Press Conference Notes ’09: Duke

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Georgia Tech handed Virginia its worst loss of the season, a 34-9 defeat.

Of Virginia’s seven losses last season, three were by 28 points or more. One was predictable – a 52-7 loss to USC in the home opener. Who would have thought based on years past, though, that another would be to Duke?

There was no lower point last season for the Cavaliers than after their 31-3 loss to Duke – the Blue Devils’ first conference win in 25 tries. This Saturday, Virginia has a chance for revenge at home, but Duke is no longer a team that the Cavs can simply put a check next to in the win column. Coach David Cutcliffe’s pass-heavy offense has led the Devils to a 4-3 record and 2-1 in conference play so far in 2009. While the top half of the ACC is showing instability, the bottom half is making strides, and Duke is the perfect example.

“As we understand it, the school has upgraded its commitment to being successful in football, that’s always part of it,” Virginia coach Al Groh said. “And it’s more than just the coach. They’ve upgraded their commitment to being successful and done some things in that direction.”

In playing a Duke team that humiliated the Cavs by 28 last season, Virginia comes off a 34-9 drubbing at the hands of Georgia Tech last Saturday – the worst loss of this year. In other words, the Hoos have no shortage of reasons to be hyped for the Blue Devils.

“We definitely don’t want to come out and play like we did last year, and put a performance like that up, so that’s definitely a motivation to play better,” linebacker Steve Greer said. “At the same time, we have enough motivation just game to game trying to get a win.”

A New Look

Game plans always change from week to week in football, but the defensive playbook may not look any different from one week to another than from Georgia Tech last Saturday to Duke a week later. The Yellow Jackets lead the ACC in rushing out of their triple-option offense – the Blue Devils, behind quarterback Thaddeus Lewis, lead the conference in passing, averaging 322.6 pass yards per game.

“For all the conversation when a team plays Georgia Tech about the uniqueness of it – you’ve got to play disciplined, you’ve got to fit on the plays properly, you’ve got to do your jobs – clearly that’s the case here once again,” Groh said. “You’re just deploying the same principles against a different set of variables.”

Like GT, Duke is committed to its respective style. Cutcliffe’s offense often has been effective – it has scored 35 or more points in three of its four wins, including a 49-28 victory against N.C. State two weeks ago in which Lewis completed 40 of 50 passes for 459 yards. However, even when the offense has struggled, Duke has not gone to the running attack. The Devils have thrown the ball 37 or more times in every game but two blowout wins against Army and N.C. Central. Duke is third in the conference in total offense with 397 yards per game, but their 74.4 yards per game rushing is the lowest in the ACC by more than 20 yards.

“When they have difficulty passing in the game, passing the ball, they don’t suddenly say, ‘OK, now we’re going to run it 60 times in this game,'” Groh said. “They say, ‘We have to find some patterns that will get open better from the ones that we’ve been running.'”

The improvement of the offense from last season is correlated with the improvement of the quarterback. Lewis has thrown for 281.7 yards per game and completed 64.1 percent of his passes, up from 197.4 yards per game and 62 percent last season. Groh said that Lewis’ experience as a four-year starter and as a second-year quarterback in Cutcliffe’s offense has shown this season.

“He is with a coach that really knows the offense and he is in his second year with it,” Groh said. “He has really elevated his performance.”

D-Line Success

Nate Collins earned ACC Defensive Lineman of the Week honors for the second straight week after recording a team-high 16 tackles against the Yellow Jackets.

Against Georgia Tech, Groh ditched his usual defensive line, despite the fact that it had been effective in recent games. With the Yellow Jackets’ option attack, he decided he wanted more athleticism in his front three. He both went retro, putting Nate Collins at nose tackle for the first time since last season, and added in two new starters – Zane Parr at left end, and the seldom-used John-Kevin Dolce , who is listed as the back-up nose tackle, for the injured Matt Conrath at right end. Every-game starter Nick Jenkins , who came into last Saturday with 23 tackles and eight TFL while starting every prior contest this season, played in a reserve role and in goal line packages.

Groh said he liked what he saw, particularly from Collins, who was the subject of most discussion Monday. Collins “seemed like he had 100 tackles,” Groh said in his postgame press conference, and Collins earned Co-Defensive Lineman of the Week for the second consecutive game. Against Georgia Tech, Collins came up with a team-high 16 tackles, including two for a loss. The week before against Maryland, Collins tallied nine tackles and two TFL, and also his first ever interception, which went for UVa’s go-ahead touchdown.

While Collins has seen time and made plays in each of his three-plus years on the D-Line, never has his production reached the level where it has been the last two weeks.

“He’s made a lot of those plays on an overall athletic ability, but, the efficiency of how he plays his position from play to play is dramatically upgraded,” Groh said. “That’s why we probably all remember plays that he made [in years past], but have not seen the kind of production numbers that we’re seeing this year.”

Collins attended King & Low-Heywood Thomas, a small private high school in Port Chester, New York. Groh explained that there likely weren’t many athletes like Collins at the school, which resulted in Collins playing numerous positions unbecoming of a player his size: tailback, wide receiver, linebacker, and quarterback, in addition to defensive end, defensive tackle, tight end, and fullback.

“Wherever they needed somebody, the coach said, ‘Can you play there?'” Groh said. “Even one week when he said, ‘Nate, can you play quarterback?'”

When Collins attended Groh’s camp the summer before his senior year of high school, Groh said that one such odd position was listed next to his name. It didn’t take long, though, Groh said, for him to realize that Collins was no “linebacker, running back, or whatever.”

“It was clear to take one look at him that that wasn’t going to be his college position,” Groh said. “In spending a week with him and watching him do drills, his athletic ability for a player who was going to be a lineman was well above the mid-line. We saw that one with our own eyes.”

Fast forward to his senior year, and Groh said that Collins has emerged to the point where he has NFL potential.

“He’s certainly playing himself into that position,” Groh said. “He’s probably making a similar move on that, say that Alvin Pearman utilized his senior season to do.”

Zane Parr had 12 tackles and put frequent pressure on Georgia Tech quarterback Josh Nesbitt last Saturday.

At left end, Parr ended with the second-highest total of 12 tackles on Saturday. Groh was impressed with that production, particularly given how Parr has been shuffled around the defensive line the last two games – after playing defensive tackle on the dime defense throughout the season, Parr played right end when Conrath went down against Maryland, then played left end last Saturday.

“We’re well impressed with his versatility, his adaptability to be able to do that,” Groh said. “Any time a player can go from side to side, whether it’s right guard to left guard, or left end to right end, that really gives us the equivalent of two players and gives us a better option.”

Groh said he recognized that versatility in Parr’s high school days, when he was a basketball player for Williamsport Area High School in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. Parr was also a baseball pitcher in high school – Groh has often spoken of how that influenced his recruiting of fellow defensive end Matt Conrath , who was also a high school pitcher. Parr even told reporters that he threw as fast as 95 mph.

“I was not [aware that Parr was a pitcher], but I did personally watch Zane play basketball,” Groh said. “For a lineman, he was a very smooth, easy on his feet, adept basketball player.”

Dolce finished with seven tackles – normally a productive number, but paling in comparison to the output of Collins and Parr. Groh recognized that tackle numbers must be taken with a grain of salt against the Yellow Jackets, since tackles increase in general in defending coach Paul Johnson’s triple-option offense. Nevertheless, Groh was impressed with Dolce’s debut as a starter in the base defense.

“There are really very few plays in the game that you could realistically or honestly say, ‘Oh, gee, we wish somebody else was in there other than John-Kevin,'” Groh said. “He did a nice job.”

Needing Improvement

Groh was generally happy with the play of the defense last Saturday, save some key conversions by Georgia Tech that kept drives alive. As for the offense, which made three trips to the red zone and ended with three field goals, Groh was firmer in the sentiment that he needs more.

“We were looking for and will continue to look for a far more productive performance from everybody associated with the offense,” Groh said.

Tailback Mikell Simpson rushed just five times for 26 yards against Georgia Tech, with every carry coming in the first half.

Virginia’s running game in particular was practically non-existent Saturday. After rushing for 90 yards on 19 carries against Maryland, Rashawn Jackson carried the ball just once. Mikell Simpson , meanwhile, had just five carries for 26 yards. Neither Jackson nor Simpson carried the ball in the second half.

“We only had the ball for, regrettably, [44] plays in the game, and a number of those came when we had a margin to overcome,” Groh said in his Sunday media teleconference. “That didn’t leave room for a lot of running plays. And frankly, those plays that [Jackson] had early in the game weren’t particularly well-run.”

Groh said that establishing a consistent running attack has not been easy given the injuries that have plagued the backfield all season. Both Jackson and Simpson have been unavailable or limited in various games this season. Throw in a season-ending injury to true freshman Dominique Wallace just as he began to show signs of productivity, and the tailback situation has been far from stable.

“In those circumstances, they miss practice time, and so probably that’s a contributing issue,” Groh said, though he added, “I would still like to make the answer be that if the holes were bigger, most anybody could run through them.”

In the passing game, quarterback Jameel Sewell missed his intended targets and his receivers dropped balls. Both difficulties contributed to the offense’s general lack of productivity and, specifically, to its inability to reach the end zone.

“That definitely falls within that earlier statement about we’re looking for increased performance from everybody associated with the offense,” Groh said.

The offense, though, isn’t the only problem, Groh said. He said he is not pleased with the way punter Jimmy Howell and the special teams’ returners have performed of late – Howell has averaged 34.4 yards per punt the last two games, while kick returners Chase Minnifield , Corey Mosley and Perry Jones are averaging 19.3 yards per return in the same span. On punt returns, Minnifield has averaged 5.4 yards per return the last two games, and muffed a punt last Saturday that resulted in a GT field goal.

“Kickers and returners on two of the three units, let’s say we’re not shooting par,” Groh said. “Robert [Randolph] has done a nice job with the [field goal] placements. And Drew Jarrett has done a nice job in his role [kicking extra points]. And we need a more dynamic performance out of our return guys. We’ve got to get them a lot more help.”

Both inefficiency from the offense and special teams’ units, Groh said, have made life difficult for the defense. Groh cited both the Georgia Tech and TCU contests as occasions where the defense suffered from losing the field position battle and simply being overworked.

“Field position would help the defense – it certainly sometimes inhibits some of the things that the opponent offense can do,” Groh said. “But if we can sit them down there for a little bit longer and not get that pitch count [defensive snaps] up there so high, that certainly has to be a factor in there.”

Worth Noting

  • With Duke’s pass-heavy offense, Groh said that Nick Jenkins will return to nose tackle and Nate Collins to defensive end.
  • While North Carolina and Virginia are known as the “oldest rivalry in the South,” the Cavaliers’ series with Duke dates back to 1890, whereas the series with the Tar Heels did not begin until 1892.
  • Virginia holds a 32-28 lead in the series, though a streak of eight consecutive Cavalier wins was snapped with Duke’s victory in 2008.
  • Duke’s last win in Charlottesville came on Oct. 9, 1999, a 24-17 OT victory for the Blue Devils, their only win in the last 13 games in Charlottesville.
  • Saturday’s contest will be Virginia’s 1,200th in program history.
  • Worth Quoting

    “Most people Tivo the game in order to go back and take a look at it – write your stories based on what you see there. I just suggested that everybody look at their Tivoed version and come up with your own opinion. And since clearly I’m not the expert on this, if you have any questions, I’d suggest that you direct them to the ACC office and see what they might want.” – Al Groh on the personal foul penalty against Ras-I Dowling last Saturday.

    “I have the same question you might have. I guess Halloween was one week early. You know, Ghostbusters or whatever.” – Al Groh after he was asked whether he had directed any questions to the ACC on Ras-I Dowling’s personal foul penalty.

    “I remember the results of most games that I’ve been involved in.” – Al Groh on whether he has a problem with his team using last year’s 31-3 loss to Duke as motivation for this Saturday.

    “David [Cutcliffe] was very successful in a very challenging conference when he was the head coach at Ole Miss, and probably was unjustifiably released from that position. He had his team in the Cotton Bowl [in the 2003-04 season]; they won 10 games. So he’s a quality coach, knows how to run a real good program. It was expected, and he had a positive attitude, but demanding standards. He’s done a very good job with their team. We’re very respectful of it.” – Al Groh on Duke coach David Cutcliffe.

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