5 questions with a Virginia columnist

Credit: Justin Berl

Credit: Justin Berl

Jerry Ratcliffe, the esteemed columnist for the Charlottesville (Va.) Daily Progress, shares his insights on Virginia ahead of Georgia Tech's matchup with the Cavaliers Saturday. You can read his columns here and follow him on Twitter here.

Q. As you see the team, how is Virginia improved from last year?

A. Virginia's defense has vastly improved from last year. In 2016, the Cavaliers were statistically one of the worst defenses in the country, ranking in the 90's and 100's in several major defensive categories. The second year in Bronco Mendenhall's 3-4 base defense, the players have a clearer understanding and have executed better. UVa's offensive line had shown signs of improvement the first six games but have slipped over the past two weeks in the Cavaliers' back-to-back losses.

Q. What do the Cavaliers do best?

A. The Cavaliers have been tough to run on this season. They take pride in making opposing offenses one-dimensional, and have rarely surrendered big runs. When they have, it has been due to missed assignments. Virginia is ranked No. 58 in rush defense nationally, giving up 159 yards per game on the ground. They have also been good defensively in the red zone (seventh in the nation, .682), and up until the last two weeks, have been outstanding on third down conversion defense (No. 31 nationally ... and that number was much higher a couple of weeks ago). Offensively, Virginia has a decent passing game, which has slipped the past two weeks.

Q. Things looked so promising with wins over Boise State (on the road), Duke and North Carolina. What has happened in the last two weeks with the losses to Boston College and Pittsburgh?

A. Boston College was better than advertised coming into the Virginia game. Believe it or not, the Cavaliers lost their focus for the BC game. Going into that contest, they were 5-1, only one game away from being bowl eligible for the first time since 2011. They were completely manhandled from the get-go. Virginia should have won at Pittsburgh, but lingering effects from the BC loss continued to show sloppy play and a lack of focus.

Q. In the past eight seasons, the Cavaliers have finished sixth or seventh seven times. What are two or three factors that have led to this?

A. The previous coaching staff was splintered and often not on the same page, which didn't help from week-to-week. Too many chefs in the kitchen. Combined with eight losing seasons over a nine-year span, the Cavaliers struggled to recruit the type of talent it enjoyed during the George Welsh era and the early portion of the Al Groh area. A lack of overall talent and a lack of depth often plagued any progress the program made, and some bad in-game coaching decisions cost them dearly. Mendenhall is seeking a complete rebuild, hoping to gradually build depth and correct mistakes made in roster mismanagement, which he believes will lead to consistency.

Q. Georgia Tech fans will never tire of talking (and reading about) the 1990 win over Virginia at Scott Stadium. I trust you were there. What is your most vivid memory of that game?

A. I was there for that classic matchup. It was still the best college football game I've ever witnessed, which I believe was the same sentiment shared by your former late, great colleague Furman Bisher. My most vivid memories of the game were the three plays that cost Virginia the game, any one of which would have probably added up to a win for the Cavaliers, and allowed them to keep their national No. 1 ranking.

One, a pass that bounced off of running back Nikki Fisher's helmet, and was intercepted by the Yellow Jackets. Two, a fumble where a UVa lineman kicked the ball out of QB Shawn Moore's hands. And three, tight end Bruce McGonnigal unable to play because of an off the field injury two nights before, and a UVa go-ahead touchdown being negated by a call for not enough men on the line of scrimmage, which turned out to be the backup tight end, who didn't know he was supposed to be on the field. I also vividly remember the Georgia Tech winning field goal in the waning seconds that stunned the Scott Stadium crowd. Afterward, talking to Virginia players, it was as if the loss totally deflated their season and they had nothing left to give.