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UVa seeks significant defensive improvement despite short week

UVa seeks significant defensive improvement despite short week

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Bronco Mendenhall began this week knowing his defense needed to improve dramatically after allowing 699 yards and 59 points to North Carolina. He also knew his group had less than a week to fix its issues.

Virginia hosts Wake Forest on Friday at 7 p.m. in Scott Stadium.

A Friday game day cuts into preparation time as UVa seeks answers to slow down the Demon Deacons, who rank fifth in the ACC in scoring offense, averaging 39.3 points per game. Wake Forest dropped 40 points on UVa a season ago in Winston-Salem.

“I see, and this might be counter intuitive, I see it as an advantage,” Mendenhall said Monday. “Urgency, urgency, urgency. When you have a week like that and you have weaknesses exposed or you don’t play to your potential or you’re disappointed after some hard setback, man, I like kind of being under the gun to go.”

Mendenhall briefly addressed the media again Wednesday, and while he’s seen an increased sense of urgency with a short week of preparation, he’s looking for more to close out the week.

“Not to the extent that I think makes me completely comfortable,” Mendenhall said. “The older players, the more mature players, they grasp it. Players are resilient, but a lot of times if you haven’t gone through a loss to a Friday, sometimes you’ll get stung again before you learn that lesson.”

That’s what UVa hopes to avoid.

Virginia believes better play is on the horizon, but the Cavaliers need advances this week. Starting 0-2 in league play with a road trip to Miami coming next, on another short week, would be borderline disastrous.

There’s a lot at stake for UVa (2-1, 0-1 ACC) against Wake Forest (3-0, 1-0 ACC). Only one team (Duke in 2013) has recovered from starting 0-2 in conference play to win the Coastal Division.

Mendenhall shared that he’s “really confident” the team is placing correct emphasis on the areas in need of defensive improvement. The question is whether the improvements show up in time for Friday night.

Defensive back Fentrell Cypress recorded an interception against North Carolina, perhaps the lone defensive bright spot in the loss. He feels the defense handled the days after the poor showing well, saying the Cavaliers hope to turn it into a learning experience.

The defensive coaches harped on fundamentals and players doing their individual jobs this week during practice. That’s an area Mendenhall found concerning after watching the tape, feeling like players competed outside their designated roles.

“Technique, doing your assignment, everybody gotta do their 1/11th and that’s how we’re gonna win games,” Cypress said.

On the bright side for Virginia, the team can lean on its offense.

UVa’s worst scoring output this season is a 39-point showing at UNC. Virginia eclipsed 40 points in wins over William and Mary and Illinois. In the team’s 34 possessions since the start of the second quarter against William and Mary, 19 have either ended with a touchdown or the drive being cut short by the end of a half.

The Cavaliers average an ACC-best 559.3 yards per game.

Wake Forest head coach Dave Clawson’s head has been spinning this week as his team prepares for the various formations UVa uses offensively. Clawson says most opponents use two or three different personnel groups. He’s counted nine from the Cavaliers through three games.

“I don’t know how they practice all this stuff, but they’re very good at it,” Clawson said.

When Virginia won the Coastal in 2019, a banged-up defense allowed at least 28 points in its final three regular-season conference games, but the offense carried the way to three wins. UVa doesn’t need to have the best defense in the conference to win games.

“We’re a team,” offensive lineman Ryan Nelson said. “If one of us succeeds, we all succeed. If one of us fails, we all fail. That’s the way life works. You don’t just leave behind one group or another.”

UVa’s offense believes it can pick up the defense when the group struggles, but allowing nearly 700 yards and almost 60 points is all but impossible for any team to overcome.

It’ll take a team-wide effort Friday to secure a victory.

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