The knee-jerk reaction after Saturday’s game was that the defense was a smoldering mess. There were issues, and those need to be addressed. But it wasn’t a complete disaster. A freshman linebacker forced two turnovers in the best game of his young career, a couple reserve defensive backs held down the fort in extended duty, and the defense made several stops to prevent Virginia from ever taking control of the game.
But ultimately they slipped up one too many times. And like several other games this year, they folded at the very end of the game, allowing Virginia to quickly and efficiently erase Tech’s late lead. Pinning this loss primarily on the defense would be unfair and inaccurate, but the fact remains that they have work to do if Tech wants to salvage its hopes of making a bowl game this winter.
Week 10 vs. Virginia: Defense By the Numbers
|Points per Possession||1.6|
|Points Off Turnovers Allowed||7|
|Total Yards Allowed||357|
|Rush Yards Allowed||97|
|Opp. Yards per Carry||3.9|
|Pass Yards Allowed||260|
|Opp. Yards per Attempt||6.0|
|Opp. Yards per Play||5.3|
|Third Down Conversions||6/17|
|Fourth Down Conversions||0/0|
Recall (however painfully) that Tech conceded nine points on a safety and a kickoff return for a touchdown, so the defense was only responsible for 31 points. That still isn’t a promising number, but if it seems odd that the defense somehow gave up that many points on just over 350 total yards, it is—and it’s because they were constantly dealing with awful field position. On four of Virginia’s six scoring drives on Saturday, the Cavaliers started inside Tech territory—once due to a TaQuon Marshall interception and thrice due to poor special teams play. On the day, Virginia had only two drives that were longer than 38 yards. They shot themselves in the foot on multiple occasions with dropped passes, but even so, the defense was mostly able to get stops.
The overall havoc rate was strong, thanks largely to four tackles for loss and six pass breakups. Most of the peripherals reflected well on the defense; the yards per rush, pass, and play were all reasonably low, and Tech mostly held UVA in check on third downs and forced six three-and-outs. There were issues, but they didn’t show up on the stat sheet.
Drops were a serious issue for UVA, and quarterback Kurt Benkert—who was 21-for-43 passing overall—had at least 10 on-target throws that his receivers dropped or otherwise should have caught. From those alone, the Cavaliers left at least 70 passing yards on the field (going by where the receiver was on each play when the ball reached him, and not counting any potential yards after the catch). One of them was a third-down drop in the end zone that forced UVA to instead kick a field goal, so they directly left points on the field as well.
The biggest positive for the defensive line was that they played a huge role in holding UVA's run game in check. The team as a whole averaged just 3.9 yards per carry, and taking out receiver (and general nuisance) Joe Reed's 29-yard burst, that average drops below three yards per carry. They didn’t get a lot of penetration, but the line did a good job of closing down running lanes and freeing the linebackers to make plays. To that end, none of the linemen appeared on the stat sheet much—defensive end Anree Saint-Amour had four tackles, and nobody else on the line had more than two, but the linebackers were all over it.
The problem is that there just weren't many impact plays from the front four. Antonio Simmons did break through to block a punt, but... technically that was on special teams. In the pass rush, they got occasional pressure on Virginia quarterback Kurt Benkert, but more often than not, Benkert was able to simply step up in the pocket and avoid the edge rushers. Ultimately, they never sacked him and never registered a QB hurry. In the run game, the line had a handful of stops for no gain, but the only play that went for a loss was when defensive tackle Desmond Branch went unblocked and snuffed out a jet sweep for a four-yard loss.
It was an odd game for the line in that up until now, they’ve done a good job of getting pressure and have struggled to get a good push to stop the run. It still wasn’t a great performance overall, and they still have work to do on both fronts.
Status: Some leaks plugged, but others springing up
Bruce Jordan-Swilling made his first career start on Saturday and delivered one of the best games by a Tech linebacker in recent memory. He finished with 11 tackles (including one in the backfield) and forced a pair of turnovers: he forced a fumble that he recovered a few seconds later, and on Virginia’s first offensive snap of the third quarter, he read a pass play perfectly and jumped a short curl route for a pick six:
The true freshman's development over the past month has been astonishing. Jordan-Swilling's talent was never in question, but he was fairly raw as a linebacker prospect, and he looked that way in his first serious game action at Miami. But he looked much more comfortable against Wake Forest a week later, and on Saturday he looked like a seasoned veteran, attacking gaps on run plays and reacting quickly in pass coverage.
Jordan-Swilling was not the only linebacker to play well. Victor Alexander, who started alongside him, matched his team-leading total of 11 tackles as he continued to be a reliable presence at the position. Alexander too has shown considerable growth over the course of this season, his first as a starter; when Brant Mitchell is back to full strength, the Jackets should have three players whom they can comfortably deploy at linebacker, which is a major step from where this team was even two or three weeks ago.
Alexander and Jordan-Swilling played nearly the entire game, but Tyler Cooksey saw his first serious action when he spelled Jordan-Swilling for a couple series late in the game. While the redshirt sophomore didn’t make any plays of note in that span, he also didn’t make any serious mistakes, and he now finds himself formally listed on the second string on the depth chart.
Status: Stable and slightly raised
It was a rough day for the Austin twins. Lawrence's stat line looked solid: the nickel back finished with eight tackles, including a tackle for loss on Virginia's first offensive snap, and a pass breakup. However, he spent much of the game covering dynamic UVA receiver Olamide Zaccheaus, and... well, Zaccheaus ended the game with nine receptions for 98 yards. The Cavaliers moved him all over the formation, so it wasn’t just Lawrence covering him, but the Tech senior had a tough time keeping pace when he got that assignment.
Lance, the starting field corner, was burned badly on two second-half touchdown passes, including the game-winning score with just under two minutes left. On both plays, he was left in single coverage against a larger receiver—a rare situation in a game that saw Tech mainly deploy very conservative coverages, with one or both safeties consistently able to provide support over the top. On the final touchdown, the 5-foot-10 Lance was forced to cover the 6-foot-3 Andre Levrone on his own, which was... not exactly ideal and led to disaster. The senior had shown marked improvement in man coverage up to this point, but this just wasn't his day.
Strong safety Corey Griffin also had a rough day, particularly in run support, where he struggled with his pursuit angles. On a brighter note, two reserves saw significant action and ended up playing reasonably well. Lamont Simmons replaced Step Durham at boundary corner for almost the entire game and did a good job of sticking with UVA's outside receivers, limiting them to short gains when the ball was thrown in his direction. With free safety A.J. Gray out, Christian Campbell got his first career start (and his first serious action at safety) and held up well enough, finishing with five tackles and a third-down pass breakup. He did get beaten for a long touchdown on UVA's first score of the second half, though, and the Jackets definitely missed Gray’s presence in the secondary.
There simply weren’t a ton of positives here. The secondary deserves credit for their role in forcing those six three-and-outs, but the elephant in the room is that UVA had those 10 passes that were dropped or were otherwise catchable, some of which would have resulted in third-down conversions. Several of those wide-open drops—well, the fact that the receivers were open, anyway—stemmed from the fact that the secondary sat back in very conservative coverages for most of the game. Speaking of that...
Status: Leaks springing up in multiple places
After constantly deploying his defensive backs aggressively against Wake Forest and Clemson, calling upon the corners to play up at the line while the safeties lined up in the box, Ted Roof reverted to his traditional conservative philosophy in Charlottesville. For most of the defensive snaps, one corner at most was up close to either press a UVA receiver or mark him right off the line of scrimmage. The rest were playing back, and on nearly every snap, one safety was playing deep.
On one hand, it made some sense as a reaction to the absence of star free safety A.J. Gray and the nature of Virginia’s spread attack, which would often spread the field with four or five receivers split out wide. On the other hand, it largely gave Virginia a free pass to complete short passes at will as Tech made it a priority to limit yards after the catch. This strategy worked well at times—Tech’s linebackers and secondary were often able to sweep to the receiver after a catch and prevent him from getting any more yards. But it also resulted in situations like this (note the down and distance):
The only thing that might have stopped Virginia from getting a first down on a short pass to Zaccheaus (#4) was a dropped pass. He didn’t drop this one. As previously mentioned, the Cavaliers left at least 70 passing yards on the field thanks to drops on perfectly thrown Benkert passes, and most of those were passes to receivers that were wide open thanks to Roof’s soft coverages. So while Benkert’s final passing numbers were nothing special, they probably should have been far better.
As for blitz packages, Roof threw heat at Benkert reasonably often, but the actual blitzes were pretty vanilla for the most part. When there was a fifth rusher, it was almost always a linebacker off tackle, which usually had little effect. He didn’t send linebackers up the middle much, but he did throw in a couple defensive back blitzes; the boundary corner blitz, which has been successful on a couple occasions, backfired badly this time around and resulted in a UVA touchdown. Roof also called a few stunts for the defensive linemen in the pass rush, continuing a wrinkle that he’s added in recent weeks; the only oddity here was seeing Brandon Adams rush on a stunt instead of sending someone else around him instead.
It’s hard to pin this loss on Roof, as the conservative calls largely worked... but then there was that final drive. With the game on the line, Roof stuck to a four-man rush for the first four plays of the drive, which went for a combined 38 yards and two first downs for UVA. The final touchdown can’t fairly be blamed on the playcall since it was a blitz call (aside from the fact that it was yet another linebacker off-tackle blitz), but Roof did leave Lance Austin with no safety help to cover a guy who had five inches and 50 pounds on him.
Status: Leaking conservatively
There were problems up front and in the backfield for the defense. They weren’t able to force Benkert into many bad throws, they benefited from several mistakes by the Virginia receivers, and they got beaten for huge gains on the three offensive touchdowns. But there were positives too, and of the three phases of the game, defense was the least of Tech’s worries on Saturday. On four separate occasions, they were forced to start on their own end—thanks to mistakes on offense or special teams—and asked to prevent Virginia from reaching the end zone. On three of those occasions, they held the line and forced a field goal attempt instead.
It was a rough day for the team as a whole, but the defense at least walked away with some positives. They have serious work to do this week, but they have things to build on heading into next week’s Techmo Bowl.