All posts by David Rayner

Virginia Football, Almost There…

I promise not to make songs on my playlist a regular part of these columns, but after the Virginia game against FSU and the state of the program 10 games into the 2014 season, the song “Almost” by Bowling for Soup off their Album “A Hangover You Don’t Deserve” seemed more than just a little appropriate as the thematic musical score for Virginia’s Football season.

As a 22 point dog in Tallahassee, Virginia almost got the game to a one-score differential midway through the fourth quarter. While it is hard to say that UVa was in a position to win the game against the Seminoles, they were in a position to make a statement and push the Seminoles to the edge. The Cavalier defense held the ‘Noles to their second lowest yardage total of the season. The Cavaliers were very competitive with the undefeated,  #2 ranked team in the country. Then, in a “Play it again Sam” moment, things went awry as they have all season. On the most important drive of the game Virginia stalled on the Florida State 5-yard line yielding zero points and crushing any chance Virginia had to win the game. Inexplicable play-calling and poor execution delivered another “almost” for Cavalier fans and “Ain’t that a Shame” was the chorus running through my head as Virginia almost made FSU sweat for their 10th victory of the season.

The burning question for Virginia fans is why is Virginia almost a good team versus actually being a good team? One answer is self-inflicted implosions through poor execution and/or mental mistakes. A pick-6 against UCLA, a fumble on the first offensive play from scrimmage against Florida State, the worst screen pass of the decade against UNC have resulted in almost-wins, otherwise known as painful losses. The coaching staff has made its share of gaffes to turn UVa into the ACC’s “almost” team. Terrible clock management against Georgia Tech, David Watford in the wildcat behind a patchwork offensive line in the red zone against FSU, too many screen passes & too few vertical passes are among the coaching miscues that have Virginia on the cusp of almost missing a bowl game for the third year in a row.

However, it is also hard to argue that breaks just have not gone Virginia’s way this year. A fluke “pop-up” fumble against UCLA turned into a game-winning scoop & score. A similar fumble by Florida State’s Dalvin Cook this weekend bounced harmlessly back into FSU hands. A 4th down conversion by Greyson Lambert against BYU turned into turnover when BYU stripped Lambert well after forward progress had stopped. The review almost went Virginia’s way…but didn’t and BYU scored a critical touchdown in what was essentially a 14 point swing.  UNC punter Tommy Hibbard punted three consecutive times trying to pin UVa deep in their own zone. Three times Hibbard’s punts almost made it to the end zone for touchbacks, but instead each was downed inside the 5-yardline. These things don’t seem to happen to other programs. They seem to happen every week to UVa.

Probably the toughest part of this weekend for Virginia fans was that the Florida State game seemed like the UNC game, which seemed a lot like the Duke game, which put us in mind of the UCLA game. Each of these games was to varying degrees “winnable” to “in-the-bag” yet Virginia lost them all. It is hard to dispute that the 2014 edition of Virginia football is almost a good team. They have almost overcome some incredibly bad luck this season.

Virginia almost won the UNC and UCLA games. If the gods had been with the ‘Hoos the Virginia fan base might almost be willing to give Mike London and the staff another year. Scott Stadium might almost be filled to capacity against Miami on the 22nd. The problem with athletics and college football in particular is that “almost” doesn’t get it done. It doesn’t score touchdowns, it doesn’t win games, and it doesn’t put fans in the seats. Many absentee Virginia fans are delighted by the fact that Basketball season is almost here.

In a year of “almosts” this week’s game in Tallahassee was clearly a hangover we didn’t need or deserve. Unfortunately it might be just one more reason that Mike London and his staff are almost out of a job.


Another Week – More Coastal Chaos

If you watched any of the ACC games this weekend, you heard a lot of chatter from the network talking heads about the Coastal Division. Unfortunately the talk wasn’t about the Coastal as the standard bearer for quality college football. It was all about the Chaos in the Coastal and the fact that the Coastal could end the season in a 7-way tie with a full division of 4-loss teams. Wouldn’t that be fitting for the nuttiest of the power conference divisions? Of course we correctly called-out Coastal Chaos weeks ago and look forward to the final weeks of the Coastal race, if nothing else, just to see what might happen.

Contributing to the Coastal Chaos, Duke is in the driver’s seat to win the division, yet no one knows if Duke is a very good football team. A combination of “scheduling for success” and a favorable draw in the ACC schedule left the Blue Devils with the easiest schedule in the ACC. Duke only has two real tests on their 2014 schedule, both of which they failed. Duke lost convincingly to Miami on the road and then again to Pitt this past weekend. Fortunately for Duke, Pitt was not comfortable winning what has become the annual track meet with Duke. The Pitt coaching staff inexplicably forced their maligned kicker to attempt a 24-yard, game winning field goal from the right hash versus the center of the field on a gusty day in Hines Field. (Have I mentioned how much I detest college games in NFL stadiums?) The result was the shank-of-the-season and an overtime win for Duke that raised still more doubts about their worthiness as the sacrificial offering from the Coastal Division in the ACC Championship game.

If a team is struggling on offense, a game against the UNC defense will get things back on track. Similarly, if a defense is struggling, a matchup with the Virginia offense will likely produce favorable results. In case anyone had forgotten that the UNC defense was the worst in the ACC, Miami reminded us with a 47 point/500 yard performance that was every bit as dominating as it sounds. Duke Johnson had another first team all-ACC performance and the Miami defense was surprisingly effective against Marquise Williams and the normally potent UNC offense. UNC was never in this game. Maybe UNC athletes are spending time in class for a change, to the detriment of their on-field performance.

To the north in Atlanta, the Georgia Tech defense, which has been ineffective at best in 2014, shut down an impotent Virginia offense in a dominating 35-10 win. Georgia Tech was effective in both the passing and running games as Virginia gave up 3rd and long with regularity in the first half. I don’t know what kind of offensive adjustments Virginia makes at halftime. They might want to consider rock-paper-scissors to map out their changes because the current strategy isn’t getting it done. For the 4th game in a row Virginia failed to score a touchdown in the second half. Virginia has scored a grand total of 6 second-half points in their last 4 games. Bottom line, if the ‘Hoos don’t have enough points to win by halftime, they aren’t going to win. That’s not a recipe for success. Georgia Tech’s offense was impressive early and then coasted the rest of the way as Virginia imploded with dropped passes, obtuse play-calling, and poor game management.

At least Virginia Tech laid different kind of egg this week, but they laid an egg nonetheless. Quarterback Michael Brewer was effective against a determined Boston College defense. His performance should have quelled calls for his replacement, but it didn’t. The Virginia Tech running game was ineffective once again, which generally spells trouble for the Hokies. The real culprit however, in the loss to BC was the Hokie defense which broke down repeatedly, giving up long runs at inopportune times throughout the game. While Virginia fans would love to see a 50K+ crowd at Scott Stadium, it is apparent that the Hokie-nation has seen about enough of the 2014 edition of Virginia Tech football. The VT crowd this week was the smallest of the season and the smallest in recent memory. Long runs against the Hokie defense and empty seats in Lane Stadium used to the very uncommon in Blacksburg. Not so much in 2014. Virginia Tech gets a week off to gather themselves before a trip to Durham on the 15th. If Duke manages to beat Syracuse, the Hokies will likely travel to Duke as underdogs. If I were betting on the game, I’d take Virginia Tech and the points as I expect VT to get their act together and win in Durham.

The coming week’s Coastal schedule is light with only 3 teams in action. I am certainly not predicting all of these outcomes, but with the track record of the Coastal I would be only mildly surprised if Syracuse beat Duke, NC State beat Georgia Tech, or in the doozie of them all if UVa beat Florida State. I will predict that one of these upsets will post next weekend, and don’t be shocked to see two. It’s only fitting for the most chaotic of the FBS divisions.

ACC Coastal – You Can't Make This Up

When I saw that Georgia Tech had spanked Pitt 56-28, I thought that finally a team in the ACC Coastal was making a statement, taking charge, and putting the rest of the division on notice that they were the team to beat. However, as the occasionally competent ACC officiating crews say, “Upon further review…”

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Upon further review this was just more Coastal chaos. Pitt lost fumbles on 4 on their first 6 plays all of which resulted in Georgia Tech touchdowns. Now that’s impressive…for a variety of reasons. Not only did Pitt turn the ball over 4 times on 6 plays, but the Pitt defense was on the field for 9 plays and gave up 4 touchdowns. Such efficiency only occurs in the ACC Coastal. With just over 9 minutes to play in the first quarter, Georgia Tech was up 28-0, a pace for a 224-0 win, which would break the current NCAA record for the worst loss ever, ironically held by Georgia Tech in their 222-0 win over Cumberland College in 1916, which understandably had tried to cancel the game before it was played. My bet is Pitt wanted to cancel this game after the first 5 minutes as well. After Pitt settled down, this game turned into the slugfest that everyone expected, but by that time the game was over. For those keeping score, Pitt tied the NCAA FBS record for most fumbles lost in a quarter. Georgia Tech is back after consecutive conference losses and Pitt is crashing after huge a win against Virginia Tech…just another week in the Coastal.
Speaking of Virginia Tech, can anyone figure out this team? The Hokies are a talented team, but they did their best to hide it in a crushing home loss against Miami. It isn’t often that you can say a 30-6 game wasn’t as close as the score, but this game wasn’t as close as the score. With the exception of a brief spurt of life that ended with a Virginia Tech fumble on the Miami 1 yard line, Miami dominated this game. The Virginia Tech defense, which has been the heart and soul of the program for years, was thrashed by the Miami offense. Freshman quarterback Brad Kaaya only threw for 92 yards, because the Hurricanes didn’t need more than 92 passing yards. Duke Johnson’s 249 yards more than doubled the rushing yards of the entire Hokie offense. Miami’s 364 yards on the ground is hard to comprehend…against the Hokies…in Blacksburg…on the ESPN Thursday night game. Michael Brewer continued his ineffective play and Hokie fans are determined to start a quarterback controversy after a nice performance backup Mark Leal in mop-up duty. The bottom line on Miami’s win? The Hurricane offensive and defensive lines were dominant. They made the win look easy. Virginia Tech rarely goes down without a fight. This was one of those times.
When fans think that they have seen the all the tricks in Virginia’s creative losing portfolio, the Wahoos come up with one more and leave Virginia fans wondering what they did to deserve such outcomes. For the fourth time in as many losses, Virginia fans have another “stat sheet win”. They are also on the cusp of playing themselves out of the race in the Coastal. Also, once again, Marquise Williams was the UNC offense. Williams was hit hard all day long, helped off the field twice, and came back to make big throws and key runs to deliver an improbable win for the Tar Heels. Virginia’s quarterback play was not nearly as impressive. Greyson Lambert threw two interceptions that essentially lost the game for Virginia. The first, deep in Carolina territory cost Virginia a chip shot field goal. All you need to know about the second pick was that it was intercepted by Carolina defensive line Nazair Jones who set up the game winning Carolina score. Non-tipped passes intercepted by defensive lineman need no further commentary. Virginia’s defense didn’t break despite terrific UNC field position most of the second half, thanks to a fantastic performance by UNC punter Tommy Hibbard. Hibbard twice pinned UVa inside their 5 yard line and twice UVa offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild was not willing to let the Virginia offense make a credible attempt to move from the shadow of their own goal posts. Carolina did exactly what they wanted on Saturday. They kept the game close and waited for Virginia to implode, which the “hoos did, right on queue. UNC kept their Coastal hopes alive. Conversely, Virginia put themselves squarely behind the Coastal 8-ball.
Duke got a week off and sits atop the Coastal at 2-1. Consistent with the rest of their schedule, Duke has the easiest road to the Coastal finish. In a very tight race, Duke should be considered the frontrunner for the Coastal crown but Georgia Tech and Miami are surging and will certainly contend for the title. For all intents and purposes, Virginia Tech has played their way out of the race. Virginia is getting ready to do the same while Carolina will get a chance to prove their mettle with a tough road test Saturday in Miami.
It’s no surprise that when the ESPN game day pundits make their FBS playoff predictions there are no teams from the Coastal in the conversation. Let’s be honest, there aren’t any that are even close to consideration. While it might be fun if the Coastal division was more competitive on a national stage, like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates, the Coastal is more than pretty fun because you never know what you are going to get.

Inept versus Inept

I read a headline about the UVa/UNC game that said “Cavaliers Self-Destruct in Painful Loss”. I fully agree with the Cavalier self-destruction, but I might add to the description of the loss as also “ridiculous” or “farcical”. Just when Virginia fans think they have seen everything in there is to see in creative losing, the Virginia football program gives a new demonstration.
A day after the fact, it is still hard to fathom how Virginia lost to North Carolina. As has been noted, while Marquise Williams might be the best offensive player in the ACC, the UNC defense is the worst in the ACC with one of the most pervious secondaries in the nation. Yet, the Virginia coaching staff seemed confounded by the UNC defense. Add in a poor offensive scheme and equally poor quarterback play and the Cavalier’s hopes of a win were doomed, along with it possibly the 2014 season, and likely Mike London’s career in Charlottesville.

Virginia offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild is committed to the short passing game, no matter how ineffective. Like a gambler thinking that some day he is going to bluff the table holding a pair of deuces, Fairchild opens with the short passing game and doubles down as defenses align to stop it. Saturday was no exception. When Virginia threw the ball down field against the inept Carolina secondary they frequently moved the ball. However, when the game was on the line and Virginia needed to convert a key third down to get into game-closing field goal range, Fairchild dialed up a screen pass that Virginia fans have seen a hundred times. Apparently Carolina defensive lineman Nazair Jones had seen it too, because he made an effortless interception and set up the winning UNC touchdown with an impressive run after catch. This is the second critical interception Virginia has given up to a defensive front seven this year. The first was returned by Eric Kendricks for a UCLA touchdown in a game where the Virginia offense surrendered three touchdowns. I suspect the Georgia Tech front seven is giddy with anticipation as Fairchild brings his “dink and donk” passing game to Atlanta next Saturday.
The Virginia loss on Saturday was replete with the mistakes that have marked the London era. Virginia continued its 2014 regression by committing too many penalties, none more glaring than an illegal substitution penalty, after a Virginia timeout, that sealed an improbable UNC victory. However, the mistakes that cost Virginia the game were two unsightly interceptions thrown by Greyson Lambert. The first, deep in UNC territory cost Virginia points when Lambert threw behind receiver Doni Dowling in double coverage. Checking down or throwing the ball out of the endzone preserves the UVa drive and likely wins the game for Virginia. The second, more egregious gaffe was the aforementioned interception by defensive lineman Nazair Jones. The ineptitude of this play call was only exceeded by its execution. As noted early in the pre-season, Virginia can have a winning season if quarterback play improves from bad to average. Bad quarterback play combined with an ill-conceived offensive scheme almost guarantees a Virginia loss.
I suspect that Virginia fans are most frustrated by the fact that the Cavalier defense played well enough to win. The Virginia defense held a potent UNC offense to 28 points and 374 yards of total offense. The Virginia defense held UNC to 7 points in the second half despite four UNC drives that started on the Carolina 46 yard line or better. The Virginia defense is good enough to put Virginia in a position to win every game. However it is not so dominant that it can win games covering for the listless Virginia offense.
If the Mike London era in Charlottesville comes to a close at the end of the season, we can look at the loss to UNC as the point at which we started to write the final chapter. That Virginia lost to UNC was not a complete shock. UNC has an offense that has improved throughout the year and hung some big numbers on some good defenses. If I were voting for ACC offensive player of the year right now, I’d have a hard time not voting for Marquise Williams. No, the simple fact that Virginia lost to a very beatable North Carolina team was not as distasteful as the way Virginia lost. Excessive penalties, poor offensive execution, and special teams breakdowns have been the hallmarks of the Virginia program under Mike London and were the reasons for the unfortunate loss to North Carolina.
A long time friend of mine who played football at the University of Richmond and is still close to the program told me soon after he was hired that when Virginia fires Mike London Virginia would have the best kids, with the best graduation rates, and fewest disciplinary problems in Virginia history. He said Mike London was a great leader and a great mentor, but he just wasn’t a very good head coach. Unfortunately, I think we saw his prophetic words in action on Saturday and may see them again at the end of the season unless Coach London can win at least 2 of the next 4 contests, each of which presents a special challenge.

Disorder and Chaos in the ACC

There are lot of differences between the ACC Atlantic and Coastal Divisions. Most obvious, the ACC champion is, in all likelihood, coming from the Atlantic. Second, the teams with a legitimate chance to win the Atlantic have narrowed to three – some might say two or even one, but Louisville, Clemson, and Florida St. have semi-legitimate to very legitimate chances to win the division. Wake, NC State, BC, and ‘Cuse have no chance, and all but the most hyper-partisan faithful would agree. The Coastal is the inverse of the Atlantic. Everyone can still win this division and no one has the slightest idea who the eventual champion will be. Unpredictable might be the kindest description of the ACC Coastal division. Disordered is probably a more accurate description, albeit a bit bland. A circular firing squad pops in my mind when pondering the ACC Coastal division, especially in comparison with the Atlantic. An argument could be made that all the teams in the Coastal should be dismissed from the race for the ACC crown. Not convinced? Take a look at these Coastal Apples…
Pitt, which was dead-in-the-water having lost 3 games in a row, sprung to life this week with a home win against Virginia Tech whose vaunted defense gave up 118 yards rushing to pro-style quarterback Chad Voytik. Pitt now sits in a 3-way tie atop the Coastal with a victory over Virginia Tech as their lone signature win to date. 4-3 Pitt, who just three weeks ago lost convincingly at home to Akron, is right in the thick of the Coastal race and, looking at their remaining schedule, cannot be dismissed from the division championship. We are just getting warmed up…
Virginia and Duke share the top spot with Pitt. Duke beat Virginia at home this week for one of their “signature” wins this year…the other being a road win at Georgia Tech. Duke’s pathetically weak opening schedule continues to undermine their legitimacy. Solid wins against Georgia Tech and Virginia make the case that the Blue Devils are contenders, but a bad loss to a perplexing Miami program keeps the doubts alive. Had Duke played an opponent in their first four games that actually had a chance to win, they might be getting a little more respect. But they didn’t, so they’re not. Virginia on the other hand, played one of toughest early OoC schedules in the nation. There is no doubt Virginia is a better team for having played UCLA and BYU early in the season, but now Virginia sits at 4-3 overall, 2-1 in the ACC…just like Pitt. Virginia played a surprisingly uninspired game against Duke this week and has put itself in yet another “must win” situation against UNC. Picked to finish last in the Coastal, Virginia finds itself in the thick of the Coastal race, but has a tough slate ahead of them and will need to find a couple of big road wins to stay in the race. Virginia is a team that is playing to save their head coach’s job. Another performance like this week’s against Duke will have Mike London’s seat heating up and the Cavaliers chances of winning the Coastal going down.
It’s a shame that a team can’t be disqualified from the Coastal division race because it would be embarrassing for the rest of the division if they won. The UNC defense gave up over 600 yards of total offense and 43 points to non-offensive juggernaut Georgia Tech this week. Unfortunately for UNC fans, this was not the season’s low water mark for the UNC defense. The good news for Carolina is they beat the Yellow Jackets, thanks to a herculean performance by Marquise Williams who accounted for over 500 yards of total offense. The other (surprising) good news is that with the 119th best defense in the FBS, UNC is still in the hunt for the Coastal crown. If UNC wins the Coastal and plays Florida St. for the conference title, ACC officials might want to introduce a mercy rule.; Charles LeClaire - USA Today
Charles LeClaire – USA Today

If Virginia Tech doesn’t have a running game, the Virginia Tech offense is in trouble. Virginia Tech doesn’t have a running game. The Hokies top three running backs have been sidelined with injuries, which is a tough blow for any program. The Hokies still have talented running backs in JC Coleman and Joel Caleb; however, the offensive line has struggled to control the line of scrimmage in recent FBS outings. When the Virginia Tech offense sputters, Bud Foster’s defense usually comes to the rescue. “Usually” however is not “always” as the VT defense has given up big plays marked by poor tackling, especially in the secondary. It is hard to write off Virginia Tech in the Coastal race, but if they don’t beat Miami this week, they will have played themselves out of the picture.
Georgia Tech’s ceiling will always be limited by their gimmick offense, but to their credit, they are 5-2 with a signature win on the road in Blacksburg. Georgia Tech is more multi-dimensional on offense this year, which is to say they are still not a multi-dimensional attack. However, their offense is unique and can give opponents trouble, especially in short weeks. The Jackets have a tough schedule ahead of them and their defense has shown signs of the inconsistency that gave up 38 points to Georgia Southern and had trouble putting away Tulane. It might be too soon to write off the Jackets, but don’t bet the farm either.
The ACC Coastal is loaded with teams that can make your head explode, but Miami has to be the biggest enigma. Miami is blessed with great talent on both sides of the ball and a proven coaching staff, yet the Hurricanes are 4-3 and 1-2 with losses to Louisville and Georgia Tech. The narrow pre-season favorite to win the Coastal, I doubt anyone thought Miami would need to scramble to make it to the championship game. However, Miami’s porous run defense and inconsistent QB play have helped keep Miami in the middle versus the front of the Coastal horse race. Miami has a tough schedule ahead with road games in Blacksburg and Charlottesville and a home date with Florida State when we might actually see fans in the upper deck of Sun Life Stadium.
While every team in the Coastal without question wants to win the division, the best strategy might be finishing in a tie for first and losing the title in a tie-breaker. The probability that the Coastal champ is going to play Florida State is high. The probability that the Coastal champ gets embarrassed against Florida State is also high. This might be a year for the Coastal to cede its championship to Clemson and fire up a rematch of what was one of the better games in the ACC this year.

UVa – Halfway Point or Not?

The leaves are starting to turn in Charlottesville. Basketball practice has started and tailgate attire has changed from shorts to sweaters. It must be the midpoint of the Virginia football season, but don’t go saying that around Virginia middle linebacker Henry Coley. After 6 consecutive games, week 7 of the Virginia schedule provided a welcome week off, giving the staff extra time to prepare for a big road game at Duke and providing rest for players nursing injuries. An off week is also a good time to take a look back at the performance of the program to date. Sitting at 4-2 overall and 2-0 in ACC play, Virginia is one of the early surprises of 2014. Virginia captain Henry Coley was asked about his thoughts on the Virginia performance at the halfway point of the season. Coley replied that as far as he was concerned, Virginia hadn’t reached the halfway point of the season, implying in a not-so-subtle way that Virginia is planning to play for the ACC championship as well as a bowl game making next week’s matchup the midpoint of the season. As much as I love Coley’s play at linebacker, I love his attitude and leadership skills even more.
UVa Fans
Whether Virginia sits at the halfway point of the season or the 42.8% point of the season as Coley suggests, it’s a good time to take look at some of the surprises 6 games into 2014:
The Offensive Line: The most pleasant surprise of 2014 thus far has been the strong play of the offensive line. While the quarterback position generated the lion’s share of preseason angst among the Virginia faithful, the offensive line was simply written off by most as the weak link the Cavalier’s football chain. Six games into the season the offensive line has won over most of their doubters and run over most of their opposing defenders. The Cavaliers-in-the-trenches are giving up less than 1 sack per game and have steadily improved their run blocking throughout the season including consecutive 225+ yard games in wins over Kent State and Pitt. Virginia has used a 9-man rotation on the line ensuring fresh legs throughout games and building critical playable depth as the ‘Hoos head into the teeth of their ACC schedule. Ross Burbank has made great strides anchoring the center of the Cavalier line earning ACC offensive lineman of the week honors after the victory over Pitt. As they should be, critics are scarce as Virginia is averaging 177 yards rushing and giving their young quarterbacks time to throw.
Good Turns Great: I knew Max Valles was good. I had no idea he was this good. Valles has been a wrecking machine in the first six games of the season using his uncommon combination of size and quickness to terrorize opposing offenses. Valles has 25 tackles, 5 sacks, 7 pass breakups, and 1 very impressive pick-6. Defensive bookends Eli Harold and Max Valles create pass protection nightmares for opposing coordinators and share much of the responsibility for Virginia’s league-leading 22 forced turnovers. True freshman Quin Blanding certainly deserves similar accolades. I assumed a 5-star, top ten national recruit would be good, but I never thought he would be this good this early in his career. I don’t make this prediction lightly, but if Blanding continues to improve he will be the best safety in Virginia football history. Watch out Anthony Poindexter.
Quarterback Play: The biggest surprise of 2014 has not been the quality of the quarterback play 6 games into the season, it has been the effectiveness of the unexpected rotation between Greyson Lambert and Matt Johns. Neither Lambert nor Johns are on All-ACC trajectories, however they have provided exactly what Virginia fans hoped to see from their QB – solid play that moves the offense and makes opponents respect the passing game. What Virginia fans did not expect was solid quarterback play delivered by splitting time between both Lambert and Johns. While Virginia needs to settle in on a clear starter in Lambert the rest of the way, it is very comforting for Wahoo fans knowing that Virginia can bring in Johns from the bullpen without a drop in quarterback production. Two years ago Virginia’s quarterback rotation was a disaster. This season, planned or not, it has been a godsend.
Wide Receiver Play: Similar to the “Max Valles surprise”, I expected the Virginia wide receiver corps to improve from 2013, but I did not expect Canaan Severin and Miles Gooch to be this good. Gooch and Severin have been dominating at times using their strength and size to make tough catches in traffic at critical times in the game. Big and athletic with more than adequate speed, Severin and Gooch make tough yards after the catch and have been equally effective in their blocking assignments. These guys are good, very good. On the downside of the Virginia receiving game, I have been surprised and disappointed at how little the tight ends have factored into the offense. Long gone are the days of Heath Miller and Tom Santi who were centerpieces of the Virginia offense. Virginia needs to make opposing defenses respect the threat of their tight ends heading into the second half of the season. The tight ends can help this cause immeasurably by doing a better job hanging on to balls thrown their way.
One thing that is not a surprise 6 games into the season is the play of Henry Coley. The reality is that Coley had a fantastic season last year, but when your team goes 2-10 no one outside of your fan base notices or cares. This season opponents need to pay close attention to Henry Coley who has 42 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, and 6 sacks. Virginia fans have not seen this level of linebacker play since the days of UVa greats Jamie Sharper and James Farrior. Coley is playing like an All-American and maybe more importantly, leading like a general. If there was a team MVP at the 42.8% mark of the season, it would be Henry Coley, without question.
According to the published schedule, Virginia has reached the halfway point of the season. If Henry Coley and the Cavalier defense keep playing like they have during their first 6 games and if the offense continues to improve, Coley may be right about the real midpoint of the Cavalier season.

ACC Coastal – Leaders Emerge

The complexion of the ACC Coastal is very much in question 6 weeks into the season. However, we can see some trends that point to potential outcomes in 2014. Shockingly Georgia Tech and Virginia sit atop the division with 2-0 ACC records and look like possible contenders. It is likely that Virginia Tech will find its way into the conversation before the end of the season. I am not sure I would count Miami out just yet, but the ‘Canes are going to have to solve a lot of problems in a hurry to contend for the Coastal title. Duke failed its only real test of the season thus far and remains a question mark. While they only have one ACC loss, Pitt is heading in the wrong direction and needs to diversity its offense. Unless the Tarheels are just pacing themselves, it is highly unlikely they will be a factor in the ACC Coastal, absent a miraculous turnaround.
A unanimous pick to finish last in the ACC coastal, Virginia is the biggest upside surprise in the division. Virginia continued its quest to regain a modicum of football relevance and respect in the Coastal with a 24-19 home victory over the Pitt Panthers. Given their schedule the rest of the way, this game was a “must-win” for Virginia and the Wahoos came through with a performance that while far from stellar, continued their trajectory of vastly improved play. Virginia dominated both sides on the ball in the first half and relied on their attacking defense in the second half to hang on for the win. For the second game in a row, Virginia’s defense put points on the board when Max Valles took an errant Chad Voytik pass to the house late in the first half. Virginia’s defense also held James Conner to his lowest yardage total of the season while keeping Tyler Boyd in check. On offense, Virginia’s offensive line turned in a strong performance as UVa gained 225 yards on the ground against a stingy Pitt defense. Kevin Parks had a career day against the Panthers running for 169 yards on 29 carries. Virginia heads into an off week before their next “must-win” game against Duke. Meanwhile, Pitt which is also off this week needs to spend that time finding ways to diversify their attack and take pressure off Chad Voytik as the catalyst of their offense if they hope to upend the resurgent Hokies in their next contest.
It is easy to be conflicted about what to read into the Virginia Tech victory over North Carolina in Chapel Hill. Before making any commentary about the game, it is important to be very clear. Virginia Tech dominated this game. Following a Marquise Williams sack & fumble on the first play from scrimmage, UNC was never in the game despite a plethora of poorly timed VT penalties and a bad pick from Michael Brewer deep in the VT zone. Still, there are a couple of ways to read this game. The realist might recognize that the Virginia Tech O-line which has been inconsistent at best and Michael Brewer who led the ACC in interceptions, played a UNC defense that had not held an FBS team under 500 yards of total offense all season. So when the Hokies were gaining yardage in chunks, which they did frequently, was it due to improved VT offensive line play or just more of the same from the Carolina defense? Conversely, was the UNC defense much improved yielding only 357 yards of total offense or was it just another inconsistent performance by the Virginia Tech offense? One could argue both sides of this equation, but I think Virginia Tech’s offensive line play was indeed much improved and took full advantage of UNC’s inept defense. The final score of this game could have been worse had the VT offense not stalled itself with untimely mistakes. It was the Virginia Tech defense however that was the star of the show. Tech’s defensive front was disruptive all day led by Ken Ekanem who had a breakout performance. Kendall Fuller continued his development as one of the best defensive backs in the ACC. Given the strength of their defense it is clear that VT will be a player in the jumbled ACC Coastal race. Given the weakness of their defense, it is also clear UNC will not. The Hokies travel to Pitt in 10 days to face a Panther team reeling from a 3 game losing streak. Meanwhile, UNC will try to get their act together next week with a road trip to Southbend. Good luck with that.
When a team that can’t stop the run plays Georgia Tech, the results are pretty predictable. Such was the case when a struggling Miami run defense played the run on first and ten, run on third and long offense of Georgia Tech. Interestingly Miami’s run game was equally effective when they were on the field as Duke Johnson gained 100 yards on just 14 carries. However, Georgia Tech’s clock-eating ground game kept the Miami offense on the sidelines most of the game dominating the time of possession 40:37 to 19:15. When Miami had the ball, two poorly timed interceptions by freshman QB Brad Kaaya including one in the Georgia Tech end zone, gave the Jackets all the help they needed to win in convincing fashion.
After 3 subpar performances in cupcake games against Wofford, Tulane, and Georgia Southern, it is time to start giving Georgia Tech some respect and consideration for the ACC Coastal crown. Following a sloppy performance in a narrow win over Georgia Southern, the Jackets posted a gutty win in Blacksburg and followed that with a very solid win against Miami to improve their record to 5-0 and 2-0 in the ACC. While the triple option offense is a gimmick that limits the long term upside of the Georgia Tech program, it currently has them sitting atop the Coastal along with UVa – as shocking as that sounds. The Jackets will face a well rested, lightly tested Duke team this weekend in Atlanta and will have an opportunity to advance the argument that they are indeed a contender in the Coastal.

ACC Coastal – Ready to Rumble

While we are only 5 weeks into the season, a couple of questions are starting to sort themselves out and as we might expect, many remain unanswered. Two frequently asked questions at the start of the season that are becoming clearer with each week: Is Virginia really going to be that bad again? Is North Carolina really a top-25 team? Clearly Virginia is nowhere near as bad as last year and may end up being pretty darned good. Just as clearly UNC is not a top-25 team and could end up being pretty darned mediocre. Other teams this week advanced, dropped, and held steady in their quest for a Coastal crown.
For the second week in a row, the ever-confident UNC defense gave up at least 50 points and over 500 yards of total offense. At least this week’s beneficiary of Carolina’s poor tackling and blown secondary assignments was an ACC opponent. I suppose the upside for Carolina is…if we are grading on improvement, 535 yards and 50 points against Clemson is better than 789 yards and 70 points against ECU. The bottom line however, is that this is a bad defense playing well below its talent level. The Carolina offense, when led by a settled Marquise Williams is quite capable and certainly above average in the Coastal division. However, the woeful play of the Carolina defense is placing an undue burden on an offense that is talented, but struggling a bit to find its identity. The result after 5 weeks is a very tepid 2-2 in which Carolina has played worse than their record and well below expectations.
Virginia on the other hand has proven itself worthy against 3 of the nation’s top 25 teams and sports a 3-2 record that could just as easily be a 4-1 mark. Virginia’s problem has been one of single play breakdowns combined with a bit of bad luck that have resulted in two very tough losses. Virginia’s most important objective after dreadful seasons in 2012 and 2013 is to learn how to win. The second half of the Kent St game this weekend may have been a step towards that objective. After a lackluster first half performance in which Kent St made some nice plays and Virginia made some bad ones, Virginia led the lowly Golden Flashes by a mere 4 points. The second half was a different team and a different story. Virginia imposed its will upon Kent St. Virginia moved the ball and scored consistently while stuffing the Flashes regularly, and frankly there was nothing Kent St could do about it. For the game, Virginia forced 5 turnovers and scored 21 points off of turnovers, eclipsing last season’s total again in a single game. In a must-succeed season when Virginia needs to make a bowl game to save Mike London’s job, each game is a must-win situation. This week’s game against Pitt looms as the newest “most important game of the season.” Virginia is good enough to win, but the question is have they learned how to win?
Miami home games against anyone other than Florida St often draw about as many fans as a regional spelling bee – so crowd noise can’t be the excuse for Duke’s undoing on Saturday. Rather I believe the confectioner’s jubilee Duke feasted upon the first four games of the season came back to haunt them against Miami. After smashing Elon, Troy, Tulane, and Kansas in their first 4 games, 22-10 does not fully reflect how ineffective Duke was and how Miami dominated the game. This game was close to “Miami of old” versus “Duke of old.” Miami had better players who made better plays for 60 minutes. I suppose dominating the Elon running game probably wasn’t great preparation for Duke Johnson and Joseph Yearby who combined for 216 yards rushing. Freshman QB Brad Kaaya continued his impressive play and had little trouble unraveling the Duke defense. Miami heads to Georgia Tech on Saturday to contend with the triple option while Duke is off, which one could argue makes five weekends out of their first six.
Sometimes cute puppies bite you. Sometimes games against MAC opponents intended to pad the schedule go horribly awry. The Akron Zips came to Pitt Saturday and dropped an embarrassing 21-10 loss on the Panthers who may have been reeling from a tough home loss against Iowa while looking ahead to a critical road match against Virginia. The bottom line was the Zips played a better game and deserved to win. While Akron failed to shut down Pitt’s offensive juggernauts James Connor and Tyler Boyd, they contained them and dared the remaining Pitt offensive playmakers to beat them. None stepped up and the Zips came away with an impressive road win. This was no fluke. Pitt didn’t commit 6 fluky turnovers or 15 penalties. Akron played the better game and won. This could either start a death spiral or inspire a turnaround for Pitt’s season. We will see a strong indication of which it is Saturday night in Charlottesville.
Virginia Tech played well enough to post a convincing win against Western Michigan in Blacksburg. There was nothing particularly notable, good or bad, about the Hokie’s performance. They were by far the better team and despite a scrappy effort from WMU, came away with a confidence-building win. The biggest concern for Hokie fans has to be the continued inconsistent play of Michael Brewer. All-American one play and FCS bench-warmer the next, Brewer put in a solid performance, but still tossed two interceptions to raise his 5 game total to a troubling 11. The good news for Brewer and the Hokie offense is that they go to Chapel Hill this Saturday to face the ACC’s most generous defense which currently ranks 120 out of 125 FBS programs. The bad news for Virginia Tech is they will be without promising freshman running back Shai McKenzie. Trey Edmunds is getting healthier each week which is good news and can mitigate the McKenzie loss. Running game aside, the key for the Hokies on Saturday will be getting their playmakers in space against Carolina’s inept secondary.
Pitt vs. Virginia, VT vs. UNC, and Miami vs. GT. Next week will we may start to answer some of the remaining questions in the Coastal. Can UNC hold an FBS offense under 500 yards for the first time this year? Can Virginia win a big one at home? Can GT open an early and unexpected lead in the Coastal race? Stay tuned. This is going to be fun.

ACC Coastal: Looming Chaos?

The fourth week of the season did little to provide clarity about the pecking order of the ACC Coastal division. If anything, it looks like the coastal crown might turn into a game of “hot potato”.
GT vs. VT. I expected Virginia Tech to win this game in a romp. Georgia Tech came to Lane Stadium undefeated but with a resume of underwhelming performances against an even more underwhelming slate of opponents. The Jackets left Blacksburg with a signature win and the Hokies scratching their heads trying to figure out what went wrong. Virginia Tech is a team with a lot of talent. How that talent lost to Georgia Tech is a classic example of the old adage that games are played on the field, not on paper. Georgia Tech was tenacious, never gave up, and made big plays when it counted. Virginia Tech on the other hand made silly mistakes that resulted in untimely penalties and followed those up with poor decisions and blown assignments. The harsh reality for Virginia Tech fans is that if Georgia Tech had even a mediocre passing game they would have won this game by more than two touchdowns. Georgia Tech failed to convert two wide-open touchdown passes that the average Pop Warner team completes on a weekly basis.
Virginia Tech has a lot of soul searching to do this week and Frank Beamer has to decide if Michael Brewer is the quarterback to lead this team. There is no question that Brewer has the arm to make every throw in the Hokie playbook. He has shown himself to be a tough quarterback who hustles on every play – as evidenced by his fumble recovery for a go-ahead touchdown this weekend. However Brewer is also a quarterback who makes some terrible decisions and can single handedly keep both teams in the game. Michael Brewer didn’t lose this game for the Hokies, but he made it a heck of a lot easier for the Yellow Jackets to win.
Were I Frank Beamer this week, I would first thank my lucky stars that I have Western Michigan this coming to Blacksburg on Saturday. Second, I would tell Michael Brewer he has the first half to put the Western Michigan game away. I would also tell Mark Leal that he will play the entire second half and has a chance to be the Hokies’ starting QB when they travel to Chapel Hill. I might have similar conversations with the starters across the offensive line as well. With the bright glow of a big win in Columbus fading to flicker, a talented Hokie team finds itself at an unexpected crossroads early in the season.
UNC vs. ECU: I thought the VT/GT game would be the biggest surprise of the weekend. I was wrong. East Carolina thumped UNC 70-41. This game was not close to being close. What struck me about UNC was that their defense never lost its swagger. A defense that gave up 70 points and almost 800 yards to ECU after giving up over 500 yards and 29 points to an unimpressive San Diego St team a week earlier continued to strut and preen as if they were playing shutdown defense instead of giving up an average of over 8 yards a play. On offense, the UNC QB shuffle was a mystery to me. Marquise Williams, while inconsistent to date, has tremendous upside and elite potential. He pressed and made mistakes re-entering the game after watching teammate Mitch Trubisky sputter the offense which did nothing to help the UNC cause.
I recall last year Carolina fans were worried about Larry Fedora and the lure of a big contract from a big-time program. I think the Heels can relax, because Coach Fedora will likely be in Chapel Hill as long as they can stand him.

ECU. Gettin’ it done.

UVa vs. BYU: Virginia already had one moral victory this season. They didn’t need another one. Once again, a quick review of the box score suggests a UVa victory over BYU and once again that suggestion would be wrong. No other team in the country has played 3 ranked teams in their first 4 games. UVa has played well enough to be at worst 3-1. Instead, they are 2-2 and must win their next two games to remain relevant in the ACC coastal and give Mike London a chance to keep his job. The time has come for UVa to turn its improved play into real victories instead of moral victories. ‘Nuff said.
Pitt vs. Iowa: This was a great game with two teams that had to look across the field and think they were looking in the mirror. Pitt and Iowa are not teams that will beat you with overwhelming speed. They are both physical, straight- ahead, smash mouth teams. Running back James Connor and wide Receiver Tyler Boyd are all-ACC talents who had tremendous games on Saturday. Chad Voytik continued to show that he is a very solid QB who can make tough throws under pressure. Unfortunately for Pitt, when a team that looks like it is playing Big10 football encounters an opponent that lives and breathes Big10 football, the imposter usually comes up on the short end of the stick.  Pitt gets a week hone its game against the Akron Zips before a showdown under the lights in Charlottesville.
Miami vs. Nebraska: When Nebraska rushes for over 300 yards, they usually win. Saturday against Miami was no exception. Running the ball is Nebraska football. An inability to stop good running teams is quickly becoming part of Miami football. Miami was unable to stop the Nebraska ground game and squandered an impressive passing performance from freshman QB Brad Kaaya, coming up short against the ‘Huskers in Lincoln. After 4 games, Miami has two wins against overmatched opponents and two losses to very strong opponents. While Miami has an abundance of talent and an excellent head coach in Al Golden, the ‘Canes have yet to put forth an impressive 4 quarters of football 4 weeks into the season.
Duke: Duke played its fourth game in a row against an opponent that had no chance to win.

Optimism in Charlottesville?

There is an old joke that asks how many UVa graduates it takes to change a light bulb. The answer, of course is 3. One to install the new light bulb and two to reminisce about the old one. A similar question today might be, why do UVa football fans continue talking about the 2013 season when we are already three games into 2014? The answer to this more relevant question is “because we have been here before.”In 2013, Virginia was 2-1 after 3 games, beating a solid BYU team and a badly overmatched VMI team while losing big to Oregon who showed UVa fans what team speed really looks like. After 3 games in 2014 Virginia is again sitting at 2-1. The reason Virginia fans continue talking about 2013 is to reassure ourselves that 2014 is not going to end the same way.
While it is entirely possible I’m wrong, I don’t think that the 2014 season is going to end anything like 2013. Here’s why:
Execution: Virginia is executing the schemes on offense, special teams, and defense…especially on defense. Three games does not a season make, but the early returns on the Virginia defense are very promising. Virginia held a very potent UCLA offense to 358 total yards and one touchdown. Last Saturday the Virginia defense held a very tough Louisville offense that hung 31 points on Miami to just 282 total yards. Dominique Brown who rushed for 143 yards against Miami only managed 74 against Virginia. This is a defense that is showing a swagger Virginia fans have not seen in years. They are aggressive, they are fast, and they make plays. It’s hard not to love this defense 3 games into the season.
change-lightbulbMaking Opponents Pay: In 2013 the Virginia defense forced 21 turnovers in 12 games. In 2014, Virginia has already forced 13 turnovers in just 3 games and leads the nation in that category. More importantly, in 2013 the Virginia offense generated a pathetic 13 points off of 21 turnovers. By contrast, in 2014 Virginia has scored 44 points off of 13 turnovers. When opponents make a mistake, good teams make them pay. On Saturday, Louisville made a critical mistake fumbling a punt return late in the game. Virginia made them pay by kicking what turned out to be the game winning field goal. Last year a defense that was confident and excited after forcing a turnover more often that not found themselves back on the field after a 3-and-out or a return-the-favor turnover by the offense. In 2014, when the defense forces a turnover, there is a good chance they aren’t returning to the field until after we have kicked off.
Totty: Surprising Virginia is Flexing Defensive Muscle
Better than Expected Offensive Line Play: While Virginia is far from an offensive juggernaut, the offense has been situationally effective and the offensive line has played a big role in that. Through three games the Virginia offensive line has only allowed 4 sacks, giving the young quarterbacks time to make reads and find open receivers especially on critical 3rd down plays. The production of the rushing game is down from 2013, but the numbers are skewed by a 357 yard rushing output against lowly VMI. In 2014 Virginia is averaging just over 130 yard rushing per game but has seen improvement in effectiveness of the run game each week. The Virginia O-Line has been more productive this year in both short yardage situations and in the redone giving Virginia fans hope that more consistent offensive production is coming in the games ahead.
In addition to being late for kickoffs and tip offs anticipating pending doom in our athletic programs is something that Virginia fans do well. This may be a stretch, but maybe tremendous season Tony Bennett’s basketball program delivered last year started a change in the psyche of the Virginia fan base. As easy as it is to look at the 2-1 record this year and remember that we were in the exact same position last year and finished the season 2-10, instead of thinking about getting steam rolled in Provo this weekend, I am thinking that we have a chance to knockoff the #21 ranked team in the nation for the second week in a row. How many Virginia wins does it take to quit talking about 2013? The answer obviously isn’t 3, but if we win again this weekend against BYU, the number might just be 4.