Virginia’s defense has had its challenges this season, facing the likes of UCLA’s Josh Rosen, Notre Dame’s C.J. Prosise, Boise State’s offense, Syracuse’s Eric Dungey and North Carolina’s Marquise Williams.
This Saturday, the Cavaliers face a different and unique challenge. It’s Paul Johnson’s option offense, something that for the last three years, UVa defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta hasn’t been able to stop. Run-oriented Georgia Tech has piled up some eye-popping statistics, staggering in fact, against Tenuta’s unit.
In the last three contests against Johnson’s Yellow Jackets, Tech has outscored Virginia, 126-55. During that same span, the Georgians have rushed for 1,123 yards and amassed 1,510 yards of total offense.
While Tech hasn’t been itself this season, mostly because it has lost seven running backs to injuries, the Jackets still have a running game that can cause havoc. Tech features the eighth-best ground game in America, averaging 283 yards rushing per game, and managed to stack up 261 yards against previously unbeaten Florida State in last weekend’s dramatic upset of the then-No. 9 Seminoles.
Until Tech pulled off that stunner with a blocked field goal and subsequent return for a touchdown to end the game, the Jackets were reeling with five consecutive losses to Notre Dame, Duke, North Carolina, Clemson and Pitt.
Johnson is hoping the upset over FSU will spark his team for the second half of the season, and a win over Virginia would help keep the momentum going.
On the other hand, UVa coach Mike London is trying to keep the remainder of the season from imploding on his 2-5 team, which is 1-2 in the ACC. One of London’s reasons for optimism is the Cavaliers’ defense has improved over the past couple of weeks, ever since Tenuta simplified his system.
“[Tenuta’s] doing more things that we’re good at,” said senior defensive tackle David Dean during Monday’s player interviews.
Dean said since Tenuta, UVa’s defensive coordinator, simplified things players don’t have to think as much, and they can just “fly around the football.”
Maybe the Cavaliers’ overall defensive statistics haven’t improved by leaps and bounds over a couple of weeks, but they are headed in the right direction for the most part.
A few weeks ago, Virginia ranked No. 110 nationally in scoring defense, allowing 38.3 points per game. That total is down to 34.7, No. 106 nationally. While that’s better, it’s still on pace to be the most points UVa has allowed since 1975.
The Cavaliers have cut down the total yards as well, previously on pace to give up the most yards in Wahoo history (444 per game) and ranked 100th nationally. Now they’re down to 414 per game, 85th in the country. Still, that would be the worst since 2002, unless they can keep improving those numbers.
UVa has improved mostly in pass defense, jumping from No. 116 nationally to No. 92 (248.6 per game), and has stayed about the same in rush defense, moving from No. 63 to No. 66 at 165.7 per game.
The run defense will be put to the test against the Yellow Jackets. Because Tech runs an option offense and uses the chop blocks (cut blocks), it presents a completely different challenge to defenses that normally only face that style once a season.
It’s assignment football at its best, but the way Georgia Tech blocks for its plays, the chop or cut blocks usually take out a defender below his knees, something that also takes some getting used to.
“You want to protect your knees,” Dean said. “That definitely slows you down because you have to know where that block is coming from.”
Linebacker Zack Bradshaw added that it’s a mental test as well as physical.
“If you’re expecting a chop block, that’s one thing, but if it catches you off-guard, it usually doesn’t end very well,” Bradshaw said.
Bradshaw is one of three starting linebackers that have little or no experience against the triple option, and that could be somewhat disconcerting, knowing that Tech had its way with last year’s trio of experienced linebackers.
“You always worry about the issue of taking your assignment and doing your job in this particular manner,” London said. “You’re closing to the dive (play), then making sure you take the dive. Don’t all of a sudden think the quarterback wasn’t going to give the [fullback] the ball, and all of a sudden you pop up and take the quarterback, but the ball has been handed off.”
The main function of stopping the option is to stop the dive play consistently, which will primarily be Dean’s and defensive tackle Kwontie Moore’s job. The wing linebacker is responsible for either the dive or the quarterback, who will move toward the corner of the line of scrimmage, and then the Mike linebacker is responsible for following the ball.
“It’s difficult to simulate that in practice,” Dean said. “In the game situations, the dive comes faster and the pitch comes faster than you can simulate in practice.”
Virginia’s defense does have the ACC’s leading tackler on its side, though, in sophomore Micah Kiser, who is averaging 10.1 tackles per game. There are three others closest to him, averaging 8.6 tackles per game, including teammate and safety Quin Blanding, who will also be responsible for containing Georgia Tech’s running game.
One mistake in the assignments, and Yellow Jacket quarterback Justin Thomas (six TDs) or freshman running back Marcus Marshall (8.9 yards per carry), can turn the error into six points in a hurry.
Kiser also ranks seventh in the ACC in quarterback sacks with five, while UVa defensive end Mike Moore is also building a nice resume. Moore is second in the ACC in sacks with 5.5, and is tied for seventh in the league in tackles for loss and tied for first in forced fumbles with three.
“Kiser has been very impressive,” Dean said of his young teammate. “A lot of people didn’t expect him to be this good.”
Come Saturday, good won’t be enough. Kiser and his defensive teammates must be great to keep Georgia Tech from doing its thing.
Jerry Ratcliffe is the Daily Progress' sports reporter and columnist. Contact him at (434) 978-7250, firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @JerryRatcliffe.