Virginia’s defense is playing winning football; Miami brings new challenge

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Photo: UVA Athletics

Virginia opens a four-game homestand this Saturday against Miami (12:30, Regional Sports Networks), a golden opportunity for the Cavaliers to even their record at 4-4 and build momentum.

John Rudzinski’s defense rode to the rescue in Atlanta last week when UVA’s offense couldn’t produce points and the special teams were a disaster. In the 16-9 win over Georgia Tech, Rudzinski’s defense gave up only three points (Tech’s TD came off a pick-six).

If the offense continues to flop, it may be up to the defense to close the deal against a struggling Miami team (3-4, 1-2) that has dropped four of its last five games. UVA’s defense surrendered only 202 yards of total offense against Georgia Tech (minus starting QB Jeff Sims), the fewest yards by a Cavaliers’ ACC/FBS opponent since 2013.

“Really proud of what they’re doing,” UVA coach Tony Elliott said this week about the defense. “It starts with Coach Rud. He runs a tight ship. He’s a military guy. He’s got everything very organized, very efficient. The staff has really gelled and I think it’s a reflection of how those guys are playing.”

The defense is led by All-ACC linebacker Nick Jackson, who Elliott calls as good a leader as he’s ever been around. Jackson & Company have Rudzinski’s defense ranked high in the FBS in several categories after last week’s win.

Virginia is tied for 11th nationally (out of 131 FBS teams) in quarterback sacks with 23 (third in the ACC), after an 8-sack performance against the Yellow Jackets. The Cavaliers are tied for 12th nationally in fumbles recovered with eight, and ranked 29th in the country in turnovers gained with 13.

Consider that Miami ranks No. 123 in the nation in fumbles lost (9), No. 96 in sacks allowed (18) and No. 84 in passes intercepted (7 in 286 attempts) and Coach Rud’s eyes must light up when he reads the numbers. Also consider that Miami may be without its starting quarterback (see related story), and that its backup committed five turnovers in last week’s loss at Duke.

“Our [defensive] guys are playing with tremendous effort,” Elliott said. “I think it starts up front with just the influx of guys up front has raised the competition level, which has elevated the performance level.

“On the back end, you’re starting to see us get some guys back. You’ve got Coen King back, and Jonas [Sanker] is more comfortable, and I’d like to see Lex [Long] get back and playing like he was. You see those guys playing with confidence and it starts with trust in what they’re doing from a scheme standpoint. They started the year with a new staff and the transition looking for something to believe in.”

Coach Rud inherited one of the worst defenses in the nation and has done an impressive job in making it more than respectable.

Last season, Virginia’s porous defense gave up 35 plays of 30-or-more yards, No. 115 in the country. So far in seven games this season Rud’s guys have given up only six plays of 30-plus yards, which is tied for the second-fewest in the nation.

UVA linebackers Nick Jackson (6) and James Jackson (7). (Photo: UVA Athletics)

It’s mostly the same guys, minus safety Joey Blount, who made the Seattle Seahawks’ roster. The main additions are Chico Bennett Jr., a transfer from Georgia Tech (he missed all of last season with injuries) and Kam Butler.

Bennett, who plays the “Bandit” position, a hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker spot, leads the ACC in sacks with six (five solo, two assists). Two other Cavaliers, Nick Jackson and Aaron Faumui, are also in the top 20 in sacks. Butler, a grad transfer (Miami-Ohio), plays defensive end and has applied pressure on QBs. He also ranks 12th in the ACC in forced fumbles with two.

“You can see that they wholeheartedly believe in what we’re doing on that side of the ball,” Elliott said. “They understand that we’ve got to play complementary football and truthfully, they’ve been compensating a lot. Creating turnovers, sacking the quarterback, giving the offense an opportunity to try and stay in the game and figure it out.”

Elliott believes the competitive depth up front has made a difference, and that some of the younger players such as Michael Diatta (sophomore tackle) and Olasunkonmi Agunloye (junior nose tackle) can start to contribute. He hopes to get Bryce Carter going in the near future.

Miami is a 2.5-point favorite in the game. Virginia is 23-6 at home since 2018 (one of those losses was to No. 7 Notre Dame, and two of them were to ranked Pitt teams).