Virginia played its worst defensive game of 2011 in Saturday’s 43-24 Chick-fil-A Bowl loss to Auburn, yielding season-highs in points and yards (454). Credit the Tigers’ talent (read: SEC speed), but don’t overlook the Cavaliers’ injuries.
Middle linebacker Steve Greer, the team’s leading tackler, and first-team All-ACC cornerback Chase Minnifield missed the game with knee injuries.
“They tried to push through it (and play),” coach Mike London said.
Greer’s absence was most problematic for Virginia. His backup is redshirt freshman Henry Coley of Virginia Beach’s Bayside High, who missed six games this year with a hamstring injury and played only 71 snaps.
Contrast that to Greer, a junior and veteran of 1,994 snaps, 833 this season.
Coley had four tackles Saturday, three solo and one behind the line of scrimmage. Greer, whom the Washington Post’s Steve Yanda reported was injured in the regular-season finale against Virginia Tech, averages 8.6 tackles per game.
“Henry’s sitting in that locker room – he’s a dejected young man,” London said. “But he’s going to be a very good football player.”
Outside the locker room talking to reporters, Coley was more upbeat. Disappointed, yes, but also determined.
“I’m not a man of excuses,” Coley said when I asked about his inexperience. “I practiced enough and did enough film work to know my assignments. Next year won’t have the same result, I’ll tell you that right now.”
Defensive coordinator Jim Reid praised Coley’s performance while acknowledging his one glaring missed tackle, on Tre Mason’s 22-yard, third-quarter touchdown run. That score gave Auburn a 35-17 lead.
Reid and Coley said Minnifield, who declined interview requests, remained positive despite trying circumstances. After all, Minnifield had never missed a college game, 48 over four years, but had to watch the only bowl of his playing career – he was a redshirt when Virginia faced Texas Tech in the Gator Bowl four years ago -- in street clothes.
Senior Dom Joseph started in Minnifield’s place and was credited with six tackles.
“We just didn’t execute when it mattered most,” Joseph said. “The loss was tough, but at the same time, a lot of people didn’t give us a chance to do anything (this season).”
Reid said Minnifield’s injury occurred during preparation for Auburn and that he aggravated the condition Friday.
“He handled the injury as well as anyone could expect,” Reid added. “Didn’t whine, didn’t cry, didn’t hang his head, didn’t mope.”
“What he showed to us and what he felt inside were probably two different things,” Coley said of Minnifield. “He never showed any negativity.”
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Here’s a link to my Daily Press print columns, including the frazzled deadline piece from tonight’s game. Happy 2012, all! Thanks for reading.