- - Friday, November 18, 2011

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — It seemed unthinkable a year ago as teams piled on yard after yard, but entering Saturday night’s game against Florida State, Virginia knows it will have to lean on its defense, one of the conference’s best this year.

The process of getting there began with coach Mike London changing the playbook in his first season, and moving a number of players to new positions.

Now in year two, the adjustment is complete and the unit more closely resembles the vision he laid out when he took the Cavaliers’ coaching job.

“I’m an eternal optimist, but we did have to deal with some issues where guys weren’t quite ready or big enough or skilled enough,” he said. “You just keep believing in what you’re doing and you spend time doing it.”

Defensive line coach Jeff Hanson added the unit has a new mentality and believes in the system, as reinforced by the results.

Last year, the Cavs were 10th in the 12-team ACC, allowing 28.3 points per game. This year, they’re fourth, having cut that number to 21.6.

Much of the improvement was made by the defensive line and linebackers, who do the dirty work of stopping the running game.

Defensive tackle Matt Conrath said after last season’s poor results, the Wahoos turned to film study in the offseason to improve their technique.

“I think the defensive line as a whole has gotten unbelievably better from last year,” he said. “We understand the scheme a lot better. The front seven in general, we understand where we fit in the scheme of things.”

That confidence will be needed Saturday night against one of the league’s toughest teams. Florida State enters as a 17-point favorite, and it’s not hard to see why. Its defense is the league’s best, and quarterback EJ Manuel has been on a tear.

When the teams met last year, FSU rolled to a 34-14 victory. The Cavs, though, say they’re a different team, and the results back them up. Tonight will be the biggest test yet.

Conrath said last year was tough because of all the uncertainties of the new positions.

“I didn’t really know what to expect going in,” he said. “I wish it had been a little smoother for me, but I watched a lot of film this offseason.”

That’s music to London’s ears. The coach resisted fans who called for change and booed defensive coordinator Jim Reid, allowing him time to fully implement the new 4-3 system.

“It was a tough learning curve for all that,” London said. “[This year] it’s the same terminology, same coaches. You get better at the technique with your hands, with your feet, with communicating. I think that lends itself to the improvement, the consistency of teaching the type of techniques that are needed.”

Read Michael Phillips’ Virginia blog at TimesDispatch.com

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