Defensive Key To Beating Hokies: Stop The Run, Says Poppinga

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Cavalier defenders Richard Burney (16), Zane Zandier (33) and Jordan Mack (4) exit the field after a third-down stop (Photo by John Markon).

Kelly Poppinga knows exactly what the key for Virginia’s defense will be when the Cavaliers attempt to end a lopsided losing streak to state rival Virginia Tech in their noon showdown in Charlottesville on Friday.

Stop the run.

“Really, that’s what it will come down to — whether we’re able to establish ourselves at the line of scrimmage, and being able to stop and control the run,” Poppinga said after Wednesday’s practice.

The Hokies are ranked No. 53 in the nation in rushing offense with 1,898 yards, an average of 172.5 yards per game, and 3.9 yards per carry. They’ve put up 19 rushing touchdowns this season.

UVA is ranked No. 25 in rushing defense, limiting opponents to 118.8 yards on the ground per game.

“[Tech] does a really good job of establishing its run game, a really good job with some zone schemes,” said Poppinga, the Cavaliers’ co-defensive coordinator with Nick Howell. “What’s different from them a year ago, is they’ve done a really good job of identifying their gap schemes with pullers (pulling guards and tackles), not only with the running back, but with getting the quarterback involved in those schemes as well.”

The running back is Deshawn McClease, and the quarterback is Hendon Hooker, who started the season backing up Ryan Willis, the Kansas transfer who was a classic pocket passer. Tech made the switch after it was pummeled at home by Duke midway through the season and Hooker has been 6-0 since as a starter.

With Hooker and UVA quarterback Bryce Perkins both being dual-threat quarterbacks, it will put pressure on both defenses to slow these QBs down.

“There are some similarities,” Poppinga said. “They’re both good runners. Both have similar types of pocket presence, meaning if they don’t like what they see, they’re going to take off and run. I think [Hooker’s] bigger than Bryce at 6-4, 240 (Perkins is listed at 6-3, 215). I think [Hooker] is more of a physical runner than Bryce, where I think Bryce tries to avoid contact and runs out of bounds. This guy (Hooker) seeks contact at times.”

From those plays where Tech pulls a guard or tackle to lead McClease or Hooker, there’s only where the scheme begins. From there, the Hokies will go to their screen game and perimeter game, and will take some shots down the field.

That’s where Virginia’s secondary will come into play, a secondary that has been depleted by injuries. The Cavaliers lost Darrius Bratton in training camp, then All-America candidate Bryce Hall in the Miami game, followed by Brenton Nelson shutting himself down after a nagging shoulder injury became unbearable.

Free safety Joey Blount is the last man standing.

If those injuries weren’t enough of a problem, junior strong safety Chris Moore was suspended for last week’s UVA win over Liberty because of a violation of team rules. Poppinga said that Coach Bronco Mendenhall would address Moore’s status sometime this week.

Poppinga has seen some recent growth in his patchwork secondary, something the Hokies are bound to attempt to exploit with wide receivers Tre Turner and Tayvion Robinson, along with tight end Dalton Keene.

“At times I think they’ve felt a little sorry for themselves, not having Bryce back there as a leader and Darrius a little earlier in the season,” Poppinga said of his secondary. “But I think the guys have responded well lately.

“I think Shawn [Heskin] Smith did some really good things in the Liberty game. We held that receiver (Antonio Gandy-Golden) to the least amount of receiving yardage he’s had all season long. I think [Smith] is gaining confidence. I think De’Vante Cross is gaining confidence, and I think [Blount] is playing better. I think we grew up a lot last week against Liberty.”

Liberty boasted senior quarterback Stephen Calvert, the No. 9 passer in FBS, who owned the nation’s longest streak of consecutive passes without an interception (295). Cross picked off two of Calvert’s passes in that game.

Tech’s Hooker has now thrown 110 consecutive passes without a pick.

Don’t look for Virginia to blitz Hooker much. The Cavaliers haven’t blitzed much in the past four games, partly because of the inexperience in the secondary, and partly because it goes against their philosophy to blitz a heavy RPO-based scheme.

The Hokies are 2.5-point favorites to continue their dominance in the series, having won the last 15 in a row against the Cavaliers.

Perkins is 11-1 at home as Virginia’s starter.

While Poppinga and the rest of the staff weren’t familiar with the UVA-Tech rivalry, having come from BYU, they are now.

“When you first get here you don’t really understand how big it is because you haven’t been around it ever,” Poppinga said. “The more you’re around it, it means a lot to the community, the fan base, and to us. It’s been fun to see it all develop over the last four years for me specifically.

“There’s a lot of similarities between the BYU and Utah rivalry (tabbed the Holy War), which obviously we’re really familiar with. Rivalry week is fun.”

Not so much when you’re on the wrong end of a 15-year losing streak, the current longest such streak between rivals in FBS football.

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