The final minutes of Friday's Commonwealth Cup between Virginia and Virginia Tech presented a dilemma that keeps plenty of defensive coordinators up at night.
What is the best way to defend an opposing offense late in the game when you have a narrow lead?
Following Brian Delaney's 48-yard field goal, Virginia led Virginia Tech 33-30 with 1:23 to go. In that situation, some defensive coordinators would play it safe. They would lighten the pass rush and drop more players into coverage in hopes of limiting chunk plays and keeping the opponent out of the end zone.
Not Nick Howell.
The Virginia defensive coordinator dialed up the pressure on the Virginia Tech quarterback Hendon Hooker late, hoping to take the Virginia Tech quarterback out of his rhythm and thwart the Hokies' comeback hopes.
The plan worked to perfection.
The Cavaliers sacked Hooker on consecutive plays to bring up 3rd and 21 from the Virginia Tech 7-yard line. Then on third down, Virginia defensive lineman Mandy Alonso tackled Hooker in the end zone and forced a fumble, which was recovered by fellow lineman Eli Hanback, who dived on the loose ball for a touchdown and a 39-30 Virginia lead.
Game. Set. Match.
"The situation of the game really changed. We just could not dial in when they were going to run and when they were going to throw, so we were guessing the entire second half," Virginia head coach Bronco Mendenhall said of the decision to ramp up the pressure on the Hokies' late drive. "The situation Tech was placed in at the end, we knew they were going to throw, and that allowed us to actually make the right calls vs. what they were going to do."
Hanback's touchdown capped a strong fourth quarter for Virginia's defense, which limited the Hokies to three points and forced two turnovers in the game's final 15 minutes.
Linebacker Noah Taylor snagged the first of those two turnovers when he intercepted a Hooker pass on 3rd and 20 with 4:47 to go in the game. The Cavaliers' converted Taylor's turnover into Delaney's go-ahead field goal.
"I was a flat defender and they ran a low flat and a sail route over the top," Taylor said of the play. "I saw the quarterback look me off and try to throw to the flat and I knew he was about to go over top."
Hooker did go over the top and Taylor was there to grab his second interception of the game and kill the Hokies' momentum. Prior to Taylor's pick, Virginia Tech had scored on three consecutive drives (two touchdowns and a field goal). Virginia Tech did not score again after Taylor's interception.
"They did a good job of mixing up looks," Virginia Tech coach Justin Fuente said. "They can create pressure. They did a good job taking the ball away.”
The Hokies found plenty of success offensively on Friday, finishing with 483 yards of total offense and 30 points. But in the game's crucial moments, the Cavaliers' aggressive approach created crucial turnovers that led to way to the team's first victory in the Commonwealth Cup since 2003.
“Coach Howell is an awesome coach and he just turned this defense around," Hanback said. "We kind of faltered a little bit here at the end, but then we made critical stops. Coach Howell is not passive, he’s going to go for it and we love that.
"We attacked, we hunted and it paid off.”