Zone pass defense drops gift to Cavaliers

Matt Perkins

NASHVILLE, Tenn. ” ‘Twas the season for giving.

Minnesota’s football team gave Virginia quarterback Marques Hagans a great belated Christmas present ” a zone defense.

The Gophers repeatedly dropped back into zone coverage and Hagans repeatedly found the open receiver in Virginia’s 34-31 come-from-behind win over Minnesota on Dec. 30 at the Music City Bowl.

Hagans, the team’s Most Valuable Player, was 25-of-32 for 357 yards and two touchdowns.

Most of the time that open receiver was tight end Tom Santi.

Santi said he had the option of sitting under the zone or going over the top of it, and both choices were effective.

“It was pretty perfect,” Santi said. “To be able to keep pace with Marques like we did is pretty special. The middle of the field was open.”

Santi ended the game with five catches for a career-high 128 yards, including a 55-yard reception in the fourth quarter that set up a game-tying touchdown with 8:48 left.

The space in the middle of the field between the hashes was open in large part to mistakes made by the Gophers linebacking corps, specifically senior Kyle McKenzie, who admitted to struggles after the game.

“We have to go out there and make more plays than they do,” McKenzie said. “We didn’t get it done and a lot of that was on me missing assignments.”

But McKenzie and others were simply outmaneuvered, as Virginia had the Gophers zone defense outlined weeks before game time.

Virginia coach Al Groh said it’s hard to do anything to perfection, but the Cavaliers’ offensive preparation and execution was flawless.

“I don’t know if we’ve ever had anything go to perfection,” Groh said. “But that was a pretty great job by our offense.

“We’re pretty tight end-oriented. We knew we had the opportunity to get some of those plays and Marques was finding Tom open.”

Gophers coach Glen Mason said it was as simple as Virginia’s execution against the Gophers’ lack thereof.

“I thought the first question you guys were going to ask me is, “What happened to the tight end over the middle?’ ” Mason said. “It’s not like we didn’t know that they were going to go to the tight end; we just didn’t make the plays.”

Hagans did make the plays, however, saying it was his offensive line that bought him enough time to pick apart the coverage.

And in the spirit of giving, Hagans said he gave his offensive line some unmentionable presents for Christmas, and they returned the favor in Nashville.

“I gave them a couple of things; I can’t really say what,” Hagans said. “But they played their asses off for me, and that made all the difference.”