Idaho is not what you would call an offensively proficient team. Only three FBS teams in the nation average fewer rushing yards per game than the Vandals. Perhaps consequently, Idaho has passed the ball 58.2 percent of the time, but that hasn’t worked out particularly well for the Vandals either; they have thrown for more than 240 yards once in four games, and that happened against North Dakota.
Point is, the Virginia defense will need to focus Saturday on demonstrating improvement in ways that are meaningful regardless of the caliber of opponent. When asked Tuesday for one such way in which the team’s secondary can meet that objective, strong safety Rodney McLeod offered turning pass breakups into interceptions*.
* While Idaho has not racked up abundant passing yards, the Vandals haven’t thrown many interceptions, either. Idaho has recorded one interception in 156 pass attempts. For comparison’s sake, the Cavaliers have thrown seven interceptions in 151 pass attempts.
Virginia is tied for No. 2 in the ACC with North Carolina State in passes broken up (17). However, N.C. State leads the conference in interceptions (8), while the Cavaliers have tallied two. On a national scale, Virginia is tied for No. 17 in passes broken up, yet is tied for No. 85 in interceptions.
“We’ve been getting our hands on a lot of passes, and we just haven’t been finishing,” McLeod said. “So I think the key to the next game is going to be when we get those opportunities, finish them and get our offense back on the field by creating turnovers. Turnovers help you win games.”
True freshman cornerback Demetrious Nicholson leads the team in passes broken up with four. He also is responsible for one of Virginia’s two interceptions.
Cornerbacks coach Chip West acknowledged Tuesday that opposing offenses “definitely” are trying to attack Nicholson’s side of the field than they are the side where senior cornerback Chase Minnifield roams. The reasoning behind that is multi-faceted. For starters, Nicholson is relatively inexperienced compared with Minnifield. Also, Minnifield tallied six interceptions last season, which tied him for the fifth-highest total in the country.
Also, Nicholson is listed (generously) at 5 feet 11 and often matches up against taller opposing wide receivers. So quarterbacks see an obvious size advantage at the line of scrimmage. But, as Coach Mike London pointed out Sunday, Minnifield (listed at 6 feet) isn’t tall, either.
The trouble that Nicholson has run into on occasion thus far, London said, is more from a technical aspect.
“What happened to [Nicholson] a couple times is they sprinted out, and the receivers kind of curled up and caught the ball in front of him,” London said. “We’re trying to teach a young player like that that when they sprint out that the pass routes and the pass route patterns change dramatically. He’ll get better at that.”
West said the coaches are working with Nicholson on remaining in his backpedal longer so that if and when a receiver breaks in front of him, he’s in better position to make a play on the ball.
“Just in a sense of trusting your backpedal and not playing high,” West said. “It helps you be able to plant and drive on routes in front of you when the receivers aren’t pushing you vertically and making you open up your hips.”
What West said he’s been most impressed with thus far from Nicholson is the young player’s ability to put miscues behind him and move forward. There have been a couple times when Nicholson’s man has caught touchdown passes or other receptions that went for considerable gains.
“Playing defensive back, every rep won’t be perfect,” West said. “You’ve just got to play through it and learn from your mistakes and keep on going. His footwork is good. Being able just to believe what you see. That’s a thing that we are steadily improving on every day with him.”