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After struggling against Illinois, Cavaliers eager for another chance to display toughness against Syracuse

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Richmond at Virginia football

The Richmond Times-Dispatch Virginia running back Perris Jones catches a touchdown pass against Richmond during the second half of Saturday’s game at Scott Stadium.

“It’s going to be a physical matchup and they’re really going to challenge us up front,” Cavaliers senior running back Perris Jones said, “so we’re looking forward to it. The last time we had that big of a challenge, we struggled.”

The Cavaliers were pounded 24-3 on Sept. 10 at Illinois, which stymied UVa’s offense and limited the Hoos to 1.4 yards per carry while the Illini’s star running back, Chase Brown, managed a whopping 7.3 yards per rush to propel their offense.

Syracuse has a standout in the backfield, too, in running back Sean Tucker, who shattered and set the Orange’s single-season rushing record last fall with 1,496 yards. He’s logged 14 100-yard rushing performances over 23 career games and he has averaged 22 carries per game through the first three weeks of this season.

“We want to give [the ball] to him as much as we can,” Syracuse coach Dino Babers said of Tucker, who runs behind one of the country’s most experienced offensive fronts.

The Orange returned four of its five offensive line starters from a year ago, and the unit has combined for the eighth most starts (118) for any O-Line in the FBS.

“Similar to Illinois size wise and movement wise,” UVa defensive tackle Aaron Faumui said, “so we’ve really got that feel of the same technique and same strategy they have, so it’ll be similar to Illinois.

“Obviously, they’re big,” Faumui added. “They got their No. 76 (guard Kalan Ellis) and he’s 375 pounds and 6-[foot]-5, so it’s going to be a dogfight in the trenches.”

And UVa is expecting Syracuse to try to establish a running game early even though Orange offensive coordinator Robert Anae, who held the same job with the Cavaliers in the previous six years, was a throw-first play-caller in 2021. The Hoos had a 38%-to-62% run-to-pass ratio last fall, but Anae has flipped his tendencies this year as the Orange have a 60-to-40 run-to-pass ratio heading into the Friday tilt.

He hasn’t had a run-rate this high since 2018 (59% run, 41% pass), when former UVa running back Jordan Ellis carried for 1,026 yards and ex-quarterback Bryce Perkins tallied 923 yards on the ground.

“Good coaches are going to do what their personnel allows them to do,” first-year Cavaliers coach Tony Elliott said about Anae’s adjustment in philosophy.

“And when you’ve got a running back,” Elliott continued, “and [Tucker] had an outstanding season and he’s a really, really good player. And then you’ve got [quarterback Garrett] Shrader, who is a big athlete that can run the ball. When I had Kelly Bryant [at Clemson], I was going to run the ball with Kelly Bryant because it gave you an extra hat, and so good coaches are going to play to their personnel and play to the strengths of their personnel.”

Said Faumui: “We’ve still got to tap into the run game and try to emphasize playing the run first and getting after the quarterback afterward.”

As for Jones and UVa’s rotation of running backs that includes Mike Hollins and Xavier Brown as well, Elliott said they must scrap and fight for yards against Syracuse’s stout defensive front and tricky scheme.

The Orange have the versatility to flash various alignments from one snap to the next and that could create identification issues for the Cavaliers’ offensive line, which made major strides this past Saturday while pushing the line of scrimmage forward for UVa to rush for 229 yards in its victory over Old Dominion.

“The biggest thing is the [running] back has to understand the kind of game this is,” Elliott said. “I call this, ‘You’ve got to get the dirty yards.’ You’ve got to run through the smoke kind of like NASCAR. There’s a wreck in front of you, but you better hit the gas and close your eyes and hope you come through on the other side, so they’re going to have to have a downhill mentality and be erasers because it’s going to be hard to expect the guys up front to be perfect.”

Jones said he’s eager for the task ahead.

“Syracuse is an excellent group,” he said. “They play hard. They play tough. It’s a big challenge and I think we’re up for it.”

Notes: Elliott said he doesn’t anticipate Cavaliers wide receiver Billy Kemp IV (illness) being cleared in time for the matchup with Syracuse. And according to Elliott, Hoos safety Antonio Clary, who missed Saturday’s win over Old Dominion, is day-to-day with a stinger.

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