For the first time this season, the Virginia defense did not allow an opposing offense to tally a single rush that gained 10 or more yards. In fact, during the Cavaliers’ 31-21 win Saturday against Duke, the Blue Devils did not gain more than seven yards on any of their 29 rushing attempts. Duke might rank among the worst rushing offenses in the nation, but even still, that’s a pretty solid performance from the Virginia defense.
Yes, the Cavaliers continued to display Saturday their somewhat remarkable defensive turnaround this season. Last year, opponents averaged 203.7 rushing yards per game against Virginia. This fall, that number has shrunk to 117.1. Only 24 FBS teams in the nation have been stingier against the run this year.
But as the Cavaliers prepare to face a Florida State offense that averages more passing yards per game than all but 18 FBS teams in the country, it’s worth noting that Virginia has allowed its last three opponents to average 306.3 passing yards. Duke quarterback Sean Renfree threw for 303 yards Saturday.
When asked Sunday to evaluate the performance of the pass defense against Duke, Virginia Coach Mike London pointed to large gains on three particular Duke pass plays and then shifted his answer to the Cavaliers’ overall defensive improvement. The three plays he referenced were the 64-yard touchdown pass from Renfree to wideout Donovan Varner in the second quarter, the 41-yard play-action pass from Renfree to tight end Braxton Deaver (also in the second quarter) and the 51-yard pass from Renfree to wideout Conner Vernon in the third quarter.
On the 64-yard touchdown pass, London said linebacker Steve Greer had an equipment issue that forced him off the field at the last moment and that Greer’s replacement, Tucker Windle, didn’t get the coverage call and ended up getting beat on the play. It also should be noted that safety Rodney McLeod was in position to make a tackle at the Virginia 45-yard line, but could not do so.
On the 41-yard play-action pass, Renfree rolled out to his left, and safety Corey Mosley took a few steps in that direction. When Renfree turned back to his right and lofted a pass to Deaver, Mosley was well behind him.
On the 51-yard pass completion, cornerback Chase Minnifield played man-to-man bump coverage on third and four and seemed to be caught off guard when Renfree went to Vernon on a deep route.
“I just think it’s the aspect of still playing the coverages, trying to eliminate those one or two big-play opportunities that happen for them,” London said Sunday. “Because we’ve done it, we can do it, and they made some throws and made some plays. I think the defense is the reason why we’ve done what we’ve done so far this year because of the way they’ve been able to play. … You can point at the negatives, but there’s many more positives and positive things that I look to in terms of the development of the defense.”
He’s right. There are plenty of positives to talk about when it comes to the progress the Virginia defense has made from last season.
But it’s also true that – as impressive as the Virginia defense has been this season – it will need to shore up its pass defense if it hopes to post upset victories in the final two weeks of the regular season and advance to the ACC championship game. The Cavaliers allowed six pass plays of 15 or more yards Saturday against Duke; it was the third straight game in which Virginia allowed at least six such pass plays.
Now, we can look at those six pass plays that Duke recorded in a couple different ways. Those six passes accounted for 212 of the Blue Devils’ 303 passing yards. That, obviously, is a significant amount of damage in a concise number of plays.
But set aside those six completions and look at Renfree’s remaining production: 15 of 32 passing (46.9 percent) for 91 yards. So Renfree averaged 6.1 yards per completion on 71.4 percent of his completed passes. And on the remaining 28.6 percent of his completed passes, Renfree averaged 35.3 yards per completion.
So essentially, the Virginia defense has the same issue against the pass this season that it did against the run last season: When breakdowns occur, they prove to be critical.
Out of fairness to Minnifield, it should be noted that he also turned in a 54-yard interception return for a touchdown early in the third quarter. It was his 13th career interception, which moved him into sole possession of sixth place on the program’s all-time interceptions list. As London noted, he played bump coverage all game and simply got beat on that 51-yard completion to Vernon.
Out of fairness to Mosley, he also made a couple of nice plays in pass coverage Saturday. Renfree attempted a pass to wideout Cooper Helfet on third and four early in the fourth quarter that Mosley broke up. Mosely also batted down a pass at the goal line when Duke faced fourth and goal from the five-yard line in the second quarter. But officials made a questionable pass interference call that London has since officially protested to the league office.
But enough about the pass defense for one blog post. We should mention Duke averaged 1.2 yards per carry Saturday and still ran the ball nearly twice as often as it attempt to pass in the third quarter. The Blue Devils were so unsuccessful running the ball that despite allowing Duke to gain 303 passing yards, Virginia still fell only seven yards shy of meeting its goal to give up only 330 total yards.
Here’s a rundown of how the Cavaliers fared against Duke, based on some of the goals defensive coordinator Jim Reid has said they try to meet each game:
Rushing yards allowed
Goal – 105
Duke – 34
Passing yards allowed
Goal – 225
Duke – 303
Total yards allowed
Goal – 330
Duke – 337
Goal – at least 3
Duke – 3