If he needed any reminder about the “demoralizing” feeling that came from last year’s 55-20 loss at Georgia Tech, Virginia safety Anthony Harris only had to look at the film this week as the Cavaliers prepared to face the Yellow Jackets once again Saturday.
On it, Harris watched Georgia Tech break big play after big play early on as Virginia’s defenders lay on the ground, their lack of experience against a cut-blocking team on full display. Before the Cavaliers could blink, they were down 14-0 after the Yellow Jackets scored touchdowns on two of their first three offensive plays of the game.
They eventually got to the end zone on their first four possessions and racked up 461 rushing yards, quickly turning a picturesque Saturday afternoon in Atlanta into the biggest rout Virginia suffered last year.
“The more guys you have that have faced this offense before, the better chance you have against it, and I think you saw it last year,” senior defensive lineman Jake Snyder said. “We had a lot of young guys that hadn’t seen it before and kind of got caught up in the speed a little bit early on and we dug ourselves a hole.”
It’s not like Virginia hasn’t had some success facing Georgia Tech Coach Paul Johnson’s vaunted flexbone option. Just two years ago, with the Yellow Jackets undefeated and ranked No. 12 in the country, the Cavaliers limited Georgia Tech to just 272 rushing yards en route to a 24-21 win.
That defense, though, was full of veterans. Because of injuries and inexperience, this year’s unit will likely feature just four players who started against Georgia Tech a year ago.
In two of Georgia Tech’s three losses this year, it has been held to less than 300 rushing yards, with Virginia Tech setting a new standard by limiting the Yellow Jackets to 129 yards on the ground in a 17-10 win on Sept. 26.
Perhaps more important is the track record new defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta has facing Georgia Tech Coach Paul Johnson. In four games against Navy and Georgia Tech, Tenuta’s defenses at North Carolina State and Notre Dame had a 2-2 record and allowed an average of 29 points and 267 rushing yards.
“The interesting thing, a few years ago when he was at N.C. State and I watched how they defended it, they did some really nice things,” defensive line coach Vincent Brown said this week. “He’s seen it. Georgia Tech, Navy, he’s seen the triple option multiple times. Had some really, really good ideas and philosophies on how to defend it, so our guys are working towards making it happen.”
Virginia’s task got much tougher in recent weeks because its defense has lost several playmakers to injury. Cornerback Demetrious Nicholson (toe) and defensive tackle Brent Urban (foot) will both be out again this week and sophomore cornerback Maurice Canady is also listed as out for medical reasons.
That will likely thrust more playing time on freshmen Tim Harris and Donte Wilkins, and London hinted this week that safety Brandon Phelps (Damascus) could move back to cornerback with Canady now joining Nicholson on the sideline.
Whether the Cavaliers’ defense can make do without them will go a long toward determining if Virginia can snap its four-game losing streak this week.
“It’s a little bit of a different scheme because it is so assignment-based. We do still want to find ways to put pressure on the quarterback when they do pass, but the main thing is stopping the run,” Snyder said. “Whether the linebackers are walking up on the line or covering the hole or whatever it is, we need to eliminate that dive and get the quarterback to pitch the ball, and that’s the basic concept of our defense and what we’re gonna do this week.”
Here are three more themes to watch Saturday when Virginia takes on Georgia Tech on homecoming:
Forget last year
If it’s not bad enough Virginia enters Saturday on a four-game losing streak, the Cavaliers must face a team that completely befuddled them last season. Georgia Tech scored touchdowns on its first four possessions, including a 70-yard touchdown pass and a 77-yard touchdown run on two of its first three offensive plays of the game, to start off a 55-20 rout over the Cavaliers in Atlanta last September. Tenuta has a good track record against Paul Johnson’s flexbone option, but he’ll be without defensive tackle Brent Urban and cornerbacks Demetrious Nicholson and Maurice Canady because of injuries.
With senior Tim Smith and juniors Darius Jennings and Dominique Terrell back, Coach Mike London touted Virginia’s wide receivers as one of the team’s strengths before the season. But the trio has proven ineffective and freshmen Keeon Johnson and Kyle Dockins have started the past three games. Still, the Cavaliers have just 16 completions to wide receivers since making the switch, including three last week against Duke. For quarterback David Watford’s sake, some consistent options need to emerge.
Possessions and points
Virginia has moved the ball increasingly well in recent weeks, with Watford setting new career highs in passing yards and tailback Kevin Parks leading an enhanced rushing attack. But the Cavaliers are 13th in the ACC in points per game, despite ranking No. 5 in the entire country in time of possession. Georgia Tech, meanwhile, is the only ACC team ranked higher than Virginia in that category. The Yellow Jackets are one of two teams in the country to hold the ball for more than 35 minutes per game.