Virginia fifth-year senior Matt Conrath recorded a sack on Auburn’s first play from scrimmage Saturday night during the Chick-fil-A Bowl. By and large, things went downhill from there for the Cavaliers defense.

For all the improvement Virginia’s defense made this fall, its showing Saturday had to be considered a step back. And if you don’t want to go that far, you should at least be willing to acknowledge there remains plenty of room for growth on that unit.

We’ll start with the obvious: First team all-ACC senior cornerback Chase Minnifield and second team all-ACC redshirt junior middle linebacker Steve Greer sorely were missed against the Tigers. Both players sat out with knee injuries.

Emory Blake – Auburn’s best wide receiver and the person Minnifield most likely would have matched up against – finished with six receptions for 108 yards. With Minnifield on the sideline dressed in sweats, true freshman cornerback Demetrious Nicholson lined up against Blake for most of the night.

The Tigers gained 273 rushing yards Saturday – the most Virginia has allowed in a single game all season – and while Greer’s presence may not have prevented Auburn from completely gashing the Cavaliers on the ground, it certainly would have helped. Greer was, by a wide margin, Virginia’s leading tackler this season.

Throughout the fall, the Cavaliers took pride in giving up far fewer big plays than they had the year before. For instance, Virginia allowed 51 rushes of 10 yards or more during the regular season this year, which was 16 fewer than it had allowed in 2010.

Against Auburn, Virginia gave up 11 rushes of 10 yards or more. That’s nearly 22 percent of the total the Cavaliers allowed during the regular season. Tigers tailback Onterio McCalebb did a considerable amount of damage all by himself. He averaged 10.9 yards per carry on 10 rushing attempts.

McCalebb’s most dashing run occurred early in the second quarter when he took an inside handoff and initially ran to his right. When no opening revealed itself, McCalebb changed course and reversed to the left side of the field, where he ended up running 60 yards down the sideline.

In the third quarter, Auburn tailback Tre Mason took a handoff up the middle and ran right through redshirt freshman Henry Coley, who was filling in at middle linebacker for Greer.

Coley later said there were three plays Saturday on which he wished he would have executed differently: Two screen passes on which he should have stayed inside and been in position to make the tackle, and Mason’s 22-yard touchdown run. Coley said he had his hands around Mason, but he didn’t wrap up. Coley finished with four tackles, one of which was for a loss.

To be clear, Coley was not in an enviable position Saturday. He’d missed considerable time during the regular season with hamstring issues and had logged only 71 snaps entering the Chick-fil-A Bowl. To put that in perspective, Greer logged 833 snaps during the regular season. If nothing else, the experience Coley gained Saturday will be of aid in the future.

But Auburn hurt Virginia through the air, as well. The Tigers utilized three different quarterbacks Saturday, and two of them attempted passes. Clint Moseley went 1 for 4 for six yards before exiting the game in the first quarter with an ankle injury. Barrett Trotter, however, completed 11 of 18 passes for 175 yards and a touchdown.

Five of Trotter’s 11 completions gained 15 or more yards, including a 50-yard bomb to Blake in the second quarter. The Cavaliers defense had proven susceptible to long passes throughout the regular season, and Saturday night was no aberration.

Virginia forced a three-and-out on Auburn’s first offensive possession, but did not tally another one the rest of the night. The Cavaliers did not force a single turnover and did not register another sack after Conrath’s on the Tigers’ first play from scrimmage. Virginia allowed a season-high 454 total yards.

Senior linebacker Aaron Taliaferro capped his collegiate career by tallying a game-high nine tackles Saturday. Linebacker LaRoy Reynolds recorded seven tackles, but was not as disciplined or technically sound as he’d been throughout the regular season.

In many ways, the defense’s rapid turnaround this season was responsible for Virginia being able to go from 4-8 in 2010 to 8-4 in 2011. Similarly, when the defense reverted to its old ways, the game’s final result looked a whole lot more like one from last season than from what Virginia followers grew accustomed to this fall.