When cornerback Bryce Hall went down against Miami, it felt like a massive blow to Virginia’s defense. When other defensive players, like safety Brenton Nelson, started going down in the following weeks, it became a nightmare for the Cavaliers.
Starting the season, Virginia (7-3, 5-2 ACC) was a defensive juggernaut. The Cavaliers’ defensive line included experienced and talented players. The linebackers were among the ACC’s best, and the secondary featured a first-round NFL Draft prospect in Hall to go with a handful of other talented players. The defense led the way.
With players like Hall, Nelson, Darrius Bratton, Germaine Crowell and Antonio Clary all suffering injuries at some point this season or in the preseason, the secondary has gone from a strong point to a relative weakness.
On the other side of the ball, the offensive line acted as UVa’s weakest point. The Cavaliers allowed an astounding eight sacks at Notre Dame. Those sacks led to Bryce Perkins fumbles, and UVa’s turnover total swelled to five in the defeat.
After a bye week, the offensive line went through its fair share of struggles again two weeks later against Miami. The Cavaliers scored just nine points in the loss and sacks were once again a concern. Virginia’s offense couldn’t capitalize on its defensive effort.
The script has flipped the past two weeks.
While the defense has battled through injuries and played a bit below its usual standard, the offense has racked up 930 combined yards and scored 71 points in crucial ACC Coastal Division wins over North Carolina and Georgia Tech.
“It’s offensive line improvement,” Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall said. “That’s allowed Bryce [Perkins] to run more effectively, to have more protection to throw more effectively. Our offensive front has trended upward for about the last six weeks. It’s been incremental, it’s been slow, it’s been sometimes less visible to the outside world, but I’ve seen it.”
The entire offense looks like a different unit than it did against Louisville when it needed a late score to record any second-half points in a 28-21 loss. In the past two games, Virginia hasn’t turned the ball over and it’s a perfect 11-for-11 in the red zone, turning eight of those 11 possessions into touchdowns.
As the defense struggles with injuries, the offense picks them up. Without the improved showings from Robert Anae’s unit, it’s unlikely the Cavaliers would be in contention for the Coastal title. The offense needed to improve, and it did.
“Give credit to our offensive coaches who have provided schemes and plays for us to really excel,” running back Wayne Taulapapa said. “You can see it every week now. Last week UNC, and now this week, we’ve been able to score.”
Taulapapa’s yardage stats don’t jump out, but the sophomore running back is up to 11 touchdown runs on the season after plowing into the end zone twice in Saturday’s 33-28 win over Georgia Tech. His short-yardage ability helps in the red zone, where the Cavaliers have excelled the past two weeks.
The wide receivers remain elite on the outside. In addition to Joe Reed and Hasise Dubois, Terrell Jana leads another group of emerging receivers. Jana has 22 receptions for 254 yards in the past two games. In the three games Jana has at least seven receptions, the Cavaliers are 3-0 and averaging 34 points per game. All of those wins are against ACC foes.
Weapons on the outside combined with a good short-yardage back make UVa respectable. Adding in a healthy Perkins at quarterback and a solid offensive line makes the Cavaliers dangerous.
Perkins said he feels better than he did a few weeks ago, and his improved health is showing. He’s passed for over 200 yards and rushed for over 100 yards in consecutive weeks. He’s ripped off runs of at least 40 yards in both games as he begins to look like the explosive runner from 2018.
Virginia’s defense doesn’t have the personnel to play like it did early in the season, but the Cavaliers believe the offense can make enough plays to turn their goal of winning a Coastal Division title into reality.
“I think there’s always urgency to try to have as much success as you can, but I think now we realize we can’t lean on our defense to make every single play,” Jana said. “We have to hold our own and really play as a complete team.”