CHARLOTTESVILLE ——A year ago, as Virginia finished a disappointing 4-8 first season under coach Mike London with its annual rivalry game against Virginia Tech, there was a sense that change needed to come in a hurry for the Cavaliers on the defensive side — especially against the run.
Despite giving up 203.7 rushing yards per game, which was 106th in the nation, nobody in U.Va.'s coaching or player circles publicly called out defensive coordinator Jim Reid's 4-3 scheme — a new look compared to former U.Va. coach Al Groh's 3-4 approach. London insists there was nothing but faith in his long-time friend and colleague's ability to get it turned around.
"There never was a point where there were any issues with coach Reid," said London, who was the outside linebackers coach and recruiting coordinator at Richmond in 1995 and '96 — Reid's first two seasons in a nine-year run as the Spiders' coach.
As U.Va. (8-3 overall, 5-2 Atlantic Coast Conference) gets set Saturday to try to snap a seven-game losing streak to No. 6 Tech in a game that will determine the ACC's Coastal Division winner, London's reliance on his defensive staff's ability to get it turned around against the run has been justified.
Reid made a big deal about showing film to his defense of 67 running plays from last season that resulted in an average of 21.6 yards per play. He won't have to go through the exact same exercise this offseason.
U.Va. gave up 28 running plays of 20-plus yards last season, including 13 of which went for 30-plus yards. Only seven teams in the nation gave up more 30-plus yard plays. Six of the running plays went for 50-plus yards. Only three teams gave up more.
This season, No. 24 U.Va. has surrendered just 15 running plays of 20-plus yards. Only four of the plays have gone for 30-plus yards, including one 50-plus yarder. U.Va. has improved to 28th in the nation against the run, giving up 123.4 yards per game and 3.66 yards per carry (5.1 yards per carry last season).
"We all take our personal job responsibility seriously," U.Va. defensive end Jake Snyder said. "That's how we've been able to take care of it."
Last season, one of U.Va.'s many problems was getting off the field on third-and-short situations, including when it tried to stop short running plays.
On third-and-3 or less, U.Va.'s defense gave up 3.41 yards per running play. Offenses picked up 19 first downs on 29 running plays (65.5 percent).
U.Va. has turned around those third-and-3 or less results against the run this season. Only two teams — Stanford and South Florida — are giving up fewer yards against the run on third-and-3 or less than U.Va. (1.12 yards; 12 first downs on 33 running plays, 36.3 percent).
Tech (10-1, 6-1) has two offensive players that may present the biggest challenges to U.Va.'s improved rush defense it has seen all season — quarterback Logan Thomas and running back David Wilson.
At 6-foot-6 and 254 pounds, Thomas has demonstrated a reluctance to go down on first contact. Of 62 players in the nation with 12 or more carries on third-and-3 or less, he leads in percentage of first downs picked up on those runs (21 of 22, 95.5 percent).
"He's a big physical quarterback that can run, kind of a Ben Roethlisberger-type quarterback," said U.Va. middle linebacker Steve Greer, who leads the team with 94 tackles. "He's definitely a threat that can run, and so we're just going to have to be sound tacklers and bring him to the ground."
All Wilson has done is lead the ACC in rushing with 1,442 yards, which is also third in the nation. He's best in the nation with 18 runs or 20-plus yards. Though he has had seven fumbles this season (including four lost), he's the biggest reason Tech is tied for second in the ACC with Florida State and Clemson with 58 plays of 20-plus yards (Georgia Tech leads the conference with 71 such plays).
"What's rewarding is of all the heat that was going on last year, in these staff meeting rooms, we circled the wagons and said, 'Listen, these are the guys I hired. I believe in these guys. I believe in you guys,' " said London, whose team is giving up nearly one less play of 20-plus yards per game than it did last season (4.4 per game this season, 5.2 last season).
"You stick with the plan. The players see it, and when the players see it, that's another element that's added onto the confidence part of it."