Southern Mississippi scored three touchdowns Saturday en route to a 30-24 win over Virginia. One of them was due to a Virginia defender not recognizing the Golden Eagles’ pass formation and, thus, not carrying out his responsibility on that play adequately. Another was the result of a missed tackle. Miscommunication between a safety and a cornerback on zone coverage led to the third.

Coach Mike London noted in his teleconference Sunday that three different Virginia players were responsible for the miscues that led to those Southern Miss scores and said he would rather that be the case than for one player to have been on the hook for all three.

But the fact remains that right now the Cavaliers defense has many deficiencies, all of which make them susceptible to giving up big plays – in the air or on the ground – at just about any time.

Southern Miss completed seven passes that gained 15 yards or more Saturday. A week prior, during a 28-17 loss at North Carolina, the Cavaliers allowed nine rushes of 10 yards or more. It would seem Virginia’s most exposed defensive weakness varies each week, depending on the offensive preferences of its opponent. But that hasn’t deterred London from seeing progress.

“This time last year I don’t think the defense was anywhere near where it is right now,” London said.

Through four games, the Cavaliers are allowing 23.5 fewer rushing yards per game and 1.5 fewer total yards per game than they had at this point in 2010*. They also have tallied six more tackles for a loss and one more takeaway than they did in their first four games last season.

Conversely, Virginia has given up 22 more passing yards per game and 5.2 more points per game than it did through the first four games last year. The defense has recorded roughly the same amount of sacks (8) thus far as it did in the opening four games of last season’s campaign (8.5).

* It should be noted that two of Virginia’s first four opponents in 2010 were FCS programs. The Cavaliers have faced only one FCS team this season.

So, in regards to its play against the run, one could argue that the Virginia defense has improved, though it gave up 222 rushing yards against the only conference opponent (North Carolina) is has faced thus far.

More forcefully, one could argue that the defense has made only marginal strides forward from where it was last year.

Let’s take a closer look at the defense’s performance Saturday. Here’s a rundown of how the Cavaliers fared against Southern Miss, based on some of the goals Defensive Coordinator Jim Reid has said they try to meet each game:

Rushing yards allowed

Goal – 105

Southern Miss – 61

Passing yards allowed

Goal – 225

Southern Miss – 313

Total yards allowed

Goal – 330

Southern Miss – 374

Three-and-outs forced

Goal – at least 3

Southern Miss – 3

So the Virginia defense met two of their goals and came close to doing so in regards to total yardage allowed. The Cavaliers also recorded a season-high 11 tackles for a loss and three sacks.

Virginia gave up just two rushes of 10 or more yards – a season low – and one of those was off a fake punt Southern Miss executed at the start of the second quarter.

“They really didn’t do anything that we didn’t expect to see,” Reid said Saturday.

After giving up 21 points in the first half, Virginia ceded nine points in the second. But when it came to making stops when they needed to, the Cavaliers faltered.

“Obviously, we have to cut down on the big play capabilities where a guy misses a tackle or there’s a missed coverage aspect of it that results in a long yardage (gain),” London said Sunday. “We’re trying to get better in what we do, but we’re better than what we were. We’ve got to continue to eliminate those critical errors in a tight game versus really good teams. …

“We need to get over the hump. I think we’re close to the edge, but we’ve got to get over the hump of those five or six plays that happen in a game of executing, no breakdowns, no mental errors. And then, if that happens, I think then we can have a breakthrough.”

On its first offensive series Saturday, Southern Miss advanced 71 yards in nine plays. The Golden Eagles lined up with three wide receivers to the right and completed a 32-yard touchdown pass.

“Our inside (coverage defender) has to run with a vertical route, and he doesn’t recognize the formation,” London said. “Boom. And then it happened, and it looks like we don’t know what we’re doing out there.”

Southern Miss’s second touchdown came on a 20-yard pass early in the second quarter. Linebacker Steve Greer, who was in coverage, couldn’t grab hold of the receiver. Linebacker LaRoy Reynolds over-pursued and ran right by the receiver. Cornerback Chase Minnifield could not catch up as the receiver sprinted to the right and ended up collapsing over the end zone pylon.

The Golden Eagles’ picked up their third touchdown later in the second quarter on third and goal from the three-yard line. At the line of scrimmage, cornerback Chase Minnifield was matched up against Southern Miss wideout Kelvin Bolden. But Golden Eagles wideout Tracy Lampley went in motion toward the same side, and at the snap, Minnifield picked up coverage of Lampley.

Free safety Corey Mosley was supposed to take responsibility for covering Bolden, but he didn’t. Bolden, left wide open in the back of the end zone, caught his second touchdown pass of the day. Three plays earlier, London said, a communication breakdown between a cornerback and a safety led to Lampley advancing to the Virginia 6-yard line on a 23-yard reception.

“My whole point is when you’re playing good teams and games are decided by five and six plays, in this game, when there’s one that leads, there’s two of them that lead to touchdowns, excuse me, three of them by different people that lead to touchdowns, then you’re concerned,” London said. “But if it’s the same guy making the same mistake over and over and over again, then that’s cause for great concern.

“But it was a breakdown, a linebacker missing a tackle, a safety and a corner communication. … I don’t think it’s one of those things that it’s a repeated type of thing with the volume of plays and the number of passes that are thrown their way.”

Southern Miss faced third and 23 from its own 41-yard line late in the fourth quarter. Virginia had cut its deficit to three. If the Cavaliers defense makes a stop here, the offense has more than two minutes to get into field goal range for the tie or to score a touchdown to take the lead outright.

The Golden Eagles faked a screen pass to the right and instead completed a screen pass to the left to Lampley. Three Virginia defenders missed an opportunity make the tackle. Lampley gained 41 yards for the first down. Southern Miss eventually kicked a field goal to push its lead to six.

“Obviously that was a tough one because we stop him right there, we’ve got a great chance to do some things,” London said Saturday.

It’s easy to pick out one or two plays from any game and scrutinize the mistakes made by the defense. But there seem to be ample plays from which to choose on a weekly basis when it comes to the Virginia defense. That often was the case last season too. When it comes to giving up big plays, not much seems to have changed at this point.