Sunday, November 04, 2012

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Improving UVa defense finally gets just rewards

RALEIGH, N.C. - This had to feel like Christmas morning. After spending weeks trying to figure out a way to get one guy to the quarterback, suddenly there were two of them - Will Hill driving through the middle and grabbing the legs, Jake Snyder sweeping around the corner to finish the deal.

This wouldn't just be a sack. It also would be a safety. Points! So precious, so scarce during Virginia's six-game losing streak, and now the defense was scoring them?

What the heck was going on here?

The dam was bursting, that's what. A UVa defense that has played pretty darn well this season - better than most of us noticed because of what the scoreboard's been telling us - finally got to feast.

The results were stunning: Six sacks, five forced turnovers and a 33-6 trouncing of N.C. State at a fast-emptying Carter-Finley Stadium.

"I was talking to the guys, 'Hey, there's nobody here! There's probably less than 1,000 people here right now!'" freshman defensive end Eli Harold said with a grin. "Big win, man. Big win."

Huge win. Not because it's necessarily going to lead to anything this season - the Cavs would have to win out to make a bowl game - but because it validated what they've been telling themselves all along: Keep working, and something good will come of it.

"It's a great feeling - fun," said Snyder, a defensive end. "At 2-6, it's easy to say, 'Screw it, let's just go out and play' or whatever. But we kept preparing, we kept focusing every day like it's the most important practice, the most important game, and that's what you saw today."

The defensive players had every right to feel like they'd been doing their jobs well, even when the losses kept coming. Only twice this year had the Cavs given up 400 total yards in a game. The unit came into Saturday ranked third in the ACC in total defense.

Back-to-back stout defensive weeks against Maryland (235 total yards, including negative rushing yards) and Wake Forest (213 yards) didn't net victories, but they did tell the Cavs that they were close to something special.

"You just can't give up, man," Harold said. "If you just keep staying positive, you will get positive results. That's how I was taught, and that's how I live."

That's how they all lived. They knew the missing ingredients were sacks and turnovers, those game-changing moments, those strips, those tip drills, those things they've worked on so often in practice.

They arrived in a deluge Saturday, and the scoreboard reflected it.

N.C. State managed a measly 216 yards on 70 offensive snaps. UVa hassled Wolfpack quarterback Mike Glennon into 197 passing yards - his lowest total of the year - and picked him off three times.

"No quarterback likes to be hit," Snyder said. "No quarterback likes having a guy in his face when he's throwing. That's something we try to do all day ...  Any time your quarterback's getting hit, it takes the wind out of your sails. I see that when our guys are getting hit."

For the most part, UVa didn't need blitzes or twists to get to Glennon. The secondary covered well enough to give the linemen time, and the four guys up front just physically beat their blockers.

They had some fun doing it, too.

"The guy I was on [Rob Crisp] was talking a lot of trash," said Harold, one of three defenders making his first career start. "I was like, 'Man, Why are you talking? You're losing. Look at the scoreboard!'"

According to Harold, that wasn't enough to stop the yapping.

"I mean, I beat him so many times," Harold said. "He's punching me in my face while I'm brushing him, but the ball's all the way over there. He's talking trash to me. He's losing. Like, I win! You don't win. You don't win. You're just wasting time."

The hypotheticals - like, for instance, what would UVa's record be if they'd pressured the quarterback like this all season? - are a waste of time, too.

Those losses happened. But the Cavs do have three more games to try to replicate this, to try to leave everyone in the stadium stunned.

"That's always a good feeling," Snyder said with a smile. "Anytime silence is there and we get boos, that's always good things on the road. That's what we like. I can't even pinpoint a moment, because everything was so great."

And more than a little overdue.

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