Eli Harold watched the South Carolina game last week with his eyes locked on superstar Jadeveon Clowney. Harold is in awe of the Gamecocks' pass rusher and he said he watches YouTube highlights of Clowney on a regular basis.
But something about Clowney's play against North Carolina's hurry-up offense last week rattled Harold. Clowney, who has been pegged as a sure-fire first-round NFL draft pick, was tired. It was an image striking enough to have Harold still on edge when he began gasping for breath Saturday against BYU.
"That guy's my idol, and I look up to him, but I didn't want to be as hurt as he was against North Carolina when they ran their no-huddle," Harold said. "I just said to myself, I don't want to be that guy that's bending down, touching my knees."
Harold and the rest of the Virginia defense managed to keep their composure Saturday in a stunning finish against BYU, but the task only gets tougher in Week 2. Yes, BYU ran an up-tempo attack, but it's nothing compared to the light-speed offense Oregon employs.
Nevertheless, Harold said he's confident he won't have his hands on his knees, sucking wind, when the Ducks click things into high gear.
"Even though Oregon runs it that much faster, I think we showed on film we can handle it and be in good shape," Harold said. "I think we're ready to play against that even that much more of a high-paced offense."
The confidence starts with a good game plan, and Virginia defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta said he has been breaking down film on Oregon since last season ended.
While the up-tempo, zone-read offenses are all the rage, Tenuta said few teams can match the speed with which Oregon runs it. What's worse is the rapid-fire offense keeps Tenuta from substituting on defense, meaning it will be a significant test of endurance for his players.
"You have to be pretty sharp in when and where you can sub," Tenuta said. "When you're sucking air, you're sucking air."
With that in mind, Tenuta has had his defense work against the first-team offense in no-huddle situations throughout fall camp, and the scout team has worked with a two-huddle system to recreate the tempo Oregon will run.
If Virginia can keep pace from a cardiovascular standpoint, the next step is finding a way to throw speed bumps in front of the Ducks' offensive machine. That's simply a matter of execution, according to safety Anthony Harris.
"You've got to know your assignment, take care of your assignment each play, and you've got to tackle well," said Harris, who was named the ACC defensive back of the week after his 11-tackle performance against BYU. "You've got to be tackling down to the ground."
The pass rush figures to be the other piece of the puzzle. Harold said it's imperative the line disrupts Oregon's downhill attack, forcing the Ducks to the sidelines and taking them out of their rhythm.
"Look at the teams that beat Oregon in the past," Harold said. "They just shoot their gaps and get a lot of penetrations. If you stop them from running up the middle where they want to run the ball, get them to bounce it outside, just set the edge and penetrate, we can really stop those guys."
The final key is for the Virginia offense to keep Oregon's gunslingers off the field. That's a concern on two fronts. For one, David Watford and the Cavaliers mustered just 223 yards of offense last week. Secondly, Oregon doesn't need much time to make some big plays. In their opener, the Ducks held the ball just 19:42, and still ran 71 plays.
But if the numbers seem stacked against Virginia, Harold isn't worried. He knows it will be a test, and he's used to the role of underdog. The way he sees it, Oregon represents a chance for his defense to make its mark.
"I'm not afraid of anybody," Harold said. "I don't care who we're playing. I'm up for the challenge. I want to see what all the hype is about. I take a lot of pride in playing this team this weekend, and I can't wait."