What did Virginia’s defense learn in back-to-back postseason Top 10 matchups?

By Jerry Ratcliffe

UVA co-defensive coordinator Kelly Poppinga chats with media members earlier this week.

Should the 2020 college football season go on without a hitch, Virginia will face at least two of the top programs in the country during the regular season, leading off with Georgia in the opener and Clemson later on during the campaign.

With at least 13 players returning with starting experience to a Cavalier defense that finished No. 48 nationally in total defense, that bodes well for UVA co-defensive coordinators Nick Howell and Kelly Poppinga.

The Wahoos were tested by several high-octane offenses in 2019 during the regular season, but what did UVA’s defense gain by playing back-to-back Top 10 opponents in the postseason? Virginia was hammered by No. 2 Clemson in the ACC Championship game (62-17), but bounced back strong against No. 6 Florida in the Orange Bowl, losing 36-28.

“You’re always going to improve when you’re going against the best, in my opinion,” said Poppinga in a videoconference with media this week.

Clemson finished fourth nationally in total offense with 529.9 yards per game, and fourth in scoring offense at 43.9. Florida was No. 45 nationally in total offense (430.5) and No. 28 in scoring offense (33.2). The Tigers finished the season with a 14-1 record, losing only to national champion LSU in the championship game. The Gators finished 11-2.

“Those last two games of the season, getting exposure to Clemson and then against Florida, I think you saw how I think we made a big jump, in my opinion, from the Clemson game to the Florida game, even though obviously we did not play to the level in the last seven games of the season as a defense,” Poppinga said. “We did not play to the level of our expectations and where we hold our standard.”

The co-coordinator said he thought the Cavalier defense gained confidence from the Clemson game to the Florida game.

“We played better … it took us about a quarter to get going in the Florida game,” Poppinga said. “The next three quarters, we played pretty good defense, and if we could have done that from the beginning, I think the outcome is completely different.”

Many Virginia fans thought that way, too, and that Florida coach Dan Mullen was sweating things in the fourth quarter when the Cavaliers stormed back. Virginia trailed, 27-14, heading into the fourth quarter.

“We gained confidence coming out of that game and I think [our defense] did see that they can play against anybody,” Poppinga said.

While the ACC Championship matchup against Clemson was a blowout of predicted proportions, Poppinga doesn’t put all the blame on the players.

“Honestly, a lot of the Clemson game was our fault,” Poppinga said, pointing a finger at the coaching staff. “It was the coaches’ fault. We panicked, and we did some things that put [players] in some bad positions. That’s on us.

“Now, going into this Georgia game, I think we have a really good idea of what we need to do as a coaching staff to prepare them and to help them get ready for a team like Georgia.”

Poppinga said the defensive staff doesn’t know exactly what the Bulldogs will do offensively because Georgia has a new offensive coordinator, a new offensive line coach and a new quarterback. However, UVA’s coaches have a good idea of what the Dogs will do.

“For the most part, we’ve just got to keep things simple, and [that] helps our guys play fast and do what they know exactly how to do.”

The Cavaliers are scheduled to open the season on Sept. 7 against Georgia in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. The game will be played in primetime in a Monday-night matchup on football’s opening weekend.


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