Virginia Football – Welcome to Hell…or Not

The Night of:

The Red Sox had the curse of the Bambino. The Cubs had the curse of the goat. I am not sure what Virginia’s football curse is, but it’s there. Maybe it is the revenge of the “Huggable Hoo” – Virginia’s mascot abomination from 1983 that lasted less than half-a-season. It was justifiably pummeled with ridicule and bourbon & cokes during home games and pulled from the marketing plan fearing for the safety of the Hoo inside the costume. As curses go, it’s as good as any. 

I don’t want to toot my own horn on this, but I knew very early that Virginia was going to lose their 15th game in a row to Virginia Tech. I know they came back. I know they were leading with 3 minutes to go. Virginia was not mentally ready to play this game and like voting in Chicago, it was apparent both early and often.

Virginia was mentally out of control the entire first half. They started the game with big mistakes and after righting themselves, ended the game with more big mistakes. The worst part of the 15th consecutive loss to Virginia Tech was that this was a tremendously important game for the progress of the program and it was an imminently winnable game that the Virginia players and staff gave away. How did I know Virginia was toast early in the game? Easy, I’ve seen this show before:

1) On Virginia’s first offensive play from scrimmage, they ran a slant to Olamide Zaccheaus. This is a play that has been money all season. It is a play they run hundreds of times in practice. It should be automatic. Yet, in the most important game for Virginia football in 10 years, Virginia ran the play to perfection, except Zaccheaus dropped the pass. No doubt looking to break his first play from scrimmage for a big gain, he dropped a sure-fire eight-yard gain forcing a second & ten. Second down, in the biggest game in the past 10 years, Virginia was penalized for an illegal chop block. Second down (again) in the biggest game in the past 10 years (2nd & 23) Virginia completed a three-yard pass…on which they had illegal motion, so if by a miracle they had converted 2nd & 23, it was coming back. I was surprised the team was making such rudimentary mistakes. They were too hyped, too expectant of the result they wanted too badly. 

2) Three minutes to go in the first quarter of a scoreless game that is critical to the advancement of Virginia’s program and Tavares Kelly is 20 yards behind the Hokies defense. Bryce Perkins’ pass is underthrown. Kelly slows to try to make the catch and keep his feet so he can score rather than taking a 30-yard completion. He drops the pass. The Virginia drive stalls forcing Virginia’s 3rd punt in as many possessions. Virginia was swinging for the fences when all they needed were singles and doubles. They whiffed on the plays that had brought them to the brink of a successful season not because they were incapable of making the play, but because there were looking ahead to what they could do rather than what was right in front of them. 

3) I have always thought that any team that commits 2 or more personal fouls in a game does not deserve to win. Virginia committed their second personal foul in the second quarter…of the most important game of the past 10 years. How can a team that is mentally ready to play commit not one, but two personal fouls in one half? The answer is, they can’t and as a result Virginia lost a game that was well within the capabilities of the program. 

4) Fast forward to the end of the game. Virginia Tech fumbles into the end zone. Virginia can and should recover the fumble which would effectively end the game with a Virginia win. Instead, Virginia cannot gain control of the ball or simply sweep it out of the back of the end zone, VT recovers for a game-tying touchdown. 

On the rare occasions when my kids have asked my advice, one of the things I consistently tell them is when you rush decisions, when you rush your work, you make mistakes. The same is true in football. When you rush, when you are out of control, you make mistakes. Virginia was in a rush to end this interminable streak and they made mistakes that cost them the game. 

I feel bad for the Virginia program, but they did this to themselves. They know better and have done better most of the year, but in the most important game in a decade, they blew it. I do not doubt they worked hard to prepare for this game. They have been focused on it since the spring. However, because they were in such a hurry (not to be confused with overconfidence) they were not under control nor in control and now they get to try this again next year. 

While the play on the field was indicative of team lacking the mental focus required to win a game of this magnitude, the coaching staff did a good job outsmarting themselves as well – The formation with the offensive linemen split out in place of wide receivers? That worked well. Pass, pass and pass again to start the game against a VT defense that had been gashed two games in a row yielding miles of rushing yardage. Did the Virginia staff not watch the film from the Pitt and GT games? Last but not least, with a 4 point lead, the ball in the VT red zone, and 3 minutes left to play, why doesn’t Virginia run a sustained drive to score a touchdown versus a drive that looked like it was designed to set up a field goal?

The real shame of this loss is that this year was the year that VT was exposed. The Hokies played a good game but were not a very good team. Virginia played their worst half of the year, yet still had the lead and the ball with less than 3 minutes to play. When I saw the VT fans streaming out of the stadium with their Hokies down 7, I laughed. Did they know who they were playing?

While I thought Virginia had a chance to win the game, I knew that the odds and gods were against us. Sometimes I hate it when I’m right.

Welcome to Virginia football. Welcome to hell.  

The Morning After:

The sun rose this morning to a cloudy sky that damped the remaining brilliance of fall. The University of Virginia football team has 364 days to figure out how to beat Virginia Tech and end the streak at 15 before it gets a bad attitude and starts talking back. 

As streaks go for Virginia football, this one is just reaching middle age. Recall the losing streak to Clemson was 29 before Virginia finally broke through with a victory in 1990 – the year my eldest daughter was born. In true Virginia football fashion, my daughter was due to arrive the day before the game. She arrived on September 16th, 8 days after I gave away my tickets and parking pass to Virginia’s first win ever against Clemson. She ended up attending UVa and never saw a win against Virginia Tech. She attended the last win against VT with me, when she was in 7th grade. It was very cold and Heath Miller, who just retired from a terrific NFL career was “big money” the whole game. 

While I feel terrible for the team that put all their chips for the season on the Virginia Tech game and rolled snake eyes, they did it to themselves. Yet another game in Virginia football lore that got away, this one won’t crack the top 3 of all-time Virginia losses, but it’s a good one. 

Here are my top 3 Virginia football losses of all time:

Michigan 1995 Mercury Hayes 17 yard TD to win on the last play of the game to win 18-17

Texas 1995 Phil Dawson 50 yard FG into the wind to win 17-16

Clemson 1980 – Obed Arriri 52 yard FG to win 27-24 keeping the Clemson streak alive.

This loss is a clear top ten, right there with the home loss to Notre Dame when hundreds of un-indoctrinated first-years lined up to rush the field while Notre Dame still had the ball and 16 seconds left on the clock trailing 27-26. Notre Dame won 34-27 and no one rushed the field. 

What are the positives to take away from loss # 15? In the new standard of Virginia football, they didn’t roll over. They fought hard to come back and put themselves in a position to win. But reminiscent of the old standard, they beat themselves early when the balance was being established and in the final 3 minutes when the game was truly in the balance. 

Maybe I am part of the old Virginia football standard, maybe I am just numb to big losses, but I never lost any sleep over the 29-game losing streak to Clemson, and I haven’t lost any sleep over the current streak against Virginia Tech. To the contrary, we have 15 more attempts before this becomes the worst losing streak in Virginia football history. If I am still present-and-accounted-for if that day rolls around, I might lose some sleep over that, but probably not. 

Make no mistake, I would certainly like to win next year. Especially given some of the snarky comments by Justin Fuente prior to yesterday’s game. If Virginia is going to get us, they better do it this year? Really? Why? Is Virginia Tech going somewhere? It is more likely that Justin Fuente is going somewhere as the Hokies faithful would gladly toss him overboard were it not for a $ 15M buyout they cannot afford to pay. If his comment is a prediction about Virginia Tech football moving to the ever-illusive “next level” I won’t lose too much sleep over that either. It’s not happening. Virginia has a better chance of establishing a winning streak against Virginia Tech than VT does of playing for a national championship.

It would be nice to send the flavorless & ill-disposed Justin Fuente home from Charlottesville with a loss next year. Virginia will likely be a better team. VT might be too if Fuente can stop the talent leakage. It should be another good game and if Virginia can keep playing close games with VT, eventually the football fates will be distracted by another whipping boy and UVa can slip one by the goalie.  

Does Virginia win next year? I have no idea. The home field advantage in Scott stadium is great but is always mitigated by 15K or so Virginia Tech fans who take their college football much more seriously than Virginia fans. There is no question that Virginia is a much better football team than it was 3 years ago and is trending in a good direction. Part of the anatomy of the 15 game skid is that many of those years, Virginia football was undisciplined, unorganized, and simply not competitive with mediocre programs much less good ones like VT. I think those days have passed, now it is just a matter of time but making matters more difficult is this streak that garners so much attention and applies so much pressure in the run-up to the game. 

There is a lot of good college football left to play this year which is great. It is possible that Virginia will be part of the great college football yet to come in 2018. It would have been great if the streak had died along with a lot of other bad mojo surrounding the Virginia program, but it didn’t. Maybe next year, but if it doesn’t, it’s no reason for a bad night’s sleep. 

Beat Tech.

David is on Twitter at @DMRayner.