On Thursday, Virginia Coach Mike London said his team’s defense is playing “much better” than it did last year, but it still can play better. When the Cavaliers host Southern Mississippi on Saturday, one of the areas in which London will look for the defense to improve is the pass rush.
The Golden Eagles operate a spread offense, and that makes getting to the quarterback more difficult because the passes often come quickly after the snap. Still, Southern Miss has given up seven sacks this season, so it’s not an impossible task by any means.
Success in that area, though, will depend on better execution from Virginia’s pass rushers. Last week at North Carolina, the Cavaliers got into the backfield and chase the quarterback around, but came away with just one sack late in the fourth quarter.
Especially in the first half, Virginia players would cave the pocket only to see North Carolina quarterback Bryn Renner escape up the middle for a decent gain. At halftime, Renner had tallied a team-high 23 yards on three carries.
“We talk about rush lanes and rush landmarks,” London said. “The rush landmark is always the quarterback. The rush lanes are allowed to move sometimes. Blockers will come down and block you and kind of seal you, and so we’ve just got to do a better job of making a combination move back or a spin move or an across the face move to get back to the rush landmark.
“Even though the lane might have moved, there are techniques that we use to get back to the landmark. . . . That’s just a matter of awareness.”
On Saturday, the Cavaliers will be in pursuit of Southern Miss quarterback Austin Davis. So far this season, Davis has carried the ball 25 times and gained 89 yards. He also has lost 54 yards.
While the Golden Eagles often line up in three- and four-wide receiver sets, they split run plays and pass plays nearly 50-50. Southern Miss has had 119 rush attempts and 110 pass attempts through three games. The Golden Eagles average 413.7 total yards per game.
London said Virginia will look to vary its defensive looks in an attempt to confuse Davis, bringing pressure from three to six players on most downs. Virginia has tallied five sacks in three games, and its coaches know they need more production than that in order to take some of the pressure off of the team’s defensive backs in coverage.
Showing defensive improvement this week and next (against Idaho) would bode well for the Cavaliers as they prepare to head back into ACC play Oct. 15 against Georgia Tech.
“We’ve learned how to play the techniques,” London said. “Now we’re looking for those guys, like a [senior cornerback] Chase Minnifield, to have a breakout game. He’s going to have one. [Senior defensive end] Cam Johnson, he’s going to have breakout games. And so we’re just looking for everybody to put it together and just start really jelling as a defense overall.”
Speaking of Johnson – the team’s best pass rusher – he did not play for much of the second half against North Carolina after suffering a shoulder injury. When asked Thursday to what extent Johnson would be available against Southern Miss, London said: “Cam will be ready to play on Saturday.”