On behalf of the defense
On one characteristically cringe-inducing play in the third quarter of Saturday’s deflating 16-10 loss to Wake Forest, sophomore cornerback Drequan Hoskey whiffed on an open field tackle. The eventual 25-yard completion to Wake Forest speedster Lovell Jackson — which incited the groaning “Ew” sound that has supplanted “Hoos” as the sound effect of choice at Scott Stadium — typified the lack of discipline and sheer ineptitude that has reduced Virginia’s 2012 campaign to a mausoleum of defeat and heartbreak more depressing than the lyrics of a standard Taylor Swift song.
But few people noticed Hoskey subsequently hustling back to tackle Jackson to prevent a potentially even more disastrous play. In fact, seemingly unbeknownst to many of the team’s supporters, the young, often marginalized Virginia defense has played its most inspired, well-polished contests of the season these past two games. Two performances that, because of the shortcomings of the team’s other two phases, will hover at best at the periphery of fans’ and pundits’ consciousness during the next two weeks.
“The defense did a really good job today,” coach Mike London said. “At one point [the Demon Deacons] were 0-for-11 on third downs … but they scored 16 and we scored 10, so we gave up too many points and didn’t score enough.”
Because of the sports world’s preoccupation with offensive football, the Cavaliers’ wearying quarterback controversy between sophomore Philip Sims and junior Michael Rocco and the squad’s propensity for silly turnovers has dominated the postgame chatter.
What really merits our attention after this latest of Virginia calamities is the seemingly paradoxical resurgence of defensive coordinator Jim Reid’s patchwork unit of wily veterans and budding young talents. As the Virginia season crumbles around them, the Cavaliers on the defensive side of the ball suddenly find themselves faced with one of the most arduous challenges in sports: continuing to excel with little hope of reward or recognition to sustain them.
“We’re playing well and we have to continue to build off it, keep practicing well, and keep giving ourselves a chance to win,” senior linebacker Steve Greer said. “It’s frustrating.”
The numbers reinforce the notion that the defense has morphed into Virginia’s strongest unit. A week after holding Maryland to -2 rushing yards, Virginia limited Wake Forest to just 213 yards of total offense Saturday and allowed just one third-down conversion on 15 attempts, despite facing a slew of trick plays and gimmick formations from whimsical Demon Deacons coach Jim Grobe. A unit that looked more overwhelmed than the “Boom Goes the Dynamite” guy when yielding 594 yards to Georgia Tech Sept. 15, is now swarming to the ball and blasting through tackling lanes with aplomb, harassing quarterback Tanner Price into a 7-of-19 stink bomb.
“Today I think we were meshing well,” Greer said. “Eleven guys were playing well. A lot of different people were stepping up and making plays, which is good.”
That the defense’s purported fatal flaw — inexperience — is helping fuel the renaissance along with mainstays such as Greer bodes extremely well for the future. The much maligned, sophomore-riddled secondary has minimized many of the blown coverages and missed arm tackles that plagued the team through its first six games, allowing talented young freshman defensive lineman Eli Harold and sophomore defensive tackle Chris Brathwaite to wreak havoc in the offensive backfield.
“I just feel like the coach is going to put in whoever is playing well at the time,” Brathwaite said after notching nine tackles, two tackles for loss and several flashes of Ndamukong Suh-like explosiveness. “I’m happy they have faith in me to go out there and get the job done.”
For all the vast strides of the past month, however, Reid’s defense is about as close to becoming a juggernaut as Teresa Sullivan is to hosting a “Board of Visitors Appreciation Week.” Inexplicably, the squad remains stubbornly allergic to the ball: The defense has forced just four turnovers all season and never threatened to steal the ball away Saturday, requiring the offense to cope with a dismal average starting field position of its own 24-yard line.
As the Hoskey missed tackle perfectly encapsulated, the Cavaliers’ younger stars still lack composure and fundamental soundness in key instances in which savvy might serve more effectively than blind tenacity. Occasional lapses in concentration, such as Josh Harris’ untouched 16-yard touchdown scamper for Wake, have crippled the Cavaliers far more severely than any lack of effort or schematic deficiency.
“It’s a team game,” Reid said. “Everyone depends on each other. We didn’t get any turnovers, and we just gave up about three plays that if we can get back, we win the game.”
Because the defenders are playing well, but not well enough to prevent Virginia from losing, their remarkable development won’t garner the recognition it truly deserves. That a defense chock-full of frustrated upperclassmen and ambitious youngsters has not only continued to play hard during a miserable season but actually improved speaks to a level of commitment that should hearten any fan of the game, much less a Cavalier fan.
It takes character to press on through adversity. The ability to persist when such adversity arises for reasons that are uncontrollable and unfair — with little promise of the recognition of others — represents one of the quintessential tests of character in sports and in life in general.
“It’s frustrating, but we’re going to get over it,” Brathwaite said. “As a man, obstacles come into your life that you have to get over, so as men, we have to keep our composure, keep it going.”
So maybe that’s why instead of groaning when Hoskey missed that tackle, more of us should have been watching when he hustled back to make the next one. Even in a lost season, some things are worth discovering.