With 10:57 left in the fourth quarter on Saturday, Virginia running back Wayne Taulapapa plunged into the end zone from three yards out for what proved to be the decisive score in the Cavaliers’ 33-28 victory. That touchdown was also significant for the visiting Jackets, though: it was the first touchdown that Tech’s defense had allowed in the second half since the North Carolina game on October 5, a span of four games.
Tech has gone 1-3 over those last four games (including the UVA game), as the first-half defense has been nothing special and the offense has been even less special. That said, the seemingly weekly second-half resurgence has been one of the bright spots for this team—and in a year all about laying the groundwork for future success, it’s a promising sign.
Against UVA, at least, a lot of the second-half improvement was simply better execution rather than significant schematic changes. Still, these little things added up over the course of the game.
The job of spying Virginia QB Bryce Perkins largely fell to linebacker David Curry. Perkins was able to break off a few long runs in the first half, but for the most part Curry was up to the challenge in the latter half. One example was early in the third quarter, when Curry stopped Perkins short on second and two:
The senior linebacker diagnosed the play well and made a clean play. He saw Perkins keep on a read option, slipped around a blocker, and brought down the QB short of the line to gain.
Curry made a similarly good play on a run to the perimeter early in the fourth quarter, marking Perkins all the way to the sideline while being careful not to take a bad angle:
Curry was blocked by someone he didn’t even see while spying on a play just before halftime, and it cleared the way for a 43-yard run. In the second half, he was more aggressive and disciplined, and it paid off for Tech.
Setting the Edge
The Jackets were burned a couple times early on by mistakes by the young defensive ends, where they slipped a little too far inside and left running lanes on the perimeter. An example was UVA’s first offensive play, where edge DE Sylvain Yondjouen tried to peek inside to contain a read option play and left nobody in his wake when Perkins slipped by:
Yondjouen’s rotation partner at edge DE, Jordan Domineck, had the same thing happen a couple times. It’s an easy mistake to make, particularly when defending the read option, and for both guys, the issues are forgivable. They’re both freshmen who are learning the position, and they did better to avoid getting trapped inside as the game went along.
Honestly, even when they did set the edge well, sometimes Perkins found a way to escape anyway. Such is life against one of the ACC’s more seasoned dual-threat quarterbacks.
Defensive Line Play
Kelton Dawson has been locked in as the second guy in the rotation at base DE (the end who lines up across from the edge DE and has a greater emphasis on run support) and has proven to be effective against the run. With Antwan Owens sitting out on Saturday, Dawson got the nod and stepped up. His best play was a tackle for loss on a read option in which he shot the C-gap between the tackle and tight end, spotted that Perkins had kept, and brought down the QB in the backfield:
It’s true that it’s an example of peeking inside, but in this case, Tre Swilling was alongside him and left someone on the edge in case Perkins tried to escape that way. The play was defended well across the formation, but Perkins might have had room to run had he reached the perimeter. Dawson made sure he never got there.
Another player who stepped up this week was walk-on defensive tackle Djimon Brooks, who has been pressed into duty with multiple injuries on the interior line and has been up to the task. Brooks wore the No. 90 jersey in honor of Brandon Adams on Saturday, and he channeled Adams’ run-stuffing ability in the second quarter after UVA reached a first-and-goal situation:
Brooks wasn’t formally credited with a tackle on the play, but he’s the reason it went for a loss. He drove UVA’s right tackle directly backward and directly into the path of Taulapapa, the running back, causing the back to trip and fall. UVA had needed just five yards in three plays to reach the end zone, but this play set them back and ultimately forced them to settle for a field goal.
He’s a little further back in the DT rotation when everyone is healthy, but Brooks has held his own when he’s been out there. On a team that has leaned on walk-ons at several positions, he’s been one of the standouts.
Free safety Juanyeh Thomas had an up-and-down game. He plays with a playmaker’s mentality, and that has paid off handsomely on several occasions for the Tech defense. One such example came on a fourth-down play in the second quarter, where he drilled the receiver right as the ball arrived to jar it loose for an incompletion and a turnover on downs:
On the flip side, Thomas was a bit too aggressive at times, which led to a couple long gains on RPO and read option plays. He also played a role in UVA’s longest pass of the day, which went for a 35-yard gain:
This one isn’t completely on Thomas, as Campbell is the one who’s on the outside slot receiver and lets him get wide open. However, it appears as if Campbell was expecting there to be safety help over the top... which there wasn’t, because Thomas attempted to jump the inside slot receiver’s short curl route. The instinct wasn’t necessarily misguided; the play happened on third and two, and Thomas no doubt expected Perkins to look for something near the marker. To Thomas’s credit, the replay seemed to show that the short curl route was indeed Perkins’ first read. But once the QB looked away, it was bad news for the Jackets.
Coverage busts happen, and this one isn’t indicative of some greater overarching issue. It’s just a young player trying to make a play and going a little too far out of his way to do so.
As for Campbell, the senior—yet another reserve who was pressed into duty because of injuries—had an utterly forgettable opening series. He’s had issues with zone discipline and got burned a couple times, including on this second-down conversion where he remained in his spot instead of stepping over to cover the slot receiver:
Still, where Campbell has always shined has been in tackling, and he delivered one of the best tackles of the day on Saturday, diagnosing a screen pass and bringing down the running back after the catch for a huge loss:
It often sounds cliche when coaches say at halftime that they just need to “clean things up,” but in some cases that’s true—and this was one of them. Tech’s defense did the little things better in the second half to prevent Perkins from doing major damage in the air or on the ground, and aside from a couple of chunk plays, they were successful. Of Perkins’ 106 rushing yards in the game, only 24 came in the second half.
There are areas for the defense to improve, but they would also benefit from better play in the other two phases of the game. After Tech’s defense held UVA to a field goal on a 10-play drive early in the fourth quarter, the offense promptly went three-and-out and held the ball for all of 61 seconds, putting a tired defense back out there immediately. The even bigger killer, though, was field position. Improvement in the special teams coverage units would carry over to the defense.