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Defensive improvement needed for Virginia to avoid 0-3 ACC start

Defensive improvement needed for Virginia to avoid 0-3 ACC start

Virginia North Carolina Football

Virginia free safety Joey Blount, left, reaches to tackle North Carolina tight end Garrett Walston during the second half of the Cavaliers' loss to the Tar Heels in Chapel Hill, N.C. on Sept. 18.

No team has ever won the ACC Coastal Division after starting 0-3 in league play, a reality Virginia is staring down when it plays at Miami on Thursday night.

UVa, which comes into the matchup after two 20-point ACC losses riddled with defensive miscues, needs to win at Miami for the first time since 2011 to avoid the dreaded 0-3 ACC start.

“I know we have what it takes,” wide receiver Keytaon Thompson said. “I feel like we haven’t been performing to our capabilities the past two weeks. So if anything, just get back to being ourselves and UVa football and I think everything else will take care of itself.”

Like most teams coming off consecutive 20-point defeats, UVa (2-2, 0-2 ACC) has room to improve on both sides of the ball when it plays Miami (2-2, 0-0 ACC). The team’s most glaring issues still come defensively, though.

Virginia has allowed 96 points and more than 1,000 total yards in its last two games, losses to North Carolina and Wake Forest. The team is failing at basic assignments, such as correctly fitting the run. UVa allowed 595 combined rushing yards to the Tar Heels and Demon Deacons.

As far as run fits go, co-defensive coordinator Nick Howell thinks the fix is simple.

“Stay in your gap,” Howell said. “It’s really not hard. Get in your gap and stay in your gap.”

The Cavaliers need to execute that basic assignment better in Howell’s eyes.

It doesn’t help that the defense has forced just one turnover and recorded one sack over the last two games. UVa went 4-0 last season when forcing multiple turnovers and the group even tallied seven takeaways in a win over Duke.

Sacks and tackles for loss have been strong points for the program in recent seasons. In a win over North Carolina last fall, linebacker Charles Snowden recorded four sacks by himself. In last year’s 19-14 loss to Miami, the Wahoos finished the matchup with 11 tackles for loss and five sacks.

A unit usually focused on creating chaos in opposing backfields has its sights set on a more fundamental goal.

“I’m not sitting here thinking about generating havoc plays, I’m thinking about stopping their plays,” Howell said.

Virginia hasn’t done that well the last two weeks.

There was a stretch during UVa’s last two games when it allowed UNC and Wake Forest to score on 12 consecutive possessions. The team went about two games worth of time without forcing a punt.

Howell sees every position group contributing to the recent poor showings.

“I think, collectively as a defense, we’re not executing the way we should execute,” Howell said.

If there’s any bright spot for UVa as it tries to win on another short week, it’s the relative incompetence of Miami.

The Hurricanes smoked Central Connecticut State 69-0 last weekend, but they’re just 1-2 against FBS teams with losses of more than 20 points to Alabama and Michigan State. Miami also gutted out a 25-23 win over Appalachian State, although that matchup easily could’ve ended differently.

Miami’s offense has sputtered even with starting quarterback D’Eriq King, who has battled a shoulder injury this fall. He didn’t play against Central Connecticut State, as freshmen Tyler Van Dyke and Jake Garcia were given the majority of snaps at quarterback. Both played phenomenally well against the inferior defense — they combined to throw for 417 yards and five touchdowns on 21 completions — but neither player has started a game against an ACC team.

UVa is spending the bulk of its preparation on King and the offense’s overall tendencies.

“It’s always best to prepare for the starter and then you just adjust after that,” head coach Bronco Mendenhall said.

A failure to stop Miami’s offense could lead to a first for Mendenhall as a head coach. He’s never started conference play 0-3, winning his first five ACC openers at UVa and never starting worse than 0-2 during BYU’s time in the Mountain West Conference. BYU spent the first six of his 11 years as the head coach in the MWC before becoming an independent.

Slowing down Miami’s offense, regardless of who plays quarterback, is a key to UVa and Mendenhall avoiding the 0-3 start in ACC action.

While Miami’s offense hasn’t been stellar against FBS foes, it possesses a few noteworthy weapons. Running back Cam’Ron Harris averages 68 rushing yards per contest, and he’s scored three touchdowns this season. Charleston Rambo, an Oklahoma transfer, has emerged as a dynamic wide receiver, leading the team with 26 receptions, 288 receiving yards and a pair of touchdowns.

When King is healthy, he’s a dangerous dual-threat quarterback. His two backups are young and inexperienced, but both players were highly rated recruits at the position.

Miami has started slowly, but the Hurricanes have time to turn their season around and contend for the Coastal.

For UVa to avoid starting 0-3 in conference play, it begins with the defense. The unit let the team down in losses to North Carolina and Wake Forest.

The players and coaches believe there’s urgency in practice as the team looks to win its first ACC game. It is clear improvement is needed, and the Cavaliers are working to make fixes. Coaches felt there was some progress made from UNC to Wake Forest.

Internally, the Cavaliers believe the defense can start performing at a much higher level. Linebacker Elliott Brown says the defense’s confidence hasn’t wavered despite consecutive losses.

“It’s here, and it’s coming this week,” Brown said.

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