CHARLOTTESVILLE — Virginia Coach Mike London admitted that the game film, and the playmakers on it, elicited quite a few “raised eyebrows” earlier this week.
There was the 6-foot-5 Pittsburgh quarterback delivering the ball with NFL-level throws to a wide receiver duo that “might be the best . . . we face all year,” according to Cavaliers safeties coach Anthony Poindexter. Or the freshman tailback who averages close to seven yards per rush and conjures up memories of Wisconsin and its bruising ground attack.
But while Virginia’s coaching staff tried to wrap its collective head around the Panthers’ 58-55 win over Duke last weekend, the Cavaliers’ defensive players see Saturday’s ACC opener against Pittsburgh as something of a litmus test for how much progress has been made since the season began.
“It’s gonna see where we measure up in the conference and it’s a different style of football,” defensive end Jake Snyder said. “BYU and Oregon were that fast-paced spread offense and this is more power football. This is something we pride our defense on. We want to be able to line up and stop the run and hit offenses in the mouth, and we’ll see what we’re made of this week.”
Virginia’s new aggressive approach under defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta has had varying degrees of success through three games. The Cavaliers were dominant in wins over BYU and VMI, collecting a combined six sacks, 12.5 tackles for a loss and five turnovers. But they looked helpless against Oregon, which dissected Virginia for 59 points earlier this month (of course, the Ducks are doing that to everyone this season).
Nonetheless, the Cavaliers currently rank fourth in the nation in third-down defense and No. 2 in the country in pass efficiency defense. Opponents have completed just 37 of their 100 pass attempts against Virginia this season.
It’s a stark contrast to last year, when the Cavaliers had a secondary full of sophomores, most of whom were first-year starters.
“Now they’re all a year older and they’ve seen a lot of routes and they’ve taken the game plan a little bit better knowing what people are gonna do to them,” Poindexter said this week. “With the style Coach Tenuta brought to us, they’re just closer to the ball and it’s part scheme, part they’re getting older.”
That improvement will be put to the test against Pittsburgh wide receivers Devin Street and Tyler Boyd, a true freshman. The duo combined for 14 catches, 320 yards and five touchdowns against Duke, and there are only four other teams in the country with two receivers averaging more yards per game than Street and Boyd (233.7) this season.
Meanwhile, Panthers quarterback Tom Savage, a 23-year-old transfer who previously played at Rutgers and Arizona, threw for a career-high 424 yards and six touchdowns and earned Walter Camp national player of the week honors for his performance against the Blue Devils. So after not seeing much action last weekend against VMI, Virginia’s cornerbacks have spent the week dissecting Pittsburgh’s passing attack.
“You got out there playing blind playing against a quarterback that threw six touchdowns the week before, it can easily happen to you,” junior cornerback Demetrious Nicholson said. “We definitely have been making more plays on the ball as compared to previous years, but we also have a lot of teams to go in this offense and we have a lot of offenses that like to pass that we still have to go up against.”
Pittsburgh Coach Paul Chryst was Wisconsin’s offensive coordinator when the Badgers set school records with quarterback Russell Wilson in 2011, and he brings a more traditional game plan to the table than the spread offenses Virginia has seen over the first three games of the year.
But at its best, Chryst’s offenses can be devastating with a powerful rushing attack and well-timed play-action passes. Pittsburgh freshman tailback James Connor is averaging 6.7 yards per rush and gained 174 yards on the ground against the Blue Devils.
London would still like to see his defense create more turnovers and turn them into points to help an offense that has struggled to generate much in the way of explosive plays thus far. In Virginia’s win over BYU to start the year, the Cavaliers notched a safety, and an interception by safety Anthony Harris set up the game-winning score.
But as Nicholson noted, “the more we play, the more we learn about our defense,” because the Cavaliers are still only three games into Tenuta’s tenure at Virginia. Saturday’s game, though, is looking more and more like a mid-term exam.
“I feel like we’re a good defense. I still feel like we have things to work on, like any other team,” linebacker DaQuan Romero said. “It’s a big, big stage for us. It’s a stage for us to show our capabilities, and it’s a big stage for us to just show everybody what we’ve got.”