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Improving UVA defense cutting down on little mistakes that lead to big plays

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CHARLOTTESVILLE — Little mistakes led to big plays for Virginia football opponents. So, during practice, the coaching staff decided little mistakes would have big consequences.

Align wrong, miss an assignment or misread a key during a workout and UVA players found themselves pushing a sled or doing other extra physical work when the practice ended.

“We found out quick that those small mistakes do have a cost,” inside linebacker Hunter Stewart said Monday.

Virginia’s defense had allowed seven touchdowns of 37 yards or longer duringr its previous four games, including three big-play touchdowns in a 59-39 loss at North Carolina, before shutting out Duke on Saturday, winning 48-0 for the Cavaliers’ third straight victory and seventh in a row over the Blue Devils.

Duke averaged just 4 yards per play in totaling 325 yards. Its best chances to score came on its first drive, when its backup kicker missed a 25-yard field goal attempt, and on its final possession, when its backup quarterback fumbled a snap exchange at the goal line and Virginia (5-2, 3-2 ACC) recovered.

While Duke’s undeniable lack of offensive firepower surely was a factor, so too was a UVA defense that, for the first time in a month, wasn’t caught out of position, a dramatic improvement from the Carolina loss.

“Once the UNC game happened, we had more clarity as to what had to be improved,” said Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall on Monday as his team began preparations for Saturday night’s home game against Georgia Tech. “We started addressing it immediately. I saw progress and re-progress, I guess, if that’s even a word, starting again, and that’s continued for the last three weeks.”

Virginia gave up three long touchdowns pass — a 37-, 59- and 75-yarder — in its 59-39 loss at North Carolina on Sept. 18. The Tar Heels averaged 21.9 yards per completion and 10.3 yards per offensive snap that day.

A week later, UVA allowed a 39-yard first-quarter touchdown pass against Wake Forest. The Demon Deacons picked up 6.4 yards per play in their 37-17 win at Scott Stadium, a game Mendenhall believes began showing the unit’s progress.

“I know that they’re lumped together because they were losses, but I don’t lump those together,” he said of the 20-point defeats. “To me, the UNC game was separate and distinct. Wake [Forest] seems to be scoring about the same amount of points no matter who they play, and they have for years. I saw improvement in that game.”

Still, the following game, Virginia gave up a 57-yard touchdown run to Cam’Ron Harris in the third quarter of a 30-28 road win at Miami. It held the Hurricanes to 5.4 yards per play.

Louisville had a 92-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter and a 52-yard scoring run in the third on Oct. 9. The Cardinals got 8.1 yards per play in their 34-33 home loss to UVA.

Then came Saturday’s dominant performance, one the team hopes is a harbinger of how it will play the rest of the way.

“We just got back to playing our game,” said senior linebacker Nick Jackson, who had 11 tackles and sack against the Blue Devils. “We were able to go to Miami and grind one out and go to Louisville grind one out. Those were big confidence boosters coming back home.”

The next test is a Georgia Tech team that, led by dual-threat quarterback Jeff Sims, ranks fifth in the ACC in scoring, putting up 32.6 points per game.

Notes: Mendenhall said defensive end Adeeb Atariwa, who transferred to UVA from James Madison before the 2020 season, will miss the remainder of the season with an injury. … Mendenhall did not have an update on injured senior guard Chris Glaser, who left the Duke game in the second quarter. … Quarterback Brennan Armstrong, wide receiver Dontayvion Wicks, offensive lineman Bobby Haskins and defensive lineman Mandy Alonso were all honored as weekly award winners at their positions by the ACC. … Virginia’s game Oct. 30 at BYU will kickoff at 10:15 p.m. and air on ESPN2.

Twitter: @RTD_MikeBarber


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