Tag Archives: Canaan Severin

Oh Virginia

Oh Virginia.  Poor, poor Virginia. You know what Virginia football is?  It’s Rudy Ruettiger, the totally undersized kid who defied the skeptics and walked on to the Notre Dame football team in the 1970s.  He’d go to practice and get beat all to hell but he’d come back for more punishment the next day. That’s Virginia football. Overmatched, taking the beating, coming back for more. The school wants so desperately to be big time and for its football program to be as successful as the school’s other teams.  It’s not there yet and the schedule is not helping the turnaround effort. Whoever makes Virginia’s schedule has a very overinflated image of the current state of the school’s football program.

The football program is the outlier. The Cavaliers have had four losing seasons in a row.  The coach’s seat is so hot that he can’t sit down, not even for a second. So, in a season where Virginia desperately needs to post a winning record to change the losing culture and reverse the fan apathy that is taking hold in Charlottesville, the Cavaliers opened the 2015 season against two top-15 teams.  Hardly a cure.

Virginia went to UCLA two weeks ago and got a predictable result, looking overmatched in a 34-16 loss.  This past weekend the Cavaliers played host to Notre Dame. The Irish now are obligated to play five ACC teams per year as a condition of its ACC membership in all sports but football and either the league scheduling office hates Virginia or else the Hoos are just plain unlucky (more on that later) to have drawn Notre Dame in a season in which it already had games against UCLA and Boise State on the calendar.   Head coach Mike London has repeatedly said he has no input on the making of the schedule and that the schedule is what it is, but for a coach trying to hang on to his job, playing three ranked nonconference teams in the first month of the season has to have him shouting a very loud “WTF!” when he is alone.

Against UCLA, Virginia looked no better–and perhaps worse–than last year’s team. Virginia was unable to finish drives with touchdowns, Virginia committed silly penalties, Virginia surrendered long plays on defense. Virginia was in over its head. So it was somewhat surprising that Notre Dame came to Charlottesville as only an eleven-point favorite given that the Irish totally dominated Texas 38-3 in week one. Well, guess what?  The odds makers knew something that most fans didn’t.

In a game that could have gone a long way towards fixing Virginia’s problems, Notre Dame avoided a colossal upset when WR and All-America candidate Will Fuller got free behind the Virginia defense and hauled in a 39-yard game-winning touchdown pass from backup QB DeShone Kizer with 12 seconds left in the game. Prior to that, Virginia had put together one of its best drives in years, a 13-play, 80-yard drive that ended with an Albert Reid one-yard touchdown plunge. Leading by one point, Virginia tried and failed on the two-point conversion that would have at least allowed for overtime in the event of a last-minute Notre Dame field goal.  Instead, the Irish took advantage of some last-second confusion at the line of scrimmage and sent Fuller on a double move fly route that got him behind the defense and Kizer, in relief of starter Malik Zaire, delivered a perfect strike.

Hoping to post the weekend’s biggest upset, Virginia instead became internet cannon fodder. #SadVirginiafan was instantly a trending meme on Twitter.

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The mantra for this year’s Virginia team is “finish.”  Finish plays. Finish drives with touchdowns and finish games with wins.  Finish, finish, finish.  In every media opportunity, Virginia’s players have talked about finishing. Yet for the fourth time in its last eight games Virginia lost the game when it couldn’t hold a late lead.  And for the second time in three games, it couldn’t hold a lead with under two minutes to play. A different result in those two games and Virginia’s football trajectory would be totally different. Up, not down. Hold a late lead against Virginia Tech last November and the Hoos would have been bowl-eligible and would have broken Tech’s silly stranglehold on the rivalry.  Beat Notre Dame last weekend and observers talk about Virginia perhaps being one of this year’s surprise teams despite the murderous schedule.

But Virginia didn’t win either of those games.  That’s the reality. Yes, there were plenty of positives.  QB Matt Johns was stellar, mixing pocket poise with an improvisational ability that allowed him to extend plays.  WR Canaan Severin was fantastic, hauling in 11 passes for 153 yards and consistently making contested catches. The running game was better and tailback Taquan Mizzell may be about ready to deliver on the hype that accompanied his commitment. Perhaps best of all, heavily-criticized offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild opened up the offense in a way that Virginia hasn’t seen during his tenure. The defense, which was identified as a potential weakness after the early departures of DE Eli Harold and LB Max Valles, has struggled to get off the field and will need to get better to give the Hoos a chance to recover from this 0-2 start.

It is said that good teams find a way to win.  Virginia may be a good team with talented players, but it doesn’t yet know how to win.  For the program to break through, it is going to have to find a way to win one of these close games. Run out the clock, stuff the run. Make an interception, force a fumble. Score 200 points. Sack the quarterback, break up a pass.  Hell, we don’t care.  We aren’t proud.  We’d be fine with the opposing player tripping over his own feet just short of the goal line or having the guy behind the bar at Buffalo Wild Wings turn on the sprinklers during a field goal attempt.  Whatever it takes, Virginia needs to finish a game.

Virginia Continues to Beat Itself

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Virginia has been its own worst enemy this year. Kyle Green/The Roanoke Times

Turnovers have been both the boon and the bane of Virginia’s football existence this season. In fact, with better ball security I think that Virginia would be 6-4 or 7-3, not 4-6. The Cavaliers almost certainly beat themselves in losses to UCLA and UNC and probably did so again Saturday night in Tallahassee against a Florida State team that is undefeated but not invincible.  Virginia’s defense has played well enough to give the team a chance in every game this year but the offense has given the ball away at a rate that nearly matches the defense’s ability to get it back. What’s even more troubling is that Virginia’s turnovers have come not in the middle of the field but rather when Virginia is either in the red zone or in the shadow of its own goalposts. It’s hard to blame turnovers on coaching but with the staff on exceedingly thin ice, you can be sure that the boobirds are finding a way to pin Virginia’s turnover problem on embattled coach Mike London.

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The Cavaliers’ 24 takeaways places the team 10th nationally in turnovers created. However, its 22 turnovers places the team 116th out of 125 teams in a ranking of ball security. Overall, Virginia’s +2 turnover margin is good for just 51st. As I wrote last week, only Appalachian State among FBS teams has more red zone turnovers than Virginia’s five. When you couple that with Virginia’s propensity for turning red zone chances into field goals rather than touchdowns it is obvious that Virginia has let slip way too many scoring chances. As a result, Virginia’s promising 4-2 start has become a 4-6 spiral. The Hoos have an bye week to try to get the offensive line healthy before taking on Miami at home and Virginia Tech on the road in an attempt to break Tech’s ten-year stranglehold on the rivalry. The Tech game, for many reasons, will likely decide London’s fate. Beat Miami and Tech and London and the Cavs will be bowl eligible and he will finally have beaten Virginia Tech. That’s measurable progress. The Cavaliers undoubtedly are an improved team this year but the statistical improvement is not translating into wins.  If Virginia beats Tech and loses to Miami, the case for London’s retention becomes more questionable. With five wins–Virginia Tech being one of them–a case might be made that the incremental progress plus London’s recruiting ability should be enough to give him another year. But has London’s recruiting actually matched his reputation as a recruiter?

Mike London’s supporters have—in the absence of on-field success—pointed out that Virginia has made great recruiting progress with him at the helm. Virginia is a state that produces an outsized share of high major talent and the Tidewater area of the commonwealth is a hunting ground for every major program in the country. London’s predecessor, Al Groh, famously alienated many coaches at the state’s top high schools, with the result being that Virginia Tech and out-of-state programs became the destinations of choice for the state’s top talent.  Every recruiting analyst will tell you that state schools must be able to retain in-state talent. Under Al Groh Virginia had lost that ability. In-state schools—for a variety of reasons—should have an advantage over other schools when recruiting local talent.

Mike London must be given credit for repairing the damage Groh caused.  His message of ‘faith, family, and football” has resonated with recruits and their parents, who often are anxious about having their children away from home and are looking for a coach who will look after their children both on and off the field.  In Al Groh’s last recruiting class only one of the state’s top 30 players, Henry Coley, signed with Virginia.  Last year Virginia signed four of the state’s top 30, but two of them–Quin Blanding and Andrew Brown–were rated among the top recruits in the nation. Virginia has taken commitments from 91 players under Mike London.  Sixty-seven of those 91 recruits have been accorded three stars or less by ESPN.  Predicting college success for high schools players is a notoriously inexact science.  Two three-star members of Virginia’s 2012 recruiting class, Max Valles and Canaan Severin, now star for the Cavaliers while the top signee in Virginia’s 2013 class, Taquan Mizzell, has yet to become the star that his ranking would suggest.   London’s reputation as a recruiter seems to have been bolstered by a few high-profile in-state signings because the majority of his recruits are only of average ability per the ESPN rankings.   To London’s credit, his recruits appear to be good citizens.  His demand for personal accountability is a very real component of the recruiting process and has tended to weed out problem players.   Would Mizzell already  be a star at another scho0l like Alabama?  As a 5-star recruit he certainly could have gone anywhere he wanted to play football. Has Virginia’s weakness along the offensive line hampered Mizzell’s playmaking abilities? A recruiting class that is top heavy with a few stars but weak on the back end won’t fix Virginia’s problems.

London’s pitch to recruits has been the possibility of early playing time and the chance to help turn the program around.  That message works until recruits realize that the program is not in fact improving.  Playing in a losing program is a mentally taxing and hurts a player’s chances for a professional career.  When the coach’s job security becomes an issue, recruits go elsewhere and the coach’s recruiting reputation suffers.  London isn’t a bad recruiter and his connections to the state have allowed Virginia to get back into the mix with the state’s best players, but I don’t think that his recruiting record is such that Virginia will retain him if the Cavaliers post another losing record.

 

 

 

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.

Mental Mistake Dooms Virginia

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The Cavaliers won the statistical battle but lost the game.

Four games, three ranked opponents, two losses, and one giant mental mistake. Virginia has played the country’s most daunting schedule to date and while many predicted Virginia would stand 1-3 at this point, the fact is that Virginia is 2-2 and really just a few plays away from being 3-1 or even 4-0. Playing away from Scott Stadium for the first time this year, UVA dominated the statistics in losing to BYU by eight points in a game in which it was a two touchdown underdog.  A moral victory?  Perhaps. In the losing effort Virginia proved again that the program has made significant strides in the past year.
The mental mistake? On the first play of the second quarter and at a point in which Virginia led 7-3 and clearly had the upper hand, the Hoos faced a 4th-and-1 at the BYU 1-yard line. Settling for red zone field goals while on the road against a ranked opponent is a losing strategy so I took it as a good sign that Mike London didn’t hesitate in deciding to go for the touchdown and the chance to extend UVA’s lead. It all looked very promising until right tackle Eric Smith committed a false start penalty that pushed UVA back to the six-yard line and out of London’s comfort zone.  The resultant field goal upped UVA’s lead to seven but the three points were a deflating result at a point when UVA badly wanted to impose its will on an off-balance Cougar defense. If London was willing to go for it at the one-yard line and potentially come away with zero, he should have done the same thing from the six.  UVA’s Canaan Severin and Miles Gooch had already won a couple of contested jump ball passes against BYU’s smaller secondary and Lambert looked sharp on his passes so why not go for it there?  UVA didn’t and BYU escaped. BYU QB Taysom Hill completed a 56-yard bomb to Devon Blackmon on the Cougars’ very next offensive play.  BYU scored four plays later to tie the score at 10.
It is of course impossible to say that one play decided the game but the false start penalty was huge and it changed UVA’s strategy.  Had UVA gotten the touchdown there and made it a two-score game there’s no telling how the rest of the game might have gone. As it was, UVA’s mistake allowed BYU to escape and the Cougars took full advantage of the reprieve by scoring the tying touchdown just five players later.  UVA does not have the luxury of being able to survive such mental miscues.  The 99-yard kickoff return that UVA surrendered later in the game was another costly mental mistake but had UVA scored in that earlier goal line situation it would have altered everything that happened afterward and UVA may not ever have been in the situation where BYU could return a late-game kickoff for a deciding touchdown.  Yes, I am making reference to the butterfly effect.
Nevertheless, the Hoos took some meaningful positives away from this game.  Last week I opined that a better showing by UVA’s offense would perhaps cover for the defense if the Cavalier defenders were unable to match the impressive effort it had put forth in the first three games.  Did you look at the box score?  Holy cow.
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In last year’s fourth game UVA posted a paltry 188 yards of total offense against Pitt.  Last weekend the Cavs put up an eye-popping 519 yards, the first time in sixty-three games that a team has posted 500 yards against BYU’s always-stout defense.  Virginia also ran a school-record 102 plays, completed passes to eleven different receivers, rushed for  192 yards and passed for 327 more.  When Lambert exited the game with an injury, Matt Johns again was effective and looked comfortable running the offense.  He gives Virginia a security blanket at a position that has been a real problem for the Hoos in recent years.  Looking at the box score you would be hard-pressed to believe that UVA lost the game, so dominant was UVA in the statistical battle.  UVA’s defensive game plan was to bottle up dual-threat QB Taysom Hill, deny him the rush and make him throw the ball. Again, a glance a that box score would indicate that this strategy was successful.  Hill rushed for only 72 yards and threw for 187.  Not eye-popping numbers for a player with Heisman Trophy aspirations but for the first time this year and for the first time in nine games UVA did not force a turnover. Prior to the BYU game UVA’s offense had scored almost half of its points this year off opponent turnovers so the lack of short-field scoring opportunities hurt despite the Hoos posting 33 points.  The Cavaliers also lost the field position battle for the first time this year thanks largely to the amazing punting day put up by BYU’s Scott Arellano, who had three punts of more than 60 yards and pinned UVA inside its own 20-yard line four times.
So, UVA comes back to Scott Stadium for its first game this season in which it is favored over an FBS opponent. Kent State is 0-3 and Virginia really should have no problem winning this game so long as it does the little things right, limits the mental mistakes, and remembers that it cannot look past any opponent this year, especially since every game is a referendum on Coach London’s job status.   Virginia has run the gauntlet in the season’s first four weeks, emerging with a better-than-expected 2-2 record.  These early season tests against ranked teams and Heisman candidates should serve the Cavaliers well when they enter league play and square off against teams with merely good quarterbacks and no national ranking. I agree with Coach London.  This team is legitimate.