Well, that was quick. Whatever goodwill head coach Mike London managed to accrue after Virginia’s convincing victory over Miami last weekend evaporated in the frigid night air at Lane Stadium on Friday when Virginia coughed up a late lead and suffered a season-ending 24-20 loss to Virginia Tech. The game ended in the worst-possible way for Virginia—a sack on a 4th-down play that was ill-conceived, fooled no one, and had little chance of success. It served as a microcosm of the offensive shortcomings that have plagued the Hoos all year. At the point of desperation and with the season on the line, Virginia dialed up play-action on 4th and 5 with 12 seconds left in the game. Play action? Did anyone for even a second believe that Virginia would attempt a rush?
After a season of bizarre play calls like this one, Virginia fans are left to wonder if offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild hampered the offense or if the offense hampered Fairchild. One thing is certain. Virginia missed Jake McGee much more than anyone might have expected. Virginia struggled terribly in the red zone this season and McGee, a sure-handed tight end, most likely was exactly the red zone weapon that Virginia so needed this year. Reportedly at odds with the Virginia staff regarding his role in the offense, McGee opted to play his final season at the University of Florida. Sadly for him, his Florida career lasted less than a quarter as he broke his leg in the first game. It was the rare situation in which everyone involved lost–McGee, Florida, and certainly Virginia.
The Virginia Tech game offered the Cavaliers a chance at so many positives but it instead became another maddening chapter in Virginia’s increasingly long book of missed opportunities. The maligned Virginia offense founds its rhythm just in time to execute a 10-play 89-yard that gave Virginia a 20-17 lead with 2:55 left in the game. Virginia then turned the game over to its defense, the same defense that stifled opponents all year and kept Virginia in almost every game. In a bit of bitter irony that only Virginia fans can appreciate, the normally stout defense allowed Tech to score in just three plays. “Sometimes I feel like we are just cursed,” said junior defensive tackle David Dean, echoing a sentiment shared for years by Virginia fans who struggle to explain Virginia’s futility in any other way.
With the loss not much changed for the Hoos in 2014. Sure, there were a few more wins and the Cavalier’s margin of defeat narrowed considerably, but the Hoos had a losing season. Again. It finished last again in the ACC’s Coastal Division. Again. It lost to Virginia Tech for the 11th consecutive time. It won no road games for the second year in a row. Yet against this backdrop of futility Athletic Director Craig Littlepage announced prior to the Tech game that Mike London would be back to coach the Cavaliers next season. “It was important to see improvement in our football program this season,” Littlepage said. “I’ve seen signs of progress in many areas.” Never mind that this progress was measured against Virginia’s historically bad 2013 season when Virginia was rarely competitive and lost by an average of 21.6 points per game. If 2013 is the standard then it is a laughably low one. Nevertheless London will be back for a sixth year despite an overall record of 23-38, an ACC record of 11-29, and a combined record of 0-10 against North Carolina and Virginia Tech, UVA’s biggest rivals. It is easy to understand why Virginia fans to have taken to every social media outlet to express their collective disbelief.
London will have every conceivable obstacle in his path next year-another difficult schedule, increased fan antipathy, the weight of his overall record as the Cavaliers coach and specifically his aforementioned record against Tech and UNC. London will need a heroic season next year to save his job. At the end of next season he will have one year left on his current deal. Coaches don’t coach on one-year contracts because the uncertainty cripples recruiting. So, either London and UVA will have a banner year and he will be extended or else London and the Cavaliers will part ways. With non-conference games against UCLA, Notre Dame and Boise State, Virginia appears to have once again overscheduled. Throw in the annual game against Virginia Tech and Virginia could easily have four losses or more. I think sevens wins will be the minimum required of Virginia next year given the displeasure fans currently have with the state of the program. I expect season ticket sales and early home attendance to lag accordingly.
“I trust the plan Mike has in place and believe his leadership provides the best opportunity for Virginia football to be successful in the future,” Littlepage said in a press release. “The staff has refocused its recruiting efforts to emphasize the need to attract student-athletes capable of helping the program compete at a high level in the expanded Atlantic Coast Conference,” Littlepage said. “We are seeing many of these student-athletes on the field right now and the staff continues to have success on the recruiting trail. We will continue to support the program in their efforts to maximize their recruiting success.” Littlepage’s support of London puts him in a potentially untenable position. It’s win and win big for London next year or else Littlepage will be held responsible for Virginia football falling even father behind.
Reflecting on his team’s season-long effort, London said, “We improved as a football team. We played better. We did a lot of things that you can look at and you can build on, but ultimately when we don’t have a chance to go beyond the regular season and into other opportunities, it hurts. You want to win football games. That’s the whole objective.” In reference to Virginia’s offensive line play against Tech, London admitted that some of his lineman were “overmatched there a little bit.” After five years of bungling effort, indefensible clock management, poor personnel decisions, and overzealous scheduling, many fans feel the same way about London. However, the players, London and Littlepage all feel confident that next year is THE year that all the hard work starts paying off. For the sake of everyone with an interest in the University of Virginia’s football program, I hope they are right because at this time next year there will be no debate about London’s job. He either will or he won’t.