Evaluating Virginia’s defensive performance against North Carolina

While there’s no question the Virginia offense squandered several scoring opportunities Saturday at North Carolina, the Cavaliers ultimately were done in by a defense that continues to be inept at stopping the run against opposing ACC offenses.

By churning out 222 rushing yards Saturday, the Tar Heels became the seventh team to tally more than 200 rushing yards against Virginia in the 15 games since Mike London became the head coach. Six of those seven teams were conference foes.

When asked about his team’s porous run defense Sunday night, London pointed to several statistics that would seem to indicate the Cavaliers have improved on the defensive side of the ball from last season.

“We’re 27th in the country right now in total defense, and that’s a vast improvement over where we were before,” London said. “I think one of the biggest things is stopping teams from scoring. I think we’re 45th right now. If you keep the points down, then whether they’re (running) the ball for success or passing the ball for success, if you keep the points down then there’s something that you’re doing right.”

In terms of Virginia’s current national rankings, what London said is true. But in terms of the frequency with which the Cavaliers are giving up points, the national rankings don’t tell the full story.

In the first three games of the 2010 season, Virginia gave up 37 points. Through the first three games of this season, Virginia has given up 62 points. Granted, two of the Cavaliers’ first three opponents last season were FCS teams, so let’s take non-conference games out of the equation. Last season, opposing ACC offenses needed an average of 15.57 snaps to score a touchdown against Virginia.

On Saturday, North Carolina needed an average of 16 snaps to score a touchdown against Virginia.

Technically, that’s improvement. But I’m guessing London and Defensive Coordinator Jim Reid were hoping the defense would take a longer stride forward than that.

“There was about four or five plays (Saturday), two that broke up the middle, that was just a guy falls down, the linebacker doesn’t get him, and they break a long run,” London said. “Those are the type of things that really get you. … So four or five plays, those long runs, if we’re in the right position, then we do a pretty good job.”

One of Reid’s points of emphasis entering the season was limiting the number of plays in which a Cavaliers’ opponent gained 10 or more rushing yards. That happened on 67 plays last season. Through three games this fall, Virginia has allowed 16 such rushing gains, which puts the Cavaliers on pace to allow 64 on the season. Again, that would be improvement. But only of the marginal variety.

North Carolina rushed for 10 or more yards in a single play nine times Saturday.

“It was just inconsistent,” Reid said after the game of the defense’s performance. “One series went really, really well, and the other series we struggled.”

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

Rushing yards allowed

Goal – 105 or less

North Carolina – 222

Passing yards allowed

Goal – 225 or less

North Carolina – 179

To tal yards allowed

Goal – 330 or less

North Carolina – 401

Three-and-outs for ced

Goal – at least 3

North Carolina – 3

Virginia played Saturday without fifth-year senior free safety Corey Mosley, who was out due to what London described as a “lower leg injury.” Sophomore Rijo Walker started in Mosley’s place and played, according to London, about 45 snaps. He finished with six tackles. True freshman Anthony Harris also got extended playing time in Mosley’s absence. Harris recorded three tackles.

While the Cavaliers’ secondary held up fairly decently against the pass against the Tar Heels, it did prove susceptible to being beat on play-actions. Part of that can be attributed to the youth in the secondary (aside from Walker and Harris, true freshman Demetrious Nicholson starts at one cornerback spot).

Part of that can be attributed to a poor run defense that forced members of the secondary to pay more attention to the Tar Heels tailbacks scurrying out of the backfield than they otherwise might have.

And part of that can be attributed to a pass rush that has not developed as quickly as London and Reid would have preferred. Virginia tallied one sack Saturday, and it came late in the fourth quarter while trailing by 11.

The Cavaliers forced one turnover (when they forced North Carolina quarterback Bryn Renner to fumble), and it came early in the fourth quarter while trailing by 18.

Renner had tormented Virginia early on with his dashes out of the pocket. In fact, he led the Tar Heels at halftime with 23 yards on three carries.

“We did make (Renner) step up in the pocket, and we’ve got to do a better job of having the inside guys make sure that there’s nobody stepping up and running,” London said Saturday after the game. “At halftime, (Renner) was their leading rusher and you can’t have that, particularly when it’s totally avoidable.”

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