Tag Archives: Go Hoos

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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Average Gets it Done for UVa Football

No matter what kind of day you have had or what kind of week it has been, when you get home your dog is always happy to see you. Always. Virginia fans feel the same way about football season. It doesn’t matter that UVa was 2-10 last year or that we were 0-8 in conference play. It doesn’t matter that we had our second consecutive losing season and our 5th losing season out of the past 6. Football season starts August 30th and Virginia fans are optimistic, excited, and ready to go…well, at least 2 of those.
I am not “ready to go” but I am excited and optimistic and it’s not because I fell off a ladder (if I had one) and hit my head. It is because despite a lousy, rotten, no-good 2-10 season, Virginia was one position away from having an acceptable rebuilding year in 2013. Unfortunately that position was QB, where Virginia has been lacking during each of those 5 losing seasons. However, last year was unusually painful because we knew our QB was a great kid and vocal leader with a strong arm and good speed. The pain started when Virginia needed a precise completion or a heady scramble to gain a critical first down. When the chips were down in 2013, the Virginia QB was generally holding a pair of two’s and folded…at least 10 out of 12 times. How bad was it? Real bad. The numbers don’t lie and they aren’t pretty. The average starting QB for ACC programs that don’t run the triple option tossed 19 touchdowns against 11 interceptions and threw for 2824 yards. Our QB delivered 8 TD’s, 15 picks, and 2202 yards. Ouch.
So why am I both optimistic and excited? Let’s start with the obvious…we have a new starting QB in Greyson Lambert. UVa also returns 9 of 11 defensive starters including All-American safety Anthony Harris who led the nation with 8 interceptions and Eli Harold who has a first step and a motor that rivals former UVa great Chris Slade. If that weren’t enough giddiness on defense, Virginia also added 2 all-world defensive recruits in Andrew Brown and Quinn Blanding. On paper, this defense has the talent to rival some of the great Virginia defenses of the George Welsh era. Additionally, over the course of his career, coordinator John Tenuta’s defenses have shown marked improvement from their first to second seasons as his players learn his system and begin to thrive in his attacking defensive schemes. On offense, Virginia returns Kevin Parks, a hard-nosed between the tackles runner who had an excellent season despite the fact that every opposing coaching staff (as well as every fan on the planet) knew Virginia couldn’t pass the ball and stacked the box with regularity to stuff the run. Kevin Parks gained 1031 yards despite facing 8-9 defenders near the line of scrimmage every time he got the ball. The kid is a gamer, a senior captain, and the kind of student athlete that thrives at UVa.
However, it is the quarterback position where I find a genuine albeit surprising source of optimism. While Greyson Lambert was a highly prized recruit from the heart of SEC country standing 6-5 with an arm to make every throw in the playbook, that’s not why I am so hopeful. I am hopeful, because all things held constant at 2013 levels (economics anyone? Let’s assume…) Virginia doesn’t need Greyson Lambert to be All-ACC next year to have a winning season. We just need him to be average, & not double the number of touchdowns he throws with the number of picks. We need him to manage the game, to get the ball to Kevin Parks or to sophomore and former 5-star recruit Taquan Mizzell who is finally healthy and ready to roll. Lambert needs to hit his open receivers in stride more often than he hits open defenders. While Virginia fans would be ecstatic if Grayson Lambert turned into the next Andrew Luck and I would be ecstatic if I won Powerball next week, the reality is, we can turn 2-10 into 7-5 with average quarterback play.
Average? Is that what Virginia is for shooting for here? After consecutive seasons of 4-8 and 2-10, yes we are looking for average QB play that gets us to a bowl game, begins to rebuild confidence in the UVa program with both fans and recruits, and gets the fans back in their seats and away from their tailgates. Does average cut the muster over the long term? Nope. Will average QB play suffice this year? You bet it will and everyone including my dog will be happy about it, but he’s happy all the time, so he doesn’t really count.