Tag Archives: Duke football

Questions Abound for Virginia Football…Good Questions

Before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s not forget that Virginia beat Duke in Durham in front of 15,000 semi-interested Duke fans who generally kill time in the fall at football games waiting for basketball season to start. Virginia didn’t beat Clemson in Death Valley in front of 80,000 football fanatics who generally come to basketball games to get out of the cold.

Now, with the wet blanket out of the way, how cool was Saturday’s win against Duke?! It was nothing short of awesome. Virginia snapped a 17-game road losing streak that dates back to 2012. Let’s also recall that in 2012, Virginia lost a 42-17 drubbing at Duke. The last road win in Durham was in 2006. There is no question that this was an important win for the emerging Virginia program.

There is a lot to like about Saturday’s win. However, it also raises several questions. Good questions. Interesting questions. Not the usual Virginia football questions like “Who wants to go back to the tailgate at halftime?” or “When does basketball season start?” No, these questions are about the trajectory of the program and the pace of dramatic change over five short weeks.

Question #1

What happened to that defense that opened the season against Richmond? You know, the defense that stood around all afternoon and gave up 37 points, 24 first downs, and 524 yards to an FCS school. That defense must have gone to live with Jesus because it hasn’t been around the past three games. It certainly wasn’t the same defense that stuffed Duke on consecutive fourth down conversions in the fourth quarter with the game on the line. This new defense forced six turnovers, including five picks that turned last week’s Cinderella and media darling Daniel Jones into just another overmatched freshman QB.

Side note: Virginia coined a new defensive term on Saturday. When your QB gets hit so hard he fumbles and forgets his name he has just been “Macked”. This is a much better term than “same old ‘Hoos”.

Question #2

How good can Kurt Benkert be?

Virginia fans got a little over their skis when the season opened, expecting Benkert to be the second coming of Shawn Moore. While his performance wasn’t bad to start the season, its disappointment was magnified by three consecutive losses. As Virginia fans set sky-high expectations for Benkert to start the season, I think most forgot that Kurt Benkert had never started a college football game until this year. He is on game number five as a starting college quarterback.

In game four, he set the Virginia record for passing yards in a game. In number five, he threw for over 300 yards for the second game in a row and three touchdowns. More importantly, he showed excellent mobility and judgment when plays broke down. How good can Kurt Benkert be? I have no idea, but it has been more than a decade since Virginia fans asked that question about their quarterback.

Question #3

What in the world is Bronco Mendenhall thinking with some of his game day decisions? Going for it early in the game on fourth down? Fake punt late in the game at midfield? Merry-go-round place kicking strategy? (Maybe as part of Virginia’s inclusiveness strategy, everyone gets a chance to kick for Virginia.)

While some of Bronco’s decisions have not played out like we would like on the field, I think they give fans some insights into Bronco’s strategy as a coach. He plays to win. Predictability is a hallmark of programs in decline. Bronco is setting the stage early in his tenure that anything is possible at any time in the game. Maybe Bronco’s strategic decision making harkens back to Blazing Saddles “he’s just crazy enough to do it.” Maybe that is what Bronco wants opponents thinking as they prepare for Virginia.

As any Virginia fan knows, this is a dramatic change from the past. “Predictably silly” used to be our decision-making philosophy. While not yet paying big dividends, Bronco’s decisions seem to be waiting for the execution to catch up. I would not be surprised to see a fake field goal, surprise on-side kick, or risky fourth down conversion play a part in a big win this season.

The biggest question Virginia fans are asking themselves now is “how many games will we win this season?” After week three, zero looked like the logical answer. When Bronco took the Virginia job he noted that he had been to 10 straight bowl games. He also stated that he planned to keep that streak alive this year. What sounded like pure folly two weeks ago is suddenly a credible claim after a big road win in Durham.

E-mail David at david.rayner@campuspressbox.com.

Photo: Flickr user – terren in Virginia

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Virginia Needs Touchdowns

UVA needs more touchdowns and fewer field goals.

Struggling programs don’t get well overnight. Progress is never a straight line. No one predicted that Virginia would win the ACC’s Coastal division after a winless conference campaign last year. In fact, Virginia already has exceeded the very modest expectations that most had for this year’s team. Virgina had a chance at Duke last Saturday to run its division record to 3-0 and seize control of the chaotic Coastal Division. That didn’t happen, proving once again that progress comes in fits and starts. Virginia lost 20-13 to a Duke team that seemingly now has mind control over the Cavaliers.
Despite Duke’s status as defending Coastal division champions and winner of five of the last six meeting between the two teams, Virginia had some swagger coming into this game. Duke’s turnaround under coach David Cutcliffe has been nothing short of remarkable but you have to wonder if the league’s players and football-watching public still views Duke football as…well Duke football. Perceptions can be difficult to change but Duke is a winner and demands winner’s respect. Given UVA’s futility in recent years and the importance of this game, I have to believe that Duke had Virginia’s full attention, especially given that the Hoos had two weeks to prepare.
For whatever reason, it didn’t happen for Hoos. The common theme in Virginia’s three losses this year is that the Cavaliers have won the statistical battle but lost the game. Against UCLA in the season-opener, Virginia eked out more yards and one more first down but did lose the turnover war. In the BYU game at Provo, UVA racked up a whopping (relatively speaking) 519 yards of offense and notched 35 first downs to 332/16 for the Cougars. Last weekend at Duke, Virginia went for 465 and 23 to Duke’s 334/19. Virginia’s problem is that these statistical triumphs have not translated into touchdowns. Virginia has made 29 trips into the red zone this year and has come away with points 25 times. That conversion rate is good for 47th nationally. Unfortunately, the touchdown percentage stands at just 51.72%. Virginia has scored just 15 touchdowns on those 29 trips. The Cavaliers stand 68th nationally in total offense at 407.3 yards per game and 70th in points at 29.0. These are marked improvements from recent years but if Virginia is to become a contender it needs to turn these statistical gains into points or, more specifically, touchdowns.
Having let the Duke opportunity slip from its grasp, Virginia now needs to hold serve at home this weekend against a mercurial UNC team that will present Virginia with a serious challenge. On paper, the Tarheels are Virginia’s evil twin. Virginia plays stout defense. UNC seemingly plays no defense. UNC scores in bunches. Virginia struggles to ring the bell. Virginia’s defense will be hard-pressed to keep UNC off the board, meaning that the offense is going to have to cash in on its red zone trips on Saturday.
Perhaps part of Virginia’s problem is the once-again unsettled situation at quarterback. Greyson Lambert came out of spring practice solidly entrenched as the starter. In a testament to his leadership, he was named a team captain despite being only a sophomore. His backup, Matt Johns, performed admirably in relief of Lambert early in the season and stepped into the starter’s role when Lambert sprained his ankle against BYU. Coach Mike London has stated that his policy is that no starter loses his job to injury so it was somewhat surprising when Johns got the nod last weekend after Lambert practiced all week. Either Lambert’s injury is more serious than previously thought or London has waffled. Lambert clearly proved himself in the spring but his development has been hampered by the ankle injury. Johns, despite throwing for 300 yards last weekend, lacked touch on the deep ball. He overthrew receivers on plays that would have resulted in easy touchdowns had the balls been catchable. Virginia desperately needs some continuity at quarterback. Johns has been a godsend but critics have noted that his mechanics and game management still need work. This perhaps is why Lambert was named the starter early in spring practice.
UVA fans are a downtrodden lot and the collective mindset of the fan base after last weekend’s loss is that the Duke game was an unclaimed golden ticket. The team’s execution was reminiscent of the effort put forth in the two previous seasons when Virginia won a total of six games and Mike London’s coaching skills were called into question. In a make-or-break season for London, the Cavaliers do not have much of an error margin. The UNC contest this weekend is UVA’s next-to-last home game. For Virginia to gain bowl eligibility it needs to beat UNC this weekend and Miami on November 22. That would get the team to six wins, a bowl game, and give Mike London another year at the helm. Supposedly.
Progress is not a straight line endeavor. Virginia stumbled last weekend in a game in which it was not favored but believed it could win anyway. The press noted that the players were irate in postgame interviews, no doubt frustrated by the fact that effort, desire, and preparation do not always produce the desired result. For the program to take the next step, Virginia has got to ramp up the offensive efficiency. Virginia will need better execution this weekend. Virginia needs touchdowns.

Is Virginia the New Duke?

2013 was a season of change in college football. A team from the ACC instead of the SEC won the national championship, college football bid farewell to the BCS, and Maryland decided it was a good idea to risk a $ 52M exit penalty to join the Big 10. Closer to home, Duke won 10 games while Virginia lost 10 games inspiring even the not-so-cynical among us to ask “Is Virginia the new Duke?” Maybe, but then again, maybe not.
If we are looking across the sports spectrum to include basketball, in his 6th year as head coach of the Duke basketball program, Mike Krzyzewski won both the ACC regular season and tournament championships and made it to the finals of the NCAA tournament. In only his 5th year, Virginia basketball coach Tony Bennett won both the ACC regular season and tournament championships and made it to the sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament. So is UVa becoming the new Duke? Looking at the basketball programs, in the instructional words of the Magic 8-Ball “signs point to yes”.
Football is a different story. For 40 years, starting in 1975, Duke set the standard for futility in college football. During that span, Duke had 6 winning seasons which ironically also equals the number of seasons in which Duke won 1 game or less. That’s 1.5 winning seasons per decade, perfectly balanced by 1.5 seasons with no more than 1 win. Last year’s 10-win season was the first winning season for Duke football since 1994. For the few brave souls who went to the Duke football games, that’s a lot of games where the entire second half is spent at the tailgate (not that there is anything wrong with that.)
Over the same 40 year time span, Virginia had 23 winning seasons and 3 seasons with 1 win, the last of which came in George Welsh’ first season in 1982. During the past 10 years, which have admittedly been tough sledding for Virginia football, UVa had 4 winning seasons. By contrast, Duke had one winning season. Based on won/loss records over the past 4 decades and even the past 10 years, the assertion that Virginia is the new Duke is a stretch.
While the direction of the Virginia program over the past 5 years is alarming, as noted in prior posts, Virginia football is not struggling on the recruiting trail, which represents another point of departure from Duke football. Over the past 10 years, which includes 2 lean years at the merciful conclusion of the Al Groh debacle, on average Virginia’s recruiting classes ranked 37th nationally. By contrast Duke’s recruiting classes ranked 62nd. More importantly, over the past 5 years, the recruiting class differential has widened slightly with Virginia maintaining an average national class rank of 37th while Duke slipped to 67Th.
Chatting up a comparison of Duke and UVa football draws mixed reviews from the Virginia faithful. However, those stressed that we are devolving into the new Duke of ACC football are jumping the gun, worrying needlessly…which is something Virginia fans do well.
While Virginia has a long road to travel before we become the new “Duke” of college football, there are some things we can take away from the newfound success of Duke football. 1) Coaching Matters. David Cutcliffe’s work at Duke is just short of miraculous…close to but not eclipsing the miracle Mets of 1969. Cutcliffe won 16 games the past two years with talent that was not highly ranked, but that played within themselves and fit into Cutcliffe’s systems. Kudos to Coach Cutcliffe, he won in a job that had been a coaching graveyard since Steve Spurrier stopped in Durham for a cup of coffee. 2) Patience Pays Off. Duke didn’t turn the ship around in a year or even 5 years. It took 6 years of recruiting the right players, building the right culture, and avoiding the temptation of head coaching quick-fixes to quell anxious fans and donors. Virginia has a re-tooled coaching staff entering its second year in the program. We all want to win and win now, but we need let the players learn the systems and the coaches build a culture of winning. 3) Winning Cures Many Ills. We all know this. We saw it with our own miracle worker when George Welsh took a perpetually floundering Virginia program and put it football on the map. Is Virginia football turning into the new Duke? It hasn’t yet and won’t if we stay the course. The Magic 8-Ball tells us to “ask again later”.