Virginia's defense prepares for another unique offense

Virginia cornerback Ras-I Dowling will be a key component of a defense contending with Duke's ACC-best passing attack Saturday.
Virginia cornerback Ras-I Dowling will be a key component of a defense contending with Duke's ACC-best passing attack Saturday. (Andrew Shurtleff/associated Press)
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By Zach Berman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 29, 2009

Georgia Tech, Virginia's opponent last weekend, has the ACC's top rushing attack. Duke, the Cavaliers' opponent on Saturday, has the conference's best passing attack. But while Virginia may change its personnel against such a different offensive scheme, its overall philosophy will remain the same.

"For all the conversation when a team plays Georgia Tech, about the uniqueness of it, you've got to play disciplined," Coach Al Groh said. "You've got to fit on the plays properly. You've got to do your jobs. Clearly that's the case here once again. You're just deploying the same principles against a different set of variables."

To try to combat Georgia Tech's triple-option offense, Virginia kept starting defensive tackle Nick Jenkins on the sideline and moved defensive end Nate Collins inside. The goal was to bring more athleticism onto the field. Although Collins led the team with 16 tackles and was named ACC co-defensive lineman of the week, the move was not enough to keep the Yellow Jackets from scoring 34 points and holding the ball for nearly 43 minutes.

Because of Georgia Tech's propensity to run, Virginia could not deploy its dime formation nearly as frequently as it likes. The Cavaliers used six defensive backs for only two plays on Saturday. Virginia has one of the better third-down defenses in the ACC, success that's partially attributable to its dime package.

Cornerback Chase Minnifield, who only plays on defense in the dime, said he could see action on first or second down against the Blue Devils, although the team is still determining the best game plan.

"Against a team like this, that always becomes an ongoing situation-by-situation decision," Groh said. "That is, do we want to match personnel or do we want to leave the regular [3-4 defense] in there, because there is an overlap in what we can do from a coverage standpoint between the two. Not entirely the same, but because there is an overlap, we have that option. And in the past in circumstances like this we've worked that option both ways."

Georgia Tech's offense made the strength of Virginia's defense -- the secondary -- almost obsolete. The Cavaliers start cornerbacks Ras-I Dowling and Chris Cook, both 6 feet 2 and NFL prospects. They have allowed Groh, who doubles as defensive coordinator, to play more man-to-man coverage this season and become creative with blitz schemes. Against Georgia Tech, the cornerbacks needed to play like linebackers.

"I wouldn't say it was boring -- you're never bored in a game -- but they were kind of putting me to sleep over there, being over there for a while without seeing any runs, any passes or any action of any kind over on my side," Cook said.

Virginia ranks first in the ACC and fifth in the nation in passing defense, allowing just 151.3 yards per game. The most passing yards the Cavaliers allowed all season was 190 against Indiana. Duke averages 322.6 passing yards per game, and quarterback Thaddeus Lewis has become one of the top quarterbacks in the ACC.

Duke Coach David Cutcliffe watched the film from the Virginia-Georgia Tech game, although he admitted there was little that the Blue Devils could take from the game because of the different schemes. Cutcliffe said there is not one team that Virginia faced in its first seven games that plays similarly to the Blue Devils, although he was able to compile a bunch of plays and formations from throughout the season to give him an idea of how to play against Virginia.

Cutcliffe said the 3-4 defense is best suited to defend a passing team because it allows for zone blitzes. But Groh noticed that, much like Georgia Tech, Duke does not abandon the pass even if it struggles against a particular defense.

"Georgia Tech isn't going to say, 'Okay, we've got to start passing more.' They're going to keep running," Groh said. "They're going to either change the particular run patterns that they have, or change the schemes around which they utilize the actual backfield action. Duke is the same way in their fashion. That when they have difficulty passing the ball, they don't suddenly say, 'Okay, now we're going to run it 60 times in this game.' They say, 'We have to find some patterns that will get open better from the one that's we've been running.' "

This is welcome news to Virginia's cornerbacks, who take pride in the their reputation as one of the best units in the ACC. And after a game in which the cornerbacks had little effect on the outcome, they might dictate whether Virginia can return to .500 and maintain hopes of reaching a bowl game.

"It's a big adjustment," Cook said, "but I like teams that throw the ball, anyway."


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