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ZAMOFF: DBU is back for the Cavaliers

Despite losing Thornhill and Harris, Virginia’s pass defense remains stellar

<p>Virginia's defense allowed just 12 passing touchdowns last season.</p>

Virginia's defense allowed just 12 passing touchdowns last season.

Traditionally, Virginia Tech has been the state’s DBU — Defensive Back University — with a history of producing great players in the secondary. The Hokies lead all Power 5 teams in interceptions since 2000 and have had a number of players go on to have successful careers in the NFL, including currently-active cornerbacks Kyle and Kendall Fuller.

Virginia, however, has recently made a run at the Hokies’ historical dominance. The Cavaliers were ranked No. 16 in the nation in pass defense last year, while Virginia Tech came in at No. 63. Quin Blanding and recently-drafted defensive backs Juan Thornhill and Tim Harris highlight the talent coming out of Charlottesville in the last few years.

Last season, the Cavaliers’ pass defense powered Virginia. Virginia’s defense had 17 interceptions and allowed less than one passing touchdown per game.

Thornhill had 6 of those 17 interceptions, however, and with his and Harris’ departure to the NFL, some expressed concerns that the Cavaliers would not have the same pass defense in 2019.

Senior cornerback Bryce Hall’s decision to return for his final year of eligibility assuaged many of those concerns. Hall came into this season a preseason all-American and was ranked the top defensive player nationally by Pro Football Focus.

Saturday’s decisive win against Pittsburgh provided more evidence that Virginia is taking the next step to become the state’s DBU. The Cavaliers’ pass defense will be the team’s strength once more in 2019.

Against the Panthers, Virginia allowed junior quarterback Kenny Pickett just 185 passing yards. Moreover, 59 of those 185 yards can be chalked up to a missed assignment, according to Coach Bronco Mendenhall at his Monday press conference.

Newly-hired Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Mark Whipple came in from Massachusetts with a pedigree for improving the pass game, but was frustrated by the Cavaliers’ pass defense.

Just like last year, beyond preventing the opponent’s offense from getting a foothold in the game, Virginia’s pass defense comes up with game-changing plays to spark the offense.

It’s not just the defensive backs making the plays, either. Virginia’s 3-4 defense has linebackers that also play an important part in stopping the pass. Junior linebacker Charles Snowden was huge in stopping the pass last year with his 6-foot-7 frame, coming up with two interceptions in 2018.

Against Pittsburgh, it was junior linebacker Matt Gahm — who had his first career start Saturday — who stepped up to make the pivotal play.

The Panthers’ offense was looking to carry its momentum from a strong end to the first half into the second, down by just two points, 16-14. It was 3rd and 10. Gahm dropped back and followed Pickett’s eyes, knowing exactly where the quarterback was going before he made the interception.

His pick changed the momentum of the game. Senior quarterback Bryce Perkins took advantage of the good field position to put the Cavaliers on top, 23-14, on a pass to senior wide receiver Hasise Dubois.

After the first interception, Pickett struggled to move the ball on offense. His second interception cemented Virginia’s first-ever victory at Heinz Field.

Junior safety Joey Blount — who many hope will fill the shoes of Thornhill — showed what the hype was all about with his performance Saturday.

After a series of punts, Pittsburgh was finally able to make it into Virginia territory. Then Blount made back-to-back plays to quash the Panthers’ momentum. He got a sack off the edge and an interception on consecutive plays, following Pickett’s eyes to make the decisive pick.

Blount finished with seven tackles, two sacks and an interception, and was named to Pro Football Focus’ national Team of the Week for his standout performance.

But it’s not just the linebacking corps, Blount and Hall that make Virginia’s pass defense strong. Junior safety Brenton Nelson made seven tackles against Pittsburgh and has significant experience in the secondary, and junior safety De’Vante Cross made some great plays against the Panthers, including a pass breakup on a potential long ball from Pickett. Junior cornerback Nick Grant rounds out the nickel package that made it so hard for Pickett to operate Saturday.

Blount received the honor to “break the rock” for his stellar performance against Pittsburgh. Mendenhall introduced this post-win ceremony in which the team rallies behind the player who crushes the rock bearing the opponent’s name — each rock broken is another step towards the team’s goals. Each rock broken is another affirmation of The Standard. If the Cavaliers keep this up — with a team effort — they might just break the rock of the Hokies’ claim to being the DBU of Virginia.