Evaluating Virginia’s defensive performance against Miami

You can’t really question Virginia junior outside linebacker LaRoy Reynolds’s motor. The dude goes all-out, all the time. Sometimes that’s good. Sometimes it’s not. And for about a season and a half it seemed as though Reynols’s desire to get to the opposing ballcarrier in a hurry left him unable to properly address the situation once he arrived. Frequenly, he would simply run past a play, be caught off-balanced and miss the tackle. The problem wasn’t lost on him, either.

“It’s obvious,” Reynolds said in early October. “It’s obvious to the people that are watching, and it’s obvious when we watch film. I see it a lot. I need to break down more when I come to play, play more inside-out on a lot of plays because of the help outside. Basically, just taking what they’re teaching me and actually using it.”

In recent weeks, Reynolds has been doing just that. He’s still screaming toward the ball as fast as he can, but he has a plan of action when he get there. Reynolds finished with five tackles during Thursday night’s 28-21 win at Miami, and his last was the most important one – on a fourth-and-two play in which the Hurricanes had the ball on the Virginia 15-yard line with just more than two minutes remaining in the game.

Reynolds’s development is emblematic of the progression the entire defense has made. One of the most porous run-stopping units in the country a year ago, the Cavaliers have proven time and again this season that they can be stingy against highly skilled rushing attacks. On Thursday, they held Miami to 85 rushing yards. More specifically, they held Hurricanes tailback Lamar Miller – who entered the game as the ACC’s No. 2 rusher (114.1 yards per game) – to 70 yards on 16 carries.

Virginia remained shaky against the pass Thursday, but overall it was a pretty strong performance. The Cavaliers allowed Miami to convert on only 2 of 9 third downs (22.2 percent) and came up with big stops when they needed to most.

“We said Day One that we wanted to get better each week, and every time we see something or get beat by something, we work hard in practice to correct that for next week,” junior linebacker Steve Greer said. “I really feel like the defense has done a good job of getting better each week.”

For next week, as they prepare to play at Maryland, the Cavaliers’ defense will need to address the few deficiencies that recently have popped up in their efforts against the pass. Virginia allowed seven pass plays of 15 or more yards Thursday. Miami quarterback Jacory Harris completed 21 of 30 passes for 311 yards and three touchdowns before departing the game in the fourth quarter due to injury. That came five days after North Carolina State quarterback Mike Glennon threw for 231 yards and three touchdowns and had a number of throws flat-out dropped by his receivers.

Particularly on Thursday, the Cavaliers struggled to cover 6-foot-5 Miami receiver Tommy Streeter, who finished with seven receptions for 176 yards and two touchdowns. Of the Hurricanes’ seven pass plays of 15 or more yards, four went to Streeter.

Streeter caught passes that ended up tallying 20, 26, 51 and 57 yards. On several occasions, Harris simply lofted the ball in the air in Streeter’s general direction, and Streeter just leaped over a Virginia defensive back (or two) to grab it. Demetrious Nicholson, Dom Joseph, Chase Minnifield, Corey Mosley and Rodney McLeod all took turns trying to contain Streeter. Success was hard to come by.

But again, when the Cavaliers needed to make a stop, they did. On what proved to be the last play of the game, Miami backup quarterback Stephen Morris completed a pass to tailback Eduardo Clements. Virginia was in a prevent defense, so Clements had room to run upon securing the ball. He advanced 23 yards before Greer and a horde of other Virginia defenders stopped him at the Virginia 9-yard line.

But that wasn’t the only big play. For instance, redshirt sophomore defensive end Jake Snyder collected his first career sack without actually touching the quarterback on a play in which Snyder also ended up recording a fumble recovery. (“I didn’t realize they gave me a sack for that,” Snyder said. “But I’ll take it. Whatever.”) Snyder’s was one of three sacks Virginia totaled on the night.

And then there was Reynold’s play on the fourth and two at the Virginia 15-yard line late in the fourth quarter. The Cavaliers called a blitz that sent Reynolds into the backfield off the edge. The Miami fullback missed Reynolds as he flew by and tackled Hurricanes tailback Mike James for a loss of one, turning the ball over on downs.

After the game, Jeff White of VirginiaSports.com asked Coach Mike London if Reynolds would have made that same play if put into that same situation last season.

“That’s a good question, because what happens when you read it on a playbook is the line goes straight,” London said. “Teams are allowed to run passes, run blocks, do different things, and you have to learn how to take those blocks on, how to maneuver whatever they’re doing.

“And I think perhaps last year (Reynolds) would run in a straight line and then whatever happened, happened. But I think his development this year is not only does he run the straight line hard, but he can react as he’s on the run.”

Snyder put it this way: “That’s how (Reynolds) plays in practice, and that’s how he’s going to play every play of a game. It just happened to be one of the biggest plays of the night.”

Virginia allowed Miami to accumulate three rushes of 10 or more yards Thursday, and none of them were longer than 19-yard gains. The Cavaliers, as was previously mentioned, stood tough on Miami’s third-down conversion attempts, and on the season have held opponents to converting on 34.1 percent of third downs, which is the third-best mark in the ACC.

Here’s a rundown of how the Cavaliers fared against Miami, based on some of the goals defensive coordiantor Jim Reid has said they try to meet each game:

Rushing yards allowed

Goal – 105

Miami – 85

Passing yards allowed

Goal – 225

Miami – 347

Total yards allowed

Goal – 330

Miami – 432

Three-and-outs forced

Goal – at least 3

N.C. State – 2

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