By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — By any measure, the UVa football team struggled on defense in 2010. Out of the 120 teams in the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision, the Cavaliers finished the season ranked 70th in scoring defense, 78th in total defense and 106th in rushing defense.
Through five games this season, the numbers look significantly better for second-year defensive coordinator Jim Reid’s charges. Heading into its ACC home opener, Virginia (0-1, 3-2) sits 42nd nationally in scoring defense, 23rd in total defense and 35th in rushing defense.
The Wahoos are still prone to giving up big plays, but the statistics “would indicate that we’re getting better,” second-year head coach Mike London said Monday afternoon.
If those numbers don’t dip significantly on this Homecomings weekend, the ‘Hoos will have reason to be pleased. Their opponent Saturday at Scott Stadium, in a game ESNU will televise, is 12th-ranked Georgia Tech (3-0, 6-0), whose trademark triple-option offense has been humming.
Coach Paul Johnson’s Yellow Jackets rank fourth nationally in rushing offense (360.5 yards per game), fourth in total offense (533.5 yards) and sixth in scoring offense (46.5 points).
In passing yards per game, the Jackets rank 95th among FBS teams, but quarterback Tevin Washington has thrown five times as many touchdowns (10) as interceptions (2), and 6-5 wideout Stephen Hill averages 32.5 yards per reception.
“What this offense does to you is it gets you playing run, run, run and then — bang! — play-action pass,” said Reid, a former head coach whose teams at Richmond and VMI ran the option. “It’s a great scheme.”
NC State coach Tom O’Brien, a former UVa assistant, will attest to that. His Wolfpack lost 45-35 to the Jackets in Raleigh on Oct. 1.
“You have to choose your poison against them,” O’Brien said this week. “The first thing you have to do is tackle the fullback.”
A year ago in Atlanta, the Cavaliers failed at that task. Fullback Anthony Allen rushed for 195 yards and three TDs in Tech’s 33-21 win over UVa. The Jackets totaled 536 yards in that game, 67 of which came on a run by quarterback Josh Nesbitt.
“We really never were able to get into any kind of flow or continuity on defense,” Reid said. “We created a couple of big plays, which allowed us to keep the game close. But we just needed a little bit more consistent play, really out of all phases of our game. We just were very, very inconsistent.”
From 2001 to 2009, when Al Groh (now Georgia Tech’s defensive coordinator) was the Cavaliers’ head coach, their base defense had been the 3-4. Virginia switched to a 4-3 scheme last year, and the transition wasn’t easy for players who had been recruited for the 3-4.
Reid’s players have a better grasp of the 4-3 this season, which has helped them prepare for Georgia Tech, according to middle linebacker Steve Greer.
“I think a lot of guys feel more comfortable and have better knowledge of their assignments,” said Greer, a junior who leads UVa in tackles with 41.
It helps, too, that the ‘Hoos have had extra time to prepare for the only option offense they will face this season. Virginia hasn’t played since edging Idaho 21-20 in overtime Oct. 1 at Scott Stadium.
“Any time you have an extra week to prepare for a team,” Greer said, “that’s a little more knowledge and information you’re going to have on your opponent.”
Not all of the lessons have been learned on the practice field. UVa’s defenders have used the extra time to study more videotape of Tech’s offense.
“Definitely,” junior defensive end Billy Schautz said Monday. “It’s a very different style you don’t see as much in college football anymore. We’ve been putting a lot more work into the film room. Usually we meet a lot as a defensive group, but this week we’ve been spending much more time individually with our position coaches, just checking [Georgia Tech linemen’s] splits, just saying which read we have, because it’s very assignment football.”
All of which should help the Cavaliers on Saturday. So should their experience on defense. Reid could start as many as seven seniors against Georgia Tech. Still, he said, it’s “very, very difficult when you face this just once a year. The recall [from the previous year] is very limited.”
Moreover, Reid noted, UVa was in the 3-4 “prior to 2010, so it’s a whole new learning experience, and it’s a very good offense, very detailed. They can attack you in so many ways, and you’ve got to be able to adjust and improvise as the game goes on.”
UVa players and coaches have uttered the phrase “assignment football” countless times since the Idaho game. It refers to the best way of slowing down an option attack. Specific defenders are assigned to the fullback, the quarterback and the pitch man, respectively, on every play.
If “you miss one, [the Jackets will] expose that,” Greer said, “and that’s what they’re trained to read. So if one guy doesn’t do his job and take his man, they’ll expose that and the guy will virtually go untouched.”
Georgia Tech’s defense, in its second season under Groh’s supervision, will be matched against a pro-style UVa offense that features tailbacks Perry Jones and Kevin Parks and wideout Kris Burd. The Cavaliers rank 38th nationally in passing offense (261.6 yards), 41st in rushing offense (177.2 yards), 39th in total offense (438.8 yards), and 69th in scoring offense (27.2 points).
Sophomore Michael Rocco has started every game at quarterback for Virginia this season, but true freshman David Watford also is an option. Watford finished the game at QB against Idaho and threw a TD pass in overtime.
London declined to say Thursday which quarterback would start against the Jackets. The head ‘Hoo was clear, however, on this point: “The first guy that runs out is not going to be the only quarterback who plays in the game.”