CHARLOTTESVILLE—Sometimes, the numbers don’t lie.
A year ago, Pittsburgh racked up 254 rushing yards in a road win at Virginia, one that sunk the Cavaliers’ hopes of winning the ACC’s Coastal Division.
The Panthers bruised UVA for 6 yards per carry that night.
This offseason, Virginia’s defense set a goal to hold opponents to 3.5 yards per rush.
“We weren’t getting pushed back. We were getting the push off the line,” junior defensive end Mandy Alonso said of UVA’s 30-14 road win at Pitt on Saturday. “And we were just holding them to basically nothing when they ran the ball.”
UVA (1-0, 1-0 ACC) allowed 78 yards on 30 rushes, an average of just 2.6 yards. Virginia ranked fourth in the conference last season, allowing 147.5 yards per game. But its 4.3 yards-per-carry average was tied for eighth.
“That’s our mission this year, to stop the run, and we have really good depth at D-line,” cornerback Nick Grant said. “People are hungry. People really, really want to stop the run. So a combination of being bigger, stronger, faster and having a better mindset and understanding of our assignments is all [helping] being better at stopping the run.”
The Cavaliers, who host William & Mary on Friday, made improving that run defense a focus of the offseason, and through Week 1, they appear to be on the right path. With a deeper defensive line, UVA was able to rotate ends and nose tackles, keeping them fresh for the full four quarters.
They opened the game with true freshman Jowonn Briggs at nose tackle and seniors Eli Hanback and Richard Burney at ends. Alonso and sophomore Aaron Famui also played at end.
“I definitely felt fresh the whole game, and it took a big load off of everybody that we didn’t have to play the whole game, 70 snaps,” Alonso said. “We just basically split it up.”
Briggs played all the snaps at nose tackle in Virginia’s base defense—about 30 plays.
“I would say it was a solid starting point with plenty of room to grow,” UVA coach Bronco Mendenhall said.
Friday night, the Cavaliers will face a Tribe team—under former Virginia coach Mike London—that ran for 255 yards and three touchdowns in its season-opening win over Lafayette. Quarterback Hollis Mathis led the W&M attack, running for 127 yards and a score.
That’s potentially concerning for the Cavaliers, who only struggled in one area of run defense in the opener—defending the quarterback.
Kenny Pickett scrambled for 44 yards on eight runs, not taking into account the four sacks that lost 28 yards.
Besides those plays, Pittsburgh largely abandoned its usual run-first style.
“We figured they would come back to the run heavy,” Alonso said. “They kind of never did because every time they’d do it, we’d stop it. The only way they got their running yards was basically through the QB scrambles.”
While the results in the opener were positive, Mendenhall wasn’t prepared to declare the team’s run-defense woes a thing of the past. He’s expecting to learn more about his group Friday night against the Tribe.
“I think it’s just the beginning and too early to tell whether we’re on the exact right track,” Mendenhall said. “The nature of runs, the quality and quantity of runs, too early to say how much difference and if we’ve made significant gains there.
“Our opponent this week runs the ball as a primary focus, and so we’ll have a better idea after this week. Not a perfect idea, but a better idea.”