Virginia defense has been physical in practices leading up to battle with Terps

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Photo: UVA Athletics

Tony Elliott wasn’t happy with the way Virginia tackled during the final two drives that allowed JMU to come back from an 11-point, fourth-quarter deficit last week in a 36-35 Cavaliers defeat.

JMU marched 80 yards on back-to-back drives to secure the win, as UVA’s defense put up little resistance. Elliott’s coaches wanted to send a clear message to the players this week as the Wahoos prepare to battle a physical Maryland football team on the road. Practices have been physical this week, no backing off.

“We’re going to be physical, we’re going to practice physical, we’re going to practice fast, and that’s going to be the mentality that we’re going to have that allows you to transition,” said UVA defensive coordinator John Rudzinski after Wednesday’s practice. “There’s not going to be any pulling off. It is full gas pedal … it is seeing how we can play physical and fast, and that’s how we’re going to practice.”

Rudzinski knows his defense will be tested by a Maryland running game behind a big, physical offensive line built to compete against Big 10 football. The Terps have several running backs that Coach Rud said “run downhill,” so Maryland will attempt to establish a ground game early and control the line of scrimmage (see related story on Terrapins here).

The Terps also have a talented quarterback in preseason All-Big 10 Taulia Tagovailoa, the younger brother of former Alabama and current Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, who can throw the football and is also a threat as a runner.

“It all starts with the run game,” Rudzinski said. “When people can make it second-and-short, get you into tough third-down situations, that makes it very difficult as a defense. Maryland has multiple backs that can run downhill.”

With their backs against the wall and as a two-touchdown underdog going into College Park, there’s a sense of urgency amongst the UVA defensive ranks.

Having eight starters returning from a defense that ranked fourth in the ACC in scoring defense a year ago, it was supposed to be the strength of this season’s team, at least in the early going. However, the Wahoos have surrendered 49 and 36 points in the first two games, and looked flat in its final two stands against JMU in last week’s contest.

Still, Rudzinski believes his squad is prepared to do battle with the favored Terps.

“I think as far as prep, we’ve had our best week of preparation,” Coach Rud said. “I think that the focus, just the ability to string a few practices together and the learning mindset that this group has, has been super positive.”

Rudzinski will be matching wits against a powerful collection of Maryland offensive minds.

Not only was head coach Mike Locksley a former offensive coordinator for Nick Saban at Alabama, but has also hired Josh Gattis — the former offensive coordinator at Miami and Michigan — as the Terps’ OC, but also brought on board Kevin Sumlin, the former head coach at Texas A&M and Houston. Sumlin was known as one of the most creative offensive minds in college football during that span.

Virginia’s defensive coaches have been studying the Terps’ offense from a year ago, matching it to what Maryland has shown in two games this season, while also researching both Sumlin’s and Gattis’ offensive philosophies in order to get a handle on what they can expect Friday night.

“There’s some carryover from what we saw last year, so you’re kind of looking at both pieces,” Rudzinski said. “Each offense evolves a little bit in their offseason, and then also to match your personnel that you have currently. They’ve done a nice job, they’ve been efficient. It’ll start with us playing a good run defense to get them into some manageable third-down situations.”