Wahoos keep improving on defense

DURHAM, N.C. (NEWSPLEX) -- His team is going into its open week at 2-3, and coming off the first back-to-back wins since midway through the 2014 season.

Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall says he has seen improvement from his team in each of his first five games as coach. Much of that improvement has come on the defensive side of the ball, where Mendenhall also serves as the Cavaliers.

On Saturday, the UVA defense held Duke to just two touchdowns and forced six takeaways, including five interceptions - matching the most picks in a single game in program history. The sixth turnover came when freshman linebacker Jordan Mack leveled Duke quarterback Daniel Jones in the end zone, and defensive lineman Eli Hanback fell on a fumble for a game-icing touchdown.

UVA won 34-20 on Saturday, snapping the program's 17-game losing streak on the road, and getting this year's team off to a 1-0 start in ACC play.

“I want it to be where not only you, but everybody can see that ‘Holy cow, look at how much better they’re getting. How is that possible?’" Mendenhall said after the win. "And this is just the beginning, but eventually it will look consistently like that, as UVA defense.”

Mendenhall has been promising defensive improvement ever since the unit struggled mightily in back-to-back losses to Richmond and at Oregon to open the season. UVA, in its first two games lining up in the 3-4 alignment Mendenhall and his staff have transitioned to this season, gave up an average of 40.5 points and 578 yards in those two defeats.

“The Richmond game, honestly I didn’t feel like we were fully comfortable," sophomore cornerback Juan Thornhill, who had a pair of interceptions Saturday at Duke, said after the game. "But now that we’ve been together, been playing together for a while, I think that everyone knows what they have to do. And now people are learning what others have to do, and it’s making us a better team.”

The Wahoos only gave up 13 points and 277 total yards in a loss at UConn the week after Oregon. Including that loss to the Huskies, UVA's defense has given up an average of 20.3 points and 401 yards the past three games. The Cavaliers have also forced nine turnovers -- including those six against Duke -- after not having a single takeaway in their first two games.

At the heart of that UVA defense is inside linebacker Micah Kiser. The junior was everywhere at Duke, finishing with a career-high 18 tackles -- including two for a loss and a key fourth-down sack in the fourth quarter -- plus a pair of pass break-ups.

Kiser currently ranks fourth in the country with 58 tackles on the season, 20 more than any other player in the ACC. Following Saturday's win, Mendenhall had high praise for Kiser, calling him "one of the best I've ever coached."

Kiser talked about his role in the Cavaliers' improving defense after the game.

“I’m free a lot, honestly. I don’t have to take on a lot of offensive linemen. Our defensive line is just getting better and better every week," he said. "Stopping the run, and getting them in predictive second and third downs, and that pays off with interceptions."

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