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.
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.