The Virginia defense did what it was supposed to do Saturday against an Idaho offense not particularly adept at running or throwing the ball. The defense also did what the Cavaliers absolutely needed it to do, considering the offense struggled to continue its rhythm beyond the first three possessions.
For the first time in quite a while against an FBS opponent, the Virginia defense was stingy against both the run and the pass. Were it not for the Cavaliers’ defensive effort Saturday, the team would have dropped its second straight non-conference home game – and this one would have been far more embarrassing than losing to Southern Mississippi the week before.
“To watch them play and fly around was kind of a redemption-type of deal, because everybody was worried about the defense and giving up this and giving up that,” Coach Mike London said. “What matters is keeping the points off, and the guys out there had a lot of confidence in the game plan. They just executed it. That’s what we’ve got to be. That’s what we can be. We have to continue being that in order for this team to continue to have a chance to win games.”
Whether the Cavaliers can post such a complete defensive performance against an ACC opponent remains to be seen. But for now, let’s take a closer look at the defensive showing Virginia made Saturday.
For starters, Idaho was able to convert on just 4 of 18 third downs (22.2 percent) and was able to convert on red zone opportunities once – a field goal – in three tries.
Idaho posted the worst third-down conversion percentage of any FBS team the Cavaliers have faced during the London era.
And especially in the first half Saturday, the Virginia defense was not always thrown into the most ideal situations. The Cavaliers recorded turnovers on three consecutive offensive possessions in the second quarter, meaning the team’s defense had to re-take the field on relatively short rest and twice with a short field to protect.
True freshman quarterback David Watford threw an interception on the sixth play of a drive, and Idaho took over at its own 20-yard line. The Vandals went three-and-out.
True freshman tailback Clifton Richardson fumbled on the third play of the next Virginia drive, and Idaho took over at its own 43-yard line. The Vandals marched 55 yards in nine plays and settled for a 19-yard field goal.
Junior tailback Perry Jones fumbled on the first play of the next Virginia drive, and Idaho took over at the Cavaliers 26-yard line. The Vandals gained seven yards in four plays and turned the ball over on downs.
While the offense continued to sputter in the second half, Virginia’s defense continued to come up with big stops. After getting beat on a 44-yard pass play down the right sideline early in the fourth quarter, fifth-year senior cornerback Dom Joseph recorded an interception in the end zone to snuff out another Idaho scoring threat.
On Idaho’s next offensive possession, fifth-year free safety Corey Mosley forced a fumble that was recovered by redshirt junior defensive end Billy Schautz. Or at least, that was the initial ruling on the field. The call was reviewed by the officials and eventually overturned.
Three plays later, senior cornerback Chase Minnifield recorded the 11th interception of his career to give Virginia the ball at the Idaho 46-yard line.
Minnifield, who also recorded a half-sack and four tackles, “played big for us” Saturday, London said. “That’s the kind of stuff that all-Americans do.”
As far as preventing big plays go, the Cavaliers didn’t do too badly in that area, either. Idaho recorded four rushes of 10 or more yards and none longer than 20 yards. The Vandals also completed four passes that gained 15 or more yards, only one of which was longer than 23 yards.
Here’s a rundown of how the Cavaliers fared against Southern Miss, based on some of the goals Defensive Coordinator Jim Reid has said they try to meet each game:
Rushing yards allowed
Goal – 105
Idaho – 103
Passing yards allowed
Goal – 225
Idaho – 193
Total yards allowed
Goal – 330
Idaho – 296
Goal – at least 3
Idaho – 5
Again, how much of the defense’s success was due to substantive improvement and how much of it was inflated due to the lackluster quality of the opposing offense remains to be seen.
What can definitively be stated about the Virginia defense’s performance Saturday was that it stepped up whenever it needed to. After Idaho scored a touchdown in overtime, the Vandals opted to go for two (and thus, the win).
Idaho opted to pass, and senior strong safety Rodney McLeod provided tight coverage on the intended receiver. The ball was batted down in the end zone, and the ball game was over. Virginia had hung on for a much-closer-than-expected victory.