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Can UVa’s defense show continued signs of development against dynamic Louisville offense?
COLLEGE FOOTBALL

Can UVa’s defense show continued signs of development against dynamic Louisville offense?

Virginia Miami Football

Miami running back Jaylan Knighton, middle, is tackled by multiple Virginia defenders Thursday in Miami Gardens, Fla.

Virginia’s defensive weaknesses were exposed in a 59-39 loss to North Carolina on Sept. 18. In the two games since, head coach Bronco Mendenhall has seen gradual improvement.

“I see us just chipping away at it,” Mendenhall said. “There is clear progress being made everywhere.”

The group allowed 37 points to Wake Forest and 28 to Miami. While neither outing was dominant — the Demon Deacons scored points on their first seven possessions — the Cavaliers showed some growth. They limited the Hurricanes to seven first-half points Thursday.

After reviewing the film of the team’s 30-28 win over Miami, Mendenhall wasn’t overly concerned with his defense allowing the Hurricanes to score 21 points after halftime. One of Miami’s scores came on a short field after a Brennan Armstrong interception, and another came on a blown run fit that allowed Cam’Ron Harris to break free for a 57-yard touchdown run.

In Mendenhall’s eyes, the defense played well for most of the team’s road victory. An occasional mistake doomed the defense, rather than the repeated miscues evident in the loss to UNC.

“What seemed to be big really was small after re-looking at it,” Mendenhall said.

Miami finished the game with 372 total yards, a decent total but nothing for UVa’s players to hang their heads about. The Cavaliers (3-2, 1-2 ACC) would likely sign up for a similar performance this weekend at Louisville (3-2, 1-1 ACC). The Cardinals, who have scored 30 points in four consecutive games average 442 yards per contest, host the Cavaliers on Saturday at 3 p.m.

The Cavaliers need a strong defensive effort to have a shot at recording another road victory. UVa hasn’t won consecutive road games since beating Boise State and North Carolina in the early stages of the 2017 season.

Defensive back Coen King credits a shift in practice habits for recent growth. Co-defensive coordinator Nick Howell wanted to change a few internal points of emphasis after shaky performances.

“Last week Coach Howell came in and was like, ‘We have to have a change,’” King, a junior, said.

The Cavaliers are being held more accountable for mistakes during practice, with players focusing on basics like discipline and staying true to their assignments. When a player makes a mental mistake or doesn’t run to the ball properly in practice, they’re quickly subbed out for someone else.

King believes the renewed focus on accountability and fundamentals is starting to show results.

“I’m really proud with how we’ve started to advance,” King said.

It’s easy to remain skeptical about the defense, though.

Wake Forest’s offense still gave UVa fits, and the Cavaliers lost that game by 20 points. Even Miami’s group nearly scored 30 points despite starting freshman Tyler Van Dyke at quarterback. The team’s usual starter, D’Eriq King, missed the game with injury.

Louisville quarterback Malik Cunningham is one of the most dangerous quarterbacks in college football.

Cunningham possesses lightning quick speed, which helps him average 61.8 rushing yards per game. He ran for 197 yards and two touchdowns against UVa last season. He’s scored 10 rushing touchdowns this year, the second-most of any FBS player and the most of any FBS quarterback.

He’s an adept passer as well, throwing for 261.4 yards per game. Cunningham has seven touchdown passes to just two interceptions.

“I would put him at the top of the dangerous scale in terms of how fast, how athletic, yeah, he can pull it down and run on any given play,” Mendenhall said. “I’m just really impressed with him, and he’s a really good athlete.”

The redshirt junior also has meaningful experience, having played in 38 games during his Louisville career. UVa seemed to fluster Van Dyke at times last week. Rattling Cunningham is a tougher task.

Mendenhall seems pleased with his team’s defensive improvement the last two games, but Cunningham and the Cardinals possess an offensive attack more dynamic than Miami’s.

Saturday’s game will share the extent that Virginia’s defense has really improved since giving up 699 yards to the Tar Heels.

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