Defense regroups after blowout loss
Depleted unit seeks quick rebound following embarrassing performance at Georgia Tech
The Virginia football team’s defense spent an exhausting week preparing for the intricacies of Georgia Tech’s triple-option offense in the lead up to Saturday’s 56-20 loss in Atlanta. But it took just one play for the unit to realize that all of its preparation was no match for the Yellow Jackets’ superior speed, scheme and savvy.
On the first play from scrimmage, redshirt senior quarterback Tevin Washington hit sophomore running back Zach Laskey for a 70-yard touchdown pass to begin an afternoon-long offensive clinic. Three of Georgia Tech’s first four plays went for 60 yards or more, and the Yellow Jackets finished with the most points of any Virginia opponent since 1999.
When a humbling first half reached its merciful conclusion, the Cavalier defense had conceded 276 rushing yards in the first 30 minutes — more than the team had allowed in any game since its last visit to Bobby Dodd Stadium in 2010, when Georgia Tech racked up 477 rushing yards.
“They played harder than us. We just weren’t ready,” senior defensive end Ausar Walcott said. “As a defense, we just weren’t ready to come out and play. Every team goes through it once in a while and we went through it on Saturday.”
Walcott is one of just four returning starters from a defense that ranked third in total defense in the ACC last season. The early returns in 2012 have left plenty to be desired as the unit ranks in the bottom third of the ACC in rushing, scoring and total defense and demonstrates little big-play ability. Virginia is the only defense in the ACC without an interception and has forced just one turnover, three fewer than the next worst team in the conference.
The Cavaliers have struggled to establish an identity while replacing several key playmakers, including standouts defensive end Cam Johnson and cornerback Chase Minnifield. Those departures have left sophomore cornerback Demetrious Nicholson to masquerade as the team’s battle-tested veteran in the secondary; forced freshman defensive end Eli Harold, a four-star recruit just last year, to grow up quicker than expected; and left Walcott as the team’s steady veteran — a new role for a player whose career had recently been in flux.
Walcott faced criminal charges for assault and battery by mob and burglary in 2011. He was suspended indefinitely for his role in the altercation that took place Jan. 30 of that year at James Madison University. When he was reinstated to the team in April 2011 after the charges were dropped, Walcott was asked to switch positions for the second time, moving from linebacker to defensive end after beginning his career as a safety.
Walcott does not dwell on the choice that nearly cost him his greatest passion in the prime of his career. He has simply internalized the lesson and approached each opportunity since with a new determination and resolve. Walcott returned to action last year 45 pounds heavier than when he arrived at the University and started seven games, recording 20 tackles and his only career sack.
“When something like that happens, it kind of smacks you in the face a little bit, so you wake up a little bit and you understand the opportunities that you have,” Walcott said. “You just want to go out and get them.”
Having learned what it feels like to watch a lifetime’s worth of work nearly fall by the wayside in an instant, Walcott is perhaps the best mentor for a Cavalier defense trying to learn from its mistakes while remaining even-keeled and confident. Rebounding from adversity is the challenge Virginia faces this week when they face off against one of the best offenses in the country in No. 16 TCU in Fort Worth, Texas.
“You just got to be strong mentally, overcome adversity,” sophomore safety Anthony Harris said. “The coaches have been talking about having confidence, and we just want to come out here and show people that we could compete at a high level.”
Some mistakes are meant to sting, and others can only be learned by trial and error. But for this week at least, coach Mike London has implored his players to forget Saturday’s disaster rather than focus on it. If one lesson can be gleaned from the poor performance against Georgia Tech, it is learning the ability to move on quickly.
“I understand that there are things we have to fix and things that we have to do, but you have to approach the players in a positive manner,” London said. “You have to have confidence. That’s all I’ll talk about to these guys — about letting that one go and then moving on.”
The next challenge for the Virginia defense is preparing for the imposing offense of TCU, which has led the Horned Frogs to a 10-game overall winning streak dating back to last season — the longest current run in the nation — and 27 victories in its last 28 home games. TCU junior quarterback Casey Pachall leads the nation in passing efficiency with a 242.4 rating and has completed 85 percent of his passes with five touchdowns and no interceptions in two blowout wins.
“Each week you got to move on, whether it’s a win or a loss, so coming into this week, we’ll just focus on this week and what [TCU does],” Harris said.
Saturday, the Virginia defense will once again be thrust onto a nationally-televised stage and left to sink or swim against one of the top offenses in the country. Following one of the poorest performances in program history, the defense will need to refocus quickly to slow the efficient and experienced TCU offense.
“A lot of players on the team have a fire under them now because we were tested,” Walcott said. “A lot of players, they think they didn’t play good [against Georgia Tech]. Our captains talked to us and told us, ‘You can do one of two things: run or you can stand up and fight.’ I think a lot of players want to stand up and fight.”