Virginia has put a hard loss against North Carolina in which the Cavaliers stumbled badly at the finish behind them and is taking aim again at its goal of winning the ACC championship..
“That was one of those games that hurt right down to your soul,” senior linebacker Henry Coley said of last week’s 28-27 defeat in which Virginia self-destructed at the end.
“Nobody’s just rolling up their helmets and saying the season’s over at this point. The ACC championship is still our primary goal right now,” Coley, a co-captain, said this week. “... Since we lost to Duke, we created this tornado. ... All we can do is win out and see where the chips fall.”
The Cavaliers (4-4, 2-2 Atlantic Coast Conference) will need that forward focus this week when they face Georgia Tech (6-2, 3-2) and the explosive triple-option that always gives Virginia trouble.
The Yellow Jackets ran for 394 yards against defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta’s defense last season in a 35-25 victory at Scott Stadium, but Coley says this year’s team is more equipped to prevent that.
He says it’s all about having experience against Georgia Tech’s unusual scheme.
“Last year we had a few guys that were brand new to it,” he said.
This year, it will be strength against strength. The Yellow Jackets ranks third nationally with an average of 326 rushing yards; Virginia is ninth-best at stopping the run, allowing 100 yards per game.
“It’s always a challenge because of the different elements that they present,” Virginia coach Mike London said. “You can be wrong on one assignment and it could hurt you big time. The challenge for us is to play a consistent four-quarter game of assignment, run to the football, minimize the mistakes we make ourselves that could lead to big plays for them.”
The Cavaliers did that effectively most of the game against the Tar Heels, who arrived with quarterback Marquise Williams averaging 449 yards in his previous two games. He got 308, but hit on three long scoring plays before backup quarterback Mitch Trubisky threw the game-winning touchdown pass.
Defense has been the Cavaliers’ strong suit all season. They ran 21st nationally in total defense, allowing an average of 336 yards, and just need to avoid the mistakes that lead to big plays.
“We know what we can do for an entire four quarters. We just have to do it,” Coley said.
Their primary focus, once again, will be on the opposing quarterback.
Justin Thomas ranks fifth among FBS quarterbacks with an average of nearly 90 rushing yards per game, and he has thrown for 11 touchdowns with just three interceptions.
The Yellow Jackets’ offense also is different than it was a year ago.
“We were trying to do a lot of things maybe to fit the personnel that we had playing at the time,” coach Paul Johnson said.
“Truthfully we didn’t do our base stuff very well. We weren’t very good at running the triple. We were still an option team, but certainly not like we are now.”
And the speedy, elusive Thomas, he said, fits what they like to do perfectly.
Coley hopes that simplifying the task at hand will give Virginia a chance.
“The system is the system and it is what it is,” he said. “We just have to stop the system.”