By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — University of Virginia defensive coordinator Jim Reid takes little comfort in quarterback Logan Thomas’ inconsistency this season.
Thomas has thrown 14 interceptions and completed only 53.1 percent of his passes for Virginia Tech, which for the first time since 2003 will finish a season with fewer than 10 victories. He scares UVa anyway. Reid knows the 6-6, 260-pound junior remains a formidable dual threat, and he expects Thomas to be at his best Saturday afternoon in Blacksburg.
Virginia (4-7, 2-5 ACC) meets Tech (5-6, 3-4) at noon at Lane Stadium. The Hokies must win to become bowl-eligible for the 20th consecutive season.
Reid remembers well what Thomas did to the Cavaliers in 2011, when he passed for two TDs and ran for another in the Hokies’ 38-0 romp at Scott Stadium.
“The more tape that you have on Logan Thomas, the more respect and admiration you have for that young man,” Reid, also Virginia’s associate head coach, said after practice Wednesday.
“If I were to say anything different, I would not be telling you the truth. The guy has stayed in the pocket, he’s made big plays. He can throw the long ball, he can throw the short ball, he can run right over your best tackler — and I mean run over your best tackler — because he’s done in it in every game I’ve watched on tape.”
In the regular-season finale for both teams, Thomas will face a UVa defense that has performed better than expected this season. The Wahoos returned only four defensive starters from 2011: end Jake Snyder, linebackers Steve Greer and LaRoy Reynolds, and cornerback Demetrious Nicholson. Moreover, the `Hoos have perhaps the nation’s youngest secondary, with four sophomores, two true freshmen and no seniors among their top seven defensive backs.
“Going into it, our goal was just to get a little better each week,” Reid said. [Virginia’s defenders] have played with poise, pride and in my mind a lot of dignity. They’ve done a great job of focusing and concentrating on the details.”
There have been rough stretches. A week after playing magnificently in a 17-16 win over Penn State, the defense surrendered 594 yards and 56 points in a one-sided loss to Georgia Tech in Atlanta. Thankfully for the Cavaliers, that was their only encounter with a triple-option offense this season, but a recurring problem has been their propensity for giving up significant yardage on bubble screens.
Even so, the latest national rankings show a defense that, in most areas, has fared well.
Among the 120 teams in the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision, Virginia ranks 41st in rushing defense (143.3 yards per game), 38th in pass defense (215.6 yards per game) and 34th in total defense (357.9 yards per game).
In scoring defense, the `Hoos are a disappointing 80th, but responsibility for that ranking does not fall solely on the defense. Virginia has allowed four non-offensive touchdowns: two on interception returns and the other two on kickoff returns. Also, the `Hoos have turned the ball over a staggering 24 times, and so opposing offenses have often started drives in excellent field position.
“You don’t always have control over that,” Reid said. “What you do is just stay positive. And if you start looking elsewhere for excuses, then you’re not going to play hard. This is a team game. There’s no doubt about it. But when your back is against the wall, you gotta do everything you can to stiffen up and play tough for your team, and I think we’ve done a nice job of that.”
Virginia has struggled to produce a consistent pass rush this season. With an average of 1.27 sacks per game, the `Hoos rank 102nd nationally. They’ve been even less successful at forcing turnovers. With 11 turnovers gained, UVa is tied for 113th nationally.
That’s not good enough, Reid acknowledges, but he points to his defense’s effectiveness in other areas. Virginia ranks 24th nationally in fewest first downs allowed per game (18.2). More significant, opponents have converted only 30.1 percent of their third-down opportunities against Virginia, which ranks 10th nationally in that category.
“As long as we’re getting off the field [on third down], those things take care of themselves,” said Reid, who left the Miami Dolphins after the 2009 season to join head coach Mike London’s new staff at Virginia.
“We’ve got a young group, and they’re running to the football,” Reid said. “We’ve had balls on the ground, and we’ve tried to pick a couple up that we should have jumped on. But I think [the turnovers] will come.”
Of the players who have started at least six games on defense for Virginia this season, only four are seniors: Greer, Reynolds, end Ausar Walcott and tackle Will Hill. Among the underclassmen in the defensive rotation are true freshman ends Eli Harold and Mike Moore, sophomore tackles Chris Brathwaite and David Dean, sophomore linebackers Henry Coley, DJ. Hill and Daquan Romero, true freshman cornerback Maurice Canady, sophomore corners Nicholson and Drequan Hoskey, and sophomore safeties Anthony Harris and Brandon Phelps.
“I think the [defense’s] potential, as long as they keep learning and stay focused, is great,” Reid said. “We’ve got some great guys coming in to add in the next class, and we’ve got some guys that redshirted that are going to help us, especially in the pass-rush area. You want to finish the season well, but you can’t help but think about the potential of next year’s defense and next year’s team.”
Defenses that have had success against Thomas and the Hokies are usually experienced, Reid said. On paper, his group doesn’t qualify as such, but “this is the 12th game,” Reid said, “so the sophomores are not sophomores anymore in reality, because they’ve started all the time, and the freshmen are not true freshmen any more.”
Under London’s predecessor, Al Groh, the Cavaliers’ base defense was the 3-4. Reid and his staff — Anthony Poindexter (safeties), Chip West (cornerbacks), Vincent Brown (linebackers) and Jeff Hanson (linemen) — installed the 4-3, and breakdowns were common in 2010. UVa’s defense improved dramatically in 2011, but in neither season did Reid’s charges play well against Virginia Tech.
In 2010, the `Hoos held their arch-rivals scoreless and without a first down for 15 minutes, but the Hokies broke through early in the second quarter and romped to a 37-7 victory at Lane Stadium.
In 2011, Tech led 14-0 at halftime and then blew the game open in the final two quarters.
“We’ve got to play within ourselves,” Reid said. “Last year, I didn’t know who we were for the first two drives, and we had to settle down, and still it wasn’t good enough.
“It’s hard enough to win a game. But you can’t win it by yourself. You have to play as a unit and a team, and we had guys running all over the place the first two series. We had to calm everyone down.”
Almost every week, it seems, the Cavaliers have faced an elite quarterback. Now comes Thomas, who will look to send UVa to its ninth straight defeat in this series.
“A lot of times when he’s a clutch situation, he comes through,” said Greer, Virginia’s leading tackler. “He’s a good player who comes through with big plays when his team needs it. A couple games this year he’s really put the team on his back.
“He can beat you with his arm and his feet. We’re going to have to be on top of our game and execute, be sure to tackle and wrap up, and give him different looks.”