Virginia defensive coordinator Jim Reid walked into the weight room that doubles as the visiting team’s postgame interview area at Bobby Dodd Stadium on Saturday evening, and didn’t mince words about what will go down as the worst defensive performance the Cavaliers have ever had under Coach Mike London.
“We played terribly,” Reid after Georgia Tech was done piling up 594 yards of total offense in a 56-20 blowout.
As he racked his brains for answers, Reid played down his unit’s youth and didn’t focus on the fact that the Cavaliers didn’t have an extra week to prepare for Coach Paul Johnson’s unorthodox offense, like last year when Virginia escaped with a 24-21 victory.
Instead, he tried to take all the blame.
“We tried to do some similar things as last year and those didn’t work,” Reid said. “We made adjustments last year and they made adjustments this year. We adjusted during the game when we stopped the bleeding for a while, but against an offense like that, you can’t hang your hat on one scheme.”
There was little doubt Virginia’s defense looked unprepared and overmatched from the first snap Saturday (read my game story for more on this). And despite a host of other miscues throughout the day, the 594 yards it allowed overshadowed everything else that took place on the field. A week after an encouraging performance against Penn State, the Cavaliers’ defense is once again a big concern
Because of a litany of missed tackles, Virginia made running back Orwin Smith look like a superstar, as he piled up 137 yards on just eight attempts. That’s 22.8 yards per carry. In fact, Georgia Tech finished the game with seven players that averaged seven or more yards per carry, part of an afternoon that saw the Yellow Jackets pile up 469 yards on the ground.
Even worse: Georgia Tech averaged 52.5 yards on its first four plays of the game and took a 14-0 lead less than five minutes into the first quarter
“Georgia Tech’s offense, you definitely want to stop early. Let them know you know how to defend them and don’t give them no head of steam and don’t let them get any momentum because they’ll start hitting you with everything from every angle,” cornerback Demetrious Nicholson said. “The more they start scoring and having big plays, the more the defense has to respect what they’re doing and kind of play a little cautious instead of just going after it.”
London was also quick to emphasize that these sorts of demoralizing losses often inspire finger pointing but that he would do no such thing.
Still, Virginia’s young safeties found themselves in the spotlight after the game. London said sophomores Anthony Harris (team-high eight tackles) and Brandon Phelps learned valuable lessons about shedding blockers and that he “saw a lot of people on the ground. You saw guys late filling the alley or running to the pitch.”
“They just seemed to keep going faster and stronger, and it looked like we kind of wore out,” he added. “We are a much better defense than that.”
But with pass-happy TCU on the schedule next, Virginia doesn’t have much time to ponder over this one. They were already trying to move on minutes after this defeat.
“We’re not gonna let this game define our defense or our team as a whole,” Nicholson said.
***It didn’t help that Virginia was unable to replicate its fast start from a year ago, even though offensive coordinator Bill Lazor indicated that had been a point of emphasis all week. Quarterback Michael Rocco was underwhelming aside from Virginia’s lone touchdown drive of the first half and admitted after the game he “forced a couple plays, which I wish I could have back.”
But Lazor seemed more concerned with Virginia’s inability to convert in short yardage after a 72-yard kickoff return by running back Khalek Shepherd when the game was still within reach in the second quarter.
On third and one and then fourth and one, the Cavaliers were stood up by Georgia Tech’s defense trying to run the ball through the middle of the line. Lazor noted that if Virginia is going to take pride in being a physical team, those are situations that need to be converted.
“It just takes one little mistake here or there, but I think we’re at the point where we’ve got to eliminate those mistakes,” said Lazor.
***On the injury front, neither wide receiver Tim Smith nor defensive end Bill Schautz played. Schautz was on the sideline in uniform, however. Senior Ausar Walcott started in his place.
Good Counsel graduate E.J. Scott saw an increase in playing time with Smith sidelined and took advantage late when he reeled in a 22-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Phillip Sims. That, though, was one of the few highlights on an afternoon the Cavaliers would like to soon forget.
“I don’t think anything was different” from last year, right tackle Morgan Moses said. “They just came out and played harder. That’s all. They were ready for us and outplayed us from play one.”