All eyes on Virginia’s defense as it tries to regain its swag in Miami

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Virginia’s Matt Gahm finishes a tackle against Wake Forest (Photo: UVA Athletics).

Hard Rock Stadium is a cool place to play football. Surrounded by palm trees and Southern breezes and serving as the home of the NFL’s Miami Dolphins and college football’s Miami Hurricanes, it would be difficult to find many better places to play.

In fact, the stadium is Virginia senior outside linebacker Charles Snowden’s favorite venue.

Only problem is, Snowden is 0 for 3 at Hard Rock, something he would like to change Saturday night when the Cavaliers take on the nationally ranked Hurricanes. UVA is a 13-point underdog.

“Yeah, in my career, I’m 0-3 down in Miami,” Snowden said this week, “so going 0-4 is not a great way to go out. I’m excited about the opportunity, and playing a great team in a great stadium, I think the guys are ready.”

Not only are the Cavaliers 0 for 3 at Hard Rock (two losses to Miami and one to Florida in the Orange Bowl), they are 0 for 3 in their last three outings this season after being favored in their last two games.

While the Wahoos are not happy with the losing streak, they’re not throwing in the towel either.

“I wouldn’t say it’s like damp or sad or somber, or woe-is-me,” Snowden said about the team’s mood. “Guys are just accepting the facts, taking responsibility, acknowledging that we haven’t played to the standard at which we normally would like to play. It’s all within our control. It’s, alright, get your hardhat, let’s get ready to work and get back to playing Virginia football.”

The defense’s performance over the past two weeks has been disappointing and somewhat puzzling. It was supposed to be the overwhelming strength of the team. With eight starters back to that side of the ball, 17 players with at least one career start returning, it was reasonable to assume that Virginia would be difficult to score on.

But, au contraire. 

During the three-game losing streak, the Wahoos’ defense has surrendered 40, 38 and 41 points (119).

Some of that is understandable. One of the losses was to No. 1 Clemson — a loss, but a performance that left UVA fans encouraged about the remainder of the schedule.

Some of the problem in losses to NC State and Wake Forest was that UVA lost starting quarterback Brennan Armstrong, and his patchwork of replacements haven’t been good enough to put enough points on the board to keep pace with the opposition.

Against State, the Wolfpack used maximum protection (keeping extra blockers in to negate Virginia’s pass rush), and the Cavaliers couldn’t get to quarterback Devin Leary. In the Wake game, the Deacs’ RPO (run/pass option) offense kept the defense off balance and their quarterback didn’t hold the ball long on pass plays, so it was difficult to record quarterback sacks.

All of that was bad news for the Wahoos.

Virginia’s defense, nicknamed “havoc” for its ability to throw opposing offenses into chaos, depends heavily on pressuring quarterbacks into mistakes, sacks, poorly thrown balls or interceptions. Kill the UVA pass rush and you’ve beaten havoc.

Considering most of the defense that recorded a school-record 46 sacks last season, that’s not a good thing when the Cavaliers can’t harrass the opposing QB. During Bronco Mendenhall’s years at BYU and UVA, when his defense records at least one more sack than the opposition, his teams win more than 90 percent of the time.

How can co-defensive coordinators Nick Howell and Kelly Poppinga scheme to get to the QB? Unless Miami chooses to max protect, UVA’s chances of getting to Hurricanes quarterback D’Eriq King are probably better than the past two weeks.

Snowden and fellow outside linebacker Noah Taylor may be the keys to kickstarting the pass rush.

Last week at Wake, UVA placed Snowden more to the strong side and Taylor was working more from the outside linebacker spot as opposed to a safety role. They were a little more effective, but still didn’t create enough havoc to win.

Snowden desperately needs to set an example for the rest of his defensive mates, who thrive off his leadership.

“I think that setting the tone is a big role for me, and also trying to replicate that energy, that swag, that chip on our shoulder that we usually play with,” Snowden said. “Ever since I’ve been here, I’ve been a big energy guy and so I’m bringing that and also passing that torch on to some of the younger guys as well.”

However, it’s going to require more production rather than energy to solve Virginia’s defensive woes.

The Cavaliers have been solid against the run. It’s the big plays (Wake had six of them) that have been killing UVA, something that must stop if Virginia is to snap out of its losing ways.

“I really like our run front, the front seven,” said Mendenhall, pointing out that UVA’s defense is giving up 3.6 yards per play, currently.

The only exception against Wake was a 75-yard run that essentially killed UVA’s comeback in the second half.

“You can’t take that away, but man, if you did or if we could, that’s 40 something [rush] attempts and about 100 yards total,” Mendenhall said. “So our run defense has been stellar at this point. Our inconsistency right now is in our secondary, and that’s our topic of focus.”

The status of three senior Cavalier defensive backs, all injured during the Wake game, was unknown as UVA headed to Miami. Joey Blount, Brenton Nelson and De’Vante Cross were all nicked up against the Deacs, leaving Antonio Clary, Fentrell Cypress, Coen King and others to pick up the slack.

Both Mendenhall and Howell liked what they saw in the replacements, but none of the backups had the experience of the three starters.

Getting back to Snowden, for the first three games he was playing more of a weakside linebacker role. Against Wake, he and Taylor split strongside/fieldside about 50-50. Snowden said it felt good being back out in space again, having the liberty to move more and make more plays with instinct.

Howell may have to simplify Virginia’s defensive approach against a very athletic Miami offense that features King, a quarterback with a quick release and a keen sense of distributing the ball to his playmakers and letting them do their thing.

The question is, can Virginia’s defense regain that swag against the former kings of swag?

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