This isn’t your normal Virginia offense. In fact, over the last three weeks, the Cavaliers’ offense has been markedly better than Virginia Tech’s.
In the month of November, the Virginia offense has improved noticeably. Despite the ‘Hoos being 1-2 this month, the offense is averaging 29.7 points per game, which is above their season average of 26.
Who’s leading the charge for Virginia? Redshirt senior quarterback Kurt Benkert.
Yes, that Kurt Benkert, who went just 9-26 for 122 yards and a touchdown vs. Virginia Tech last season. Not only did Benkert struggle vs. the Hokies in 2016, he split time with backups Matt Johns and Connor Brewer in the embarrassing 52-10 defeat. This season, however, Benkert has noticeably improved. He’s completing just over 60 percent of his passes (up from 56.2 last season), has already thrown for more yards than last season, and has thrown four more touchdowns and three fewer interceptions than he did in 2016.
In Virginia’s last three games, Benkert has thrown eight touchdowns and three interceptions. Benkert’s play has helped elevate a Cavalier offense that looked stale in the early going of the season. Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster has noticed Benkert’s increasing comfortability in the Virginia offense in his second season with the ‘Hoos.
“Being more experienced within that offense, understanding the offense and where he needs to go with the ball,” Foster said. “Another year under a coordinator’s mindset and direction, and you just see a guy that’s playing with a lot of confidence. He’s always had good ability, and I was surprised we didn’t see him as much last year, and when he was in they kind of handed the ball off. It wasn’t a big passing game. But he’s got a live arm, tremendous accuracy, very capable with the ball in his hands, as far as great pocket presence, and I just think really playing at a high level right now.”
As Benkert has improved, so has Virginia’s ability to connect on passes downfield. In the last three weeks, Virginia has completed 13 passes of 20 yards or more, including five such plays vs. Miami last week.
Benkert’s main deep threats have been receivers Olamide Zaccheaus and Andre Levrone, who are both having solid seasons. Zaccheaus leads all Virginia receivers with 76 receptions and 794 yards, and has caught five touchdowns. Levrone has been a consistent deep threat, making 29 receptions for 603 yards — which averages to be 20.8 yards per reception — and has caught seven touchdowns. Doni Dowling has gotten in on the fun as well, making 46 receptions for 614 yards and five touchdowns.
Foster is aware of Virginia’s receiving corps and how dangerous they can be, especially the 6-foot-3, 225-pound Levrone.
“He’s really an explosive athlete,” Foster said of Levrone. “Long, dynamic guy down the field, and Benkert can get the ball to him. Yeah, that’s a concern, just like it is anybody… but I’m sure they’re going to take their shots downfield against us, particularly if we’ve got a group that’s beat up a little bit, I think they’re going to take their shots.”
This matchup could be a problem on Saturday, as Virginia Tech is dealing with major injuries in the secondary. Terrell Edmunds is out for the season, and Mook Reynolds was injured late in the fourth quarter vs. Pittsburgh. The Hokies might have to rely on players like Khalil Ladler and Deon Newsome, who have both been limited contributors on defense this season. And while Ladler has impressed in his limited snaps, including helping to stop Pittsburgh on fourth and goal last week, he could be pressed into a starting role at free safety on Friday night.
“He’s a play away from being the guy, like everybody,” Foster said. “It’s just a credit to Khalil, him working the game, him being in the game as far as his mindset and that sort of thing. He knew the formation that they were in the last play, and knew what we could anticipate the play that they were going to run, and he played that way. That’s a credit to him, and Coach (Galen) Scott and his preparation, but he’s a guy that has improved throughout. Every time he’s stepped in the game, he’s always performed, and I fully expect him, if he’s going to play a bigger role this week, I fully expect him to excel.”