By Steve Yanda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 10, 2010; 12:16 AM
ATLANTA - First-year Virginia Coach Mike London has said he will measure the Cavaliers this season in increments, seeking signs of progress at every step. But on Saturday at Bobby Dodd Stadium, Virginia demonstrated many of the same flaws that had led to its demise the previous week.
A porous run defense and an inability to convert on third down proved to be a sufficient formula for defeat Oct. 2 against Florida State, and similar struggles led to similar results at Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets defeated Virginia, 33-21, sending the Cavaliers (2-3, 0-2 ACC) under .500 for the first time under London's watch.
Temporarily, at least, it appears as though Virginia's forward progress has stalled. The Cavaliers gave up 477 rushing yards and converted on 3 of 12 third downs Saturday, one week after converting 3 of 13 third downs while allowing Florida State to amass 256 rushing yards in a 20-point loss.
London pointed to poor pass protection as the origin of his team's continued third-down dilemmas. Fifth-year senior quarterback Marc Verica was sacked four times Saturday against a Georgia Tech defense that entered the game with eight sacks on the season. Virginia has allowed 15 sacks through five games.
"We've got to protect the quarterback better," London said. "That's the commonality. It's one of those things that teams are going to come after you on third down, and no matter what they throw at you, you've got to be prepared and ready to block what they throw at you. The quarterback's got to get it off, and we've got to run the right routes. We'll make sure we address that once again this week."
Virginia remained in contention most of the afternoon, in part because of numerous Georgia Tech offensive miscues. Despite frequently marching into Virginia territory with relative ease, the Yellow Jackets did not open up a two-score lead until midway through the third quarter. On the day, Virginia forced four Georgia Tech fumbles - though the Cavaliers recovered only one - and also recorded an interception.
But eventually the Yellow Jackets began capitalizing on their long drives, and Virginia's inability to sustain its own possessions prevented the Cavaliers from keeping pace.
Even after Georgia Tech running back Anthony Allen scored on an 18-yard run to put the Yellow Jackets up by 13 with just less than four minutes remaining in the third quarter, it seemed Virginia still had abundant time and opportunity to compose a comeback.
But on third and two at the Georgia Tech 31-yard line on the ensuing Cavaliers drive, Virginia elected to try for a touchdown pass to junior wide receiver Kris Burd. Verica's throw fell incomplete and a holding penalty was assessed to the Cavaliers on the play.
On the next play - third and 12 - Verica attempted a pass to sophomore tailback Perry Jones that was well short of the first down marker and also fell incomplete.
Verica completed 18 of 31 passes for 239 yards. Burd, who entered the game averaging 94.5 receiving yards per game, finished with one catch for three yards.
"They were making it difficult for us to throw kind of easy completions," Verica said. "There wasn't a lot of soft coverage. They were just kind of challenging at the line of scrimmage, man-to-man, press, so everybody's got to do a better job of finding ways to get completions in that situation."
Fifth-year senior tailback Keith Payne recorded 56 yards and two touchdowns on 14 carries, serving as one of the few bright spots for Virginia's offense.
But it was Allen - who finished with 195 yards on 25 carries - who turned in the supreme performance. He scored his third touchdown of the day with just less than five minutes remaining in the game to provide Georgia Tech's final points. London and players attributed Virginia's lacking run defense to poor tackling, something that plagued the squad last week, as well.
Despite racking up 243 rushing yards in the first half, Georgia Tech (4-2, 3-1) managed just a pair of field goals and a late-second quarter touchdown. The Yellow Jackets turned over the ball twice and failed to convert on a fourth and four in Virginia territory.
But even when the Cavaliers' defense was able to come up with a stop or a big play, Virginia's offense struggled to build momentum before halftime. The Cavaliers registered 107 total yards in the first half.
"I have some theories, but I won't say them because it may have something to do with how we've got to proceed forward," offensive coordinator Bill Lazor said when asked about Virginia's slow offensive starts. "I think as a unit, offensively, we just have to start the game with a greater sense of urgency. And I'm talking about everyone, not just the players. Myself, first and foremost."