CHARLOTTESVILLE — Defensive end Eli Harold’s initial thought once Ball State began to carve through Virginia’s defense Saturday — “What are we doing?” — said more about his unit than any statistic could.
Was it the defensive line’s fault that the Cardinals marched 83 yards in just five plays on their first touchdown drive of the day? Perhaps the secondary was to blame, he wondered, after watching a sideline tirade by safeties coach Anthony Poindexter.
No matter the culprit, Harold noticed “those guys that were getting beat were just hanging their heads.” It was a situation he had yet to experience this year.
“When something happens that you don’t expect, it was a blow because they did it so quick,” Harold said Monday. “That really got us down, and we never got back up as a unit.”
While teammates and coaches have since insisted Harold’s characterization of Saturday’s 48-27 loss to Ball State is a bit dramatic, there was no escaping the questions Virginia’s defense faced ahead of its final ACC game against Maryland on Saturday at Byrd Stadium.
After showing flashes of dominance during the first month of the regular season, carrying an offense that had just three touchdown drives during its first three games against Football Bowl Subdivision teams, the Cavaliers’ defensive players were dealt a reality check against the Cardinals. And though Saturday’s game did not represent the most points Virginia has allowed this season, nobody around Charlottesville was ready to put Ball State’s offense at the same level as No. 2 Oregon, which put up 59 points on the Cavaliers last month at Scott Stadium.
Instead, Virginia has focused on the glaring mistakes that caused a regression few anticipated.
“This week in practice . . . everybody is under scrutiny, making sure that they are in the right gap, that the coverages are sound,” Virginia Coach Mike London said. “No one is inheriting a position.”
The Cavaliers entered Saturday’s game on the heels of their best performance to date. They sacked Pittsburgh quarterback Tom Savage seven times, allowed just eight rushing yards and created three turnovers in a 14-3 loss that almost entirely was due to Virginia’s inability to score on offense.
It was everything London dreamed of when defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta was hired in the offseason. The Cavaliers had morphed into the attacking, aggressive unit he had spoken about for months, and they ranked among the nation’s elite in tackles for a loss and pass defense efficiency.
“I thought the same was gonna happen against Ball State, and it didn’t,” said Harold, who lamented how the defense wasted Virginia’s best offensive showing against an FBS opponent this season. “It’s a humbling experience.”
Ball State quarterback Keith Wenning said after Saturday’s game that the Cardinals “were licking their chops” heading into the contest, and it appears they used Virginia’s aggressiveness to their advantage.
Eight of Virginia’s season-high 13 penalties Saturday were by the defense, and seven of those eight were either personal fouls or offsides penalties. Seven of those infractions extended Ball State drives, and by the second half, the Cardinals wore out the Cavaliers with a grinding rushing attack.
Virginia’s secondary, meanwhile, consistently lost one-on-one battles on the outside, a lingering issue because Tenuta’s blitz-heavy approach often means his defensive backs are left on an island. Tenuta declined to speak with reporters after Saturday’s game or this week.
“I think it just came down to missed tackles and missed assignments and them capitalizing on those,” said linebacker Daquan Romero, Virginia’s leading tackler this season. “If you look at it, we were playing good defense, but at times we had penalties and mental [errors], and they capitalized on it. Their first downs turned into touchdowns.”
Picking up the pieces will be no easy task with the Terrapins on deck. Last year, wide receiver Stefon Diggs paced Maryland to a 27-20 victory by taking the opening kickoff back for a touchdown and catching a 60-yard reception that led to another score.
But the focus in Charlottesville this week has been on fixing what’s wrong and recovering the swagger Tenuta’s defense had just one week ago.
“We’re still holding our heads high and still going in there like we’re a great defense, but at the end of the day we still have to get better and still have things to work on,” Romero said. “We’re just looking to capitalize on the mistakes that we made.”
Cavaliers note: Junior cornerback Demetrious Nicholson, who has started all 30 games in his college career, will miss the Maryland game with a lower-extremity injury, the school announced Thursday.
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