Any number of words have been written on the 2013 Virginia Cavaliers
dumpster fire football team. Since week three, very few of them have been positive. After six straight losses—each of them through a new and ingenious display of fail—frustration is understandable.
But don't blame Jon Tenuta.
Why not? After all, this team got gashed to the tune of 59 points twice so far. It gave up 557 yards to Oregon, 600+ yards to Clemson, and 500+ to Ball State. (One of those things is not like the others.) We blew a 22–0 lead against Duke, surrendering 35 unanswered points. How can that possibly not fall back on the man and the mind behind said defense?
Because if you buy into advanced metrics, this defensive unit is actually still pretty good.
Football Outsiders publishes weekly metrics for NFL and college ball. They account for each and every play, filtering out garbage time, and adjust for strength of opponent. Overall, UVa ranks in the mid-60s in each of their three major ratings (FEI, F/+, and S&P+).
But according to those same stats, the defense is among the nation's best: 27th in S&P+, in fact. It's ranked 22nd in play efficiency (stopping the opposing offense from getting its necessary yardage on any given play) and 35th in drive efficiency (rating both field position created and points surrendered, relative to the expected results given where the opposing offense starts a drive).
The S&P+ data does reveal two black-eyes: stopping plays when the opposing offense is behind schedule, and the "surrendering points" half of drive efficiency (DNP, or Difference in Net Points). On what FO rates as Passing Downs—2nd and 8+, 3rd/4th and 5+—U.Va. is only ranked 57th. And when it comes to how many points opposing offenses score compared to how many they should, the team is ranked 92nd.
The opponent-strength adjustments are why these types of stats should be given more credence than simple box scores. Six of Virginia's nine opponents are in the top 40 of offensive S&P+, including three in the top 25 (Oregon, 6th; Georgia Tech, 15th; Clemson, 22nd). They're hanging lots of points and yards on lots of people.
Meanwhile, the offense and special teams have put the defense in positions that make it almost impossible to succeed. The Hoos are 97th in offensive S&P+, 61st in special teams efficiency, and 118th in how often our opponents are playing on a short field. Turnovers, bad returns, bad coverage on other teams' returns: the reasons are myriad, but as often as not the U.Va. defense is playing from behind the eight-ball.
Then throw in the intangibles. Brent Urban led the ACC in passes defended, then missed the game against one of the country's better passing offenses. Tra Nicholson has been plagued by injuries throughout the year, and is being shut down for the remainder of the season. Freshmen and sophomore defenders make up the majority of the unit. Tenuta is using his young athletes in an aggressive way to try and make up for what the other units can't do: score points, flip the field, and put U.Va. in a position to win. (And for what it's worth, he's managed to turn Anthony Harris from looking clueless in pass coverage to 2nd nationally in interceptions.)
There is plenty of blame and criticism to go around when a season goes from so promising to so disappointing. For the record, I'm putting the great heaping majority of that blame on Mike London and ESPECIALLY Steve Fairchild. And certainly Tenuta could be criticized for a call or series of calls in a given moment. But the season's body of work reveals a defensive unit that is one of the few positives from what otherwise has to be considered a disaster of a season.