to win and play in situations, but I'll tell you one thing, we're playing with a lot of heart. There's a lot of togetherness in that group and I'm very proud of them."
Florida State leads the all-time series with Virginia, 14-2.
Virginia quarterback Michael Rocco threw for 191 yards and two touchdowns last weekend in the win over Duke, and running backs Perry Jones and Kevin Parks did what they have done best all season long: share the football. Jones rushed for 74 yards on 15 totes, while Parks ran for 78 on 21 carries and the Cavaliers posted 165 yards rushing overall. Virginia ranks 34th in the country and third in the ACC in rushing with an average of 187.6 yards per game.
Ball control has been a key ingredient to Virginia's late season success. Rocco is a player who has struggled this season at times and has played with talented backup David Watford lurking, but he has developed over the last month of the season. Rocco has been picked off just twice in the last six games, and has a 200-yard and 300 yard passing game in two of the last three weeks. Rocco has thrown for 1,910 yards and 10 touchdowns against nine interceptions this season.
Virginia's defense completely shut down Duke's running game last weekend, and forced Duke quarterback Sean Renfree to try and beat them. It worked. Renfree threw for 3-3 yards, but was just 21-of-38 with a touchdown and interception, while the Cavaliers defensive front snuffed out the Blue Devils run game, allowing just 34 yards on 29 carries. Virginia will see a more talented cast of runners this weekend from Florida State and certainly Manuel is more mobile, but controlling the run is critical to win. Virginia is 25th in the country and fourth in the ACC in rush defense, allowing just 117.1 yards per game. Overall, the unit ranks third in the ACC in total defense (332.2), and is second in tackles for loss with 6.8 per outing.
E.J. Manuel led Florida State offensively last weekend against the Hurricanes, completing 17-of-23 passes for 196 yards and one touchdown, on a day when the Seminoles didn't shine rushing the football (63 yards on 29 carries). Much of that was attributed to Miami's defensive pressure and the 14 yards Florida State lost in the backfield. Devonta Freeman put together another quality outing with 76 yards rushing, although Freeman hasn't rushed for over 100 yards since October 22nd against Maryland.
Manuel is the focal point, and when he came back from injury earlier this season, Florida State looked like a different team. He has been an efficient passer, ranking 13th in the country in passing efficiency (158.1), and he has given the Seminoles another dimension with his feet. Manuel has 236 yards rushing on the year with four touchdowns; he has thrown for another 2,152 yards, with a 15-8 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Florida State ranks second in the ACC in passing (282.7), and average over 400 yards per game.
The backbone of the Seminoles, especially during its five-game winning streak, has been the defense. Florida State gave up plenty of yards last week to the Hurricanes, as Jacory Harris threw for 243 and the talented Lamar Miller ran for 92 yards on 22 carries. But the unit also had three takeaways, and two of Miami's touchdowns didn't come until late in the fourth quarter when Florida State was in control. The Seminoles rank fifth in the country in total defense (279.5), sixth in scoring defense (16.1), and fourth in rushing defense (85.0).