Three-fourths of the way through the 2011 season, the Virginia defense has transformed from one of the most porous FBS units in college football into one of the stingiest in the ACC. Following a 31-13 win Saturday at Maryland in which the Cavaliers did not allow a single point after halftime, Virginia ranks among the top four in the conference in nearly every significant defensive statistical category.
The Cavaliers still have a few deficiencies to address – primarily that its pass defense is not as strong as its statistical rankings would indicate – but on the whole, the turnaround that defensive coordinator Jim Reid has orchestrated in the second year of the transition from the 3-4 base defense utilized under former Coach Al Groh to a 4-3 scheme has been impressive.
On Saturday, Virginia recorded three interceptions and two fumble recoveries, which pushed its turnovers gained total on the season to 19. The Cavaliers forced 16 turnovers in all of 2010. Virginia is tied for No. 27 in the nation and tied for No. 3 in the ACC in turnovers gained this year.
But perhaps more impressive is how stingy the Cavaliers defense has been when backed up inside its own 20-yard line. Maryland had four red zone opportunities Saturday; the Terrapins crossed the end zone once. Virginia has allowed opponents to score touchdowns during red zone opportunities 48.4 percent of the time this season, a mark that ranks No. 15 in the country and No. 3 in the ACC.
Add opponents’ converted field goals into the equation, and only nine FBS defenses in the nation – and only one (Virginia Tech) in the ACC – have posted a lower red zone scoring percentage this season than Virginia (70.1 percent).
Maryland entered Saturday averaging 171.9 rushing yards per game. In the six of its eight previous games, Maryland had run the ball at least 35 times, and in five of those six contests, that strategy enabled the Terrapins to gain at least 188 yards.
In the first half Saturday, Maryland ran the ball 16 times for 83 yards, which averages out to 5.2 yards per carry. That’s not bad. Had to figure the Terrapins would run the ball consistently against Virginia the rest of the way, especially considering they received the ball to start the third quarter and trailed at that point by one.
Maryland ran the ball twice in the third quarter for a net gain of one yard.
The Terrapins ended up tallying just six rushing attempts (for a net gain of one yard) in the second half, a shift in offensive strategy that took Reid by surprise.
“The thing is is that they abandoned what they had done really, really well, which was run the football, the zone read,” Reid said. “Alright, so they got beat by B.C. (28-17), but they had 400 yards of offense in the mud, you know? And the Clemson game, god, Clemson had no shot. These guys were just running all over the place.”
Maryland actually tallied 376 total yards against Boston College on Oct. 29, but Reid’s point remains true. The Terrapins ran the ball 36 times for 197 yards against the Eagles. They ran the ball 48 times for 291 yards during a 56-45 loss to Clemson on Oct. 15.
But they ran the ball a season-low 22 times against Virginia.
Maybe that’s because the Cavaliers rank No. 4 in the ACC in rushing defense (126.3 ypg allowed). Perhaps Virginia is developing a reputation for being miserly against the run, and said reputation is serving as a deterrent to opposing offenses. By the end of the third quarter, Maryland trailed by 15 and had to spend a good portion of the fourth quarter attacking through the air, what with the Cavaliers dominating time of possession and all. That likely had something to do with it, too.
But the point is that a Virginia defense that allowed an average of 203.7 rushing yards per game – a mark that ranked No. 105 in the country – last year has coalesced into a unit that must be taken seriously this fall. Virginia has held six of its nine opponents to 114 rushing yards or less this year.
If the Cavaliers could shore up their pass defense, they could really have something special on that side of the ball. After giving up seven pass plays of 15 or more yards during a 28-21 win Oct. 27 at Miami, the Cavaliers gave up six pass plays of 15 or more yards Saturday against Maryland. And there would have been more, too, were it not for several drops by Terrapins receivers.
Maryland wide receivers Quintin McCree (7 receptions, 117 yards) and Kerry Boykins (6 receptions, 101 yards) tormented the Virginia secondary. When the Cavaliers struggled to contain 6-foot-5 Miami wideout Tommy Streeter, London said it had a lot to do with Streeter’s size compared to that of Virginia’s defensive backs. Well, McCree is 6-foot-1 and Boykins is 6-foot-0, so there goes that theory.
Reid and Coach Mike London have pointed out several times this season that pass coverage is the responsibility not just of the secondary, but of the pass rush too.
Virginia did not tally a sack Saturday until less than one minute remained in the game. But it’s fair to note that sack totals are not always indicative of a team’s ability to pressure the pocket. There are quarterback hurries and quarterback hits and times when the quarterback was forced to operate on the run that should be accounted for.
Maryland converted on 3 of 14 third downs (21.4 percent) on Saturday, and London said Sunday that was due in part to the pressure brought on by Virginia’s pass rush.
Offenses typically prefer to be in the 40-42 percent range. Defenses typically prefer to hold opponents to less than 35 percent. On the season, Virginia has allowed opponents to covert on 32.9 percent of third downs, which ranks No. 2 in the ACC and No. 18 in the nation.
“When you look at the amount of pressures and hits on the quarterback, there were some pretty good numbers,” London said. “You don’t see a bunch of sacks, but in those situations right there, the quarterback was pressured. He was hurried. He was running. He was hit and throwing off his back foot. Interceptions occurred because of the pressure that was put on the quarterback.”
Virginia is tied for No. 9 in the ACC in sacks with 14, and the Cavaliers are on pace to tally slightly fewer sacks than they did last season (19.5). It should be noted that Virginia recorded five sacks against Duke last year, and the Blue Devils just so happened to be the Cavaliers’ next opponent. So, perhaps Virginia will surpass last season’s sack total after all.
London would like for his team’s sack total to be higher, but he’ll settle for his defenders at the very least frequently populating opposing backfields. Virginia is tied for No. 2 in the ACC in tackles for a loss per game (6.8).
Creating pressure on the opposing quarterback “can be a hidden statistic,” London said. “But at the same time, it’s positive for us for where we are now.”
The Cavaliers allowed Maryland to accumulate 269 passing yards Saturday. On the season, Virginia has allowed opponents to average 205.3 passing yards per game, which ranks No. 4 in the ACC and No. 39 nationally.
But that mark will be put to the test over the next two weeks. Duke ranks No. 3 in the conference in passing offense (269.8 ypg). After the Blue Devils, Virginia will play at Florida State, which ranks as the ACC’s No. 2 passing offense (292.3 ypg).
Here’s a rundown of how the Cavaliers fared against Maryland, based on some of the goals Reid has said they try to meet each game:
Rushing yards allowed
Goal – 105
Maryland – 84
Passing yards allowed
Goal – 225
Maryland – 269
Total yards allowed
Goal – 330
Maryland – 353
Goal – at least 3
Maryland – 4