Tag Archives: Jon Tenuta

Cavaliers Showcase Ineptitude on National Television

There are only so many ways to write this tale of woe. Different opponent, same result. Facing its third quality opponent of the month, the University of Virginia football team absolutely embarrassed itself on Friday night.  The Cavaliers’ 56-14 loss to Boise State in front of a national television audience was not the worst loss Virginia has endured under London’s leadership but it sure felt like it. It was a debacle of the sort that coaches don’t survive and I think that last weekend’s result included the knockout punch that will put an end to Mike London’s coaching career at Virginia.

Against Boise State the pressure of a completely ridiculous and fantastically overzealous schedule finally broke the Cavaliers.  In a game that Virginia absolutely had to have, the Wahoos stopped being competitive at the conclusion of the national anthem. After fourteen seconds, Virginia was down 7-0.  Boise State scored 10 more points in its first two possessions and led 17-0 before most fans had finished their hot dog.  Virginia’s first three possessions produced 2 interceptions and a three-and-out. Virginia, with a roster full of London recruits, the same recruits whose hype had likely saved his job previously, were completely, totally, and utterly non-competitive.

By every metric which can be used to assess a team’s performance Boise State destroyed Virginia.  Virginia was outplayed, outcoached, outhustled, outmuscled, outthought…outeverything.  Thomas Jones is one of Virginia’s most storied players.  He is Virginia’s all time rushing leader. He was the seventh overall pick in the 2000 NFL draft.  He had a twelve-year NFL career.  Like most Virginia fans, he tuned in to watch the nationally televised game.  As the horror unfolded, his pregame Twitter excitement turned to frustration and then embarrassment.

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Virginia great Thomas Jones is uniquely qualified to comment on the pitiful state of Virginia’s football program.

Virginia fans are fed up–and have been for some time now–by the sorry state of the football program and last weekend’s result has them demanding that someone answer for it. Head coach Mike London is the obvious choice, but there is talk that Executive Associate Athletic Director Jon Oliver’s overzealous scheduling and micromanagement has put London in an untenable position. There was a time when fans accepted the notion that Virginia’s academic standards made fielding a top-25 football team a difficult proposition.  Those same fans now point to Duke’s football resurrection and shout, loudly, “See?  If Duke can do it, why can’t we?”  Northwestern University, another academic stalwart and the not-proud owners of college football’s longest losing streak (34 games from 1979-1982) currently is 16th in the latest AP Top 25 football poll. Notre Dame, Michigan, Stanford all are academically rigorous and have historically successful programs.  Even Virginia has done it before, rising from complete irrelevance to national power under George Welsh in the 1980s-90s. Virginia has everything that it needs to be successful except an exceptional coach.

London’s abysmal coaching record has been at least partially offset–in some people’s minds at least–by his recruiting successes and his good character.  However the highly touted  recruits aren’t developing under London’s tutelage and fans aren’t coming to the stadium to see the head coach showcase his good character.  Virginia fans want a coach who has good character, wins the recruiting battles AND wins games.  Winning sells tickets. Winning makes donors generous. Winning makes everybody happy.

Individually, these Cavaliers have talent.  Many of them were heralded recruits whose commitment to Virginia was viewed as confirmation of the program’s resurgence.  Collectively however, these Cavaliers are ineffectual.  Virginia’s offensive line has plenty of game experience.  It was expected to be an area of strength this year.  It’s not. The line play has been terrible. Someone–perhaps a Virginia fan–once said that all runners look the same when there is no hole.  Virginia’s tailbacks have nowhere to run and the quarterback has no time to throw. It wasn’t that long ago that Virginia regularly was sending lineman to the NFL as high draft picks. Not anymore. Is that a talent or a coaching issue?  Where does the fault lie for this ineptitude?

One need look no further than Athens, Georgia for the answer.  Virginia transfer Greyson Lambert is thriving as Georgia’s quarterback after struggling last year as UVA’s signal caller. Working behind a superior offensive line, Lambert two weekends ago set an NCAA efficiency record when he completed 24 or his 25 passes for 330 yards and 3 touchdowns.  On a better team, Lambert is living up to the hype that never was evident during his time in Charlottesville. Given this, do you think that Andrew Brown and Taquan Mizzell wish they had signed with another school?  Lambert looks like a champ at Georgia.  London sold recruits on the promise of early playing time and parents on hands-on mentorship.  These recruiting wins in turn fostered the belief that Virginia was turning things around.  It’s not happening for the team or the players. Rushing 7 times for two yards won’t get Mizzell drafted but completing 24 of 25 passes for 330 yards and 3 touchdowns will do that for Lambert. A team with no coaching won’t win any more games than a team with no talent will.

And let’s be clear. It is the coaching.  The mental mistakes that Virginia regularly commits game after game reflect a lack of mental discipline, a lack of focus, a lack of preparation. At this point Virginia’s players are so desperate to make a play, to cause a turnover, to do anything to jumpstart Virginia’s nonexistent momentum that they are taking reckless chances.  Their overpursuit leaves them vulnerable to the cutback, their desire to strip the ball causes them to miss tackles.  Virginia’s defense is among the worst in the country.

The players and coaches admit that last weekend’s loss is unacceptable.  They said the same thing about Virginia’s close win against lower-division William and Mary two weekends ago. They lamented not being able to finish against Notre Dame, when finishing–plays, drives, games–is the team’s stated mission this year. They say that, with the entire ACC schedule ahead of them, the goals of an ACC championship and a bowl berth are still in front of them.  The facts belie this, however.  Virginia has not won an ACC road game since 2012. London’s overall ACC record in five seasons is 8-24. He has never beaten primary rivals Virginia Tech and North Carolina. I think it would be impossible for Mike London’s ice to be any thinner or his seat to be any hotter. Barring a miraculous turnaround, I don’t see how the psychological damage can be repaired by anything other than a fresh start.

Cavaliers Playing With Fire Already

How’s this for irony?  Virginia’s 35-29 victory over William & Mary this past weekend may do more to get Virginia coach Mike London fired than Virginia’s season-opening losses to UCLA and Notre Dame will. London’s Wahoos were expected to win and that’s ultimately what they did, but no one affiliated with Virginia’s football program can be happy with Saturday’s result.

William & Mary competes at the FCS level, college football’s lower division, and Virginia was the  heavily-favored team. That’s not to say that the Tribe isn’t a good team, only that Virginia is a bigger school with more talent, more scholarships, and better resources.  Virginia should always beat the William & Marys on its schedule and that’s why Saturday’s close win was so disappointing. During the London era Virginia far too often has played to the level of its competition. Virginia put forth a spirited effort against Notre Dame, a superior opponent.  That was encouraging.  Against the Tribe, Virginia needed a couple of explosive plays to prevent the upset. That was discouraging. Six years into London’s tenure, Virginia has established an identity as a team that doesn’t consistently do the little things right. Mental errors, costly penalties, poor tackling, bad clock management…these shortcomings have pushed Virginia’s football program to the bottom of the ACC.

Virginia's tackling troubles almost cost them a must-win on Saturday (photo: Matt Riley and Kelsey Grant)
Virginia’s tackling troubles almost cost them a must-win on Saturday (photo: Matt Riley and Kelsey Grant)

Virginia’s tacking on Saturday was atrocious.  London knows it, defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta knows it, the players know it, and so does everyone who watched the game. “We need to tackle much better,” London admitted during his Monday press conference. “Arm tackling, side tackling, we need to face people up, tackle them, knock them back, not throw them forward.”  Virginia’s defense, predicted to be the team’s weakness even without the tackling issues, is now a major liability. Charlottesville Daily Progress writer Jerry Ratcliffe pointed out in an article published in that paper on Monday that Virginia’s defense is statistically one of the worst in the country after three weeks.  There are 128 FBS teams in the country and the Cavaliers currently rank 101st in total defense, giving up 444.7 yards per game. At the current pace, reported Ratcliffe, this would end up being Virginia’s worst defensive team since the 1975 Virginia eleven went 1-10 while giving up an average of 509 yards per game.  Even worse, Virginia is one of only two FBS teams that has yet to generate a defensive takeaway this year.  Jon Tenuta came to Virginia with a reputation as a blitz-crazy defensive genius whose teams caused turnovers in droves.  Not this year.  Virginia has been pushed around defensively by two Top-15 teams but also by a lower-division FCS team that it should have manhandled.

So, in a week when the offense did its part, it was Virginia’s defense and special teams that left Virginia fans feeling grumpy. Special teams has been an area of concern for years and this past weekend’s performance was downright schizophrenic.  Virginia’s normally-reliable placekicker Ian Frye pulled off the unusual feat of hitting the upright on successive missed kicks.  Virginia had a punt blocked for seemingly the 100th time in the London era.  Offsetting these tales of woe is the fact that the Cavs returned a punt for a TD for the first time since 2004, a crazy-long time ago by football standards.

Boise State is coming to town for a rare Friday night game that seems to offer Virginia fans everything they could hope for: a quality opponent, an evening kickoff, better football weather,  and extended tailgating time.  But what Virginia fans most crave is a complete game victory where the home team doesn’t beat itself with penalties, mental mistakes and poor execution.  Virginia’s offense looked good the past two weeks, but in true Wahoo fashion when Virginia patches one leak it seemingly springs another one (defense) somewhere else.  Mike London is just about out of fingers to plug the leaks in the dike that is his 2015 football team.  The Hoos got an ugly must-win last week, their first in what must be a six- or seven-win season for London to have any hope of retaining his job.  Three games in and the team already has its back to the wall.    This is a team that could very well get better as the season progresses, but starting 1-3 may be too much of an obstacle for London’s Cavaliers to overcome.  Beating Boise State and exiting September at 2-2 would have the Hoos back on the predicted path.

He’s Back! Get Ready for Mike London in 2015…

Strap yourselves in Virginia fans, Mike London is going to be running the Cavalier program in 2015. Some fans will give a reserved cheer, others will throw their hands up in disgust and exclaim they will never enter Scott Stadium again until a coaching change is made. By the way, this is a decades-old threat from Virginia fans who frequently lay down the gauntlet, but rarely follow through. The rant goes something like this: “If (fill in the blank – Sonny Randall, Dick Bestwick, Al Groh, Mike London) is coaching this team next year, I’m not going to another game until he’s gone, maybe ever again!” Okay! See you next year! Don’t forget to send in your VAF donation early so you get the most points for your parking spot.

Mike London is coming back and here is why:

(AP Photo/Steve Helber)
(AP Photo/Steve Helber)

While improving over the 2013 edition of Virginia football is an horrifically low bar to clear, the 2014 team is not a bad team by any measure. They are not a good team yet, but they are a much better team than 2013 and I would argue much better than 2012 as well.

For starters, the defense is good to very good. First team All-ACC running backs James Conner and Duke Johnson average 146 and 130 yards rushing per game. Against Virginia, they had 83 and 88 yards respectively. The Virginia defense is ranked 26th nationally in total defense. It has sacked opposing quarterbacks 32 times (18th nationally) and generated 26 turnovers (12th nationally). Virginia played the toughest schedule in the ACC and the defense kept the Cavaliers in every game, Georgia Tech excepted. Led by the All-ACC play of senior linebacker Henry Coley, Virginia is a defense that teams don’t want to play. Jon Tenuta has shown himself to be a top-shelf coordinator and has put a very solid unit on the field.

There is no question that offense has been more of a struggle for Virginia this season and frankly is the reason why Virginia football is 5-6 after 11 games and hence, why many Virginia fans are clamoring for a coaching change. However, despite the problems on offense, there have been several bright spots as well. The Virginia offensive line was predicted by all prognosticators to be the weak link in the Virginia program. A makeshift group with no clear leaders, many predicted that Virginia’s young quarterbacks would spend the 2014 season running for their lives. In a delicious twist of irony, the Virginia offensive line has been the brightest of bright spots for the Virginia program. The Virginia OL has given up a scant 12 sacks through 11 games, and delivered multiple games yielding zero sacks including this past week’s win against Miami. The Virginia running game has improved throughout the year. In the second half of Saturday’s win, the Virginia offensive line imposed its will on Miami, running on all but 5 plays, moving the ball consistently. The Virginia wide receiving corps has been more than capable in 2014 and shows great promise moving forward. The Virginia quarterbacks have delivered 17 touchdowns against 15 interceptions. While this is not the ratio Virginia fans hoped for in 2014, it is a marked improvement over 2013. There are clearly areas for improvement on offense. Tight end play has been deficient and interceptions have been too frequent and unusually ill-timed. Play calling has been questionable, with the screen pass being the most predictable, over-used, and under-performing play in the Virginia arsenal. Steve Fairchild bears much of the responsibility for the struggles on offense. The running-back-by-committee seems to take Kevin Parks out of his rhythm and the lack of commitment to the vertical passing game has made the Virginia offense predictable and therefore easier to defend.

Despite the noted shortcomings, this team is not far from turning the corner. A wholesale cleansing of the coaching staff would likely set Virginia back instead of keeping forward momentum. The reality is, Virginia is one badly botched screen pass against UNC from delivering enough on-field success to keep a restless and impatient fan base in check. Looking at the schedule before the season began, most fans would have been reasonably pleased with a 6-6 season. Given the early success of the program, the fan base got greedy, and now 5-7 or even 6-6 is reason to go through the cost and disruption of a coaching change. It’s not happening.

There is another big reason Mike London is coming back, field performance aside. The donor community and the administration don’t want him gone yet. Mike London brings a lot to the University of Virginia and its stakeholders. The Virginia program, from all indications to the public, is a solid group of admirable young men. Graduation rates are up and disciplinary problems are down. When Virginia administrators, donors, and fans read about the garbage going on at Florida State and UNC, everyone looks thankfully to Mike London as a leader who shares the ideals that are important to UVa community.

On balance, it was a bad week for the University. Given the publicity of the Rolling Stone article and the pressure that will bring for Virginia to take a leadership position in driving structural change to better protect its students, the last thing UVa needs right now is to fire its head football coach, which smacks of “business as usual” and focusing on the wrong things. All eyes are on Virginia right now, and the clear focus needs to be on addressing sexual assault problems, not mollifying impatient football fans. Mike London will be back in 2015. I have seen enough improvement in the program to be glad about it. If UVa is going to make headlines with changes in its leadership, it needs to be centered on addressing the problems on grounds that threaten the well-being of its students, not quibbling over whether 6 wins is good enough to keep the coaching staff in place.

 

 

 

 

Here Comes Virginia

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Virginia is 3-2 and looking to plant its flag in the ACC’s Coastal Division. (photo by Matt Wiley)

Virginia, an afterthought in preseason Coastal Division order-of-finish predictions, is the ACC’s surprise team through the season’s first five weeks. In a division viewed largely as a toss-up, Virginia was the only team not to receive a single preseason first-place vote. Not that it deserved any such consideration. Coming off a two-win season, facing what looked to be a murderous schedule, and with numerous questions about the state of the downtrodden program, Virginia looked to the media to be the Coastal Division’s sad sack program.
Inside the program, however, players and coaches had a very different perspective. They spoke of a belief that this year would be better, that the team had something to prove, that the “us-against-the-world” mentality was a motivation in the locker, weight, and film rooms. Writers chalked such talk up to the players’ youthful optimism and to the coaches selling improvement as a job security and recruiting tactic. However, if Virginia’s play thus far is an accurate indicator, it appears that the writers’ predictions will be what most predictions are: worthless.
Now looking completely at ease with the defensive playbook installed by coordinator Jon Tenuta last season, Virginia’s defense is locking down opponents, dictating the action, and creating takeaways at a school-record pace. The Cavaliers beat down Kent State last weekend, creating five more of its nation-leading 18 takeaways and limiting the Golden Flashes to 20 total yards of offense in the second half. Meanwhile the offense posted its second straight weekend of 500+ yards of total offense, a feat not achieved since 2004. Virginia stands at 3-2, not especially impressive at first glance, but those three wins eclipse last year’s two-win total, and both of the losses have come in competitive games against nationally-ranked opponents.
UVA’s offense, which for years has operated on the wrong side of the top-100 statistically, currently is 70th at 408 yards per game. That’s a huge improvement, especially given that three of UVA’s five games have been against top-25 teams. The defense, in addition to having more takeaways than any other FBS school, currently is 4th nationally with 19 sacks and is yielding just 334.8 yards per game, good for 33rd overall. Again, a huge improvement. The statistical improvement is inarguable. So is the record. “Every win, every plus play, every turnover, every touchdown, every third-down conversion for us is something we just want more and more of,” said Mike London after Saturday’s win. Ironically, what’s missing so far in this turnaround season are the fans, the same fans who are starved for wins.
While the media has taken notice of Virginia’s improvement, a large part of UVA’s fan base remains circumspect. Virginia has played four home games before an average of 36,900 fans per game, or about 60% of Scott Stadium’s 61,500-seat capacity. While there are reports that attendance is an issue for many schools, fan apathy at Virginia is acute. Students, who get in free, apparently don’t believe a game is worth even that much given their recent turnout. Ticketholders have been asked to pay more and more to watch recent UVA football teams that have fallen through the floor and into the ACC’s basement. UVA’s overall status nationally as a top-10 athletic program is offset by the school’s years-long struggles in college athletics’ marquee sports: men’s basketball and football. The basketball issues appear to have been fixed so now the focus is really on the football team. Mike London was a questionable hire to many who believed that only a big name could turn the program around and his record at UVA has done nothing to silence the critics. Despite this season’s better-than-expected start, fans remain unconvinced. Critics point out that two of the wins–Richmond and Kent State–have come against inferior competition while also complaining that UVA’s out-of-conference scheduling is far too rigorous for a team desperately in need of a winning record and a bowl appearance. Oh, the irony. There are some fans who are so convinced of Mike London’s incompetence that no amount of statistical or observational evidence will bring them back into the stadium. If they are waiting on a coaching change before recommitting, they may have to wait awhile.
Each UVA win ramps up the pressure to win the next one and get one step closer to the winning record and bowl eligibility that will bring the program some much-needed stability. The Virginia coaches refer to each game as “the next rung on the ladder” and the next rung offers a chance at a particularly good handhold for the rest of the season. The Hoos take on Pitt under the Scott Stadium lights Saturday night for a chance to move to 2-0 in the wide-open Coastal and 4-2 overall. The Louisville game was big. The Kent State game was important. The Pitt game is double huge. After Pitt the Hoos get two weeks to prepare for new nemesis Duke before hosting a UNC team that is reeling defensively. Each win gives the team more belief in itself, in the coaches, in the program’s direction. If the Cavs take care of business in October they can go into the brutal last month with six wins and a tractor/trailer load of confidence.
The fans should not underestimate their importance to the turnaround effort. Home field advantage is real, but only when the fans play the part of the 12th man. “You can’t help but see it looking up in the stands,” said junior defensive end Eli Harold after the Kent State win. “But no matter how many we have, I just really want them to be into it like they were before. I can see if they weren’t cheering for us all year, but they were out of their seats the whole Louisville game and, today, we’re playing a team which we’re expected to [beat] and they really weren’t doing anything. I really hope they do their thing next Saturday.”
“I do love the crowd and I do love the fans when they’re out there, especially when they’re loud on third downs and everything,” said Daquan Romero, a senior linebacker and UVa’s second-leading tackler. “It disrupts the offense, like on third downs, even with their cadence. It’s a great feeling; it’s a great vibe to come off of.”
After UVA’s program- and television-unfriendly crowds in September London on Saturday said that he wanted “to encourage all the fans out there to come and be involved, making the noise and making all those things happen, because our players feed off the energy that the people that come to the game provide. It’s just very noticeable.” Indeed.

Surprising Virginia is Flexing Defensive Muscle

The University of Virginia’s football program–and its coach–were declared dead-on-arrival before the first second ticked off the clock in the first game.  Given Virginia’s schedule, Coach Mike London faced an almost impossible task in saving his job.  The thinking was that UVA needed to win six games and go to a bowl or win five games and demonstrate meaningful progress to keep Athletic Director Craig Littlepage from having to fire a coach who has seemingly done everything right except win games.  Those parameters probably haven’t changed but I don’t think I am overstating things when I say that this team has so far shown the type of meaningful progress that could buy London another year if the six-win goal is not met. Virginia is flexing some muscles that no one thought it had.
Virginia has faced two-ranked opponents already this year and will face a third this weekend when it hits the road for the first time in 2014 to square off against BYU in Provo.  Last week’s upset win over Louisville was a must win game and the Cavs delivered.  Now the team sits at 2-1,  the same record it had last season season before suffering a reactor core meltdown and finishing 2-10.  If last week was a “must-win”, then this week is a “show me” game.  That’s what the fans are thinking and saying.
Virginia managed to pull in just 34,000 fans for last week’s game partly due to bad weather and an early start time but mainly because fans aren’t convinced. Yet. Here’s a sample of the collective thinking of UVA’s fan base so far this season.
Preseason: UVA will finish last in the Coastal Division. We need to fire Mike London and and start over. Again.
Week 1:  Well, that was interesting but UVA is still UVA.  We found a historic way to beat ourselves, giving up 3 defensive TDs for the first time in program history.  Our defense is pretty good but here we go with another QB rotation.
Week 2: So what? I don’t care how good they are, Richmond is still an FCS school.
Week 3: Alright, alright, alright.  That was pretty good. Maybe this team is better than expected. Let’s see how they handle a road game against a ranked opponent, though.
C’mon UVA, show us what you got.
So, what are we going to see this weekend?  Oddsmakers say that Virginia is a 16-point underdog presently.  Last weekend Virginia started as a 10-point home underdog against Louisville but by kickoff the line was down to 4.5.  I expect similar action this week. Sixteen points seems exceedingly generous.  Virginia knows what BYU looks like, having played them last year.  BYU, which looked impressive in dismantling Texas 41-7 a few weeks ago, looked a little less so in gunning down Houston 33-25 last weekend. Home field advantage counts for something and this is Virginia’s first 2014 road game, so there’s that.  However Virginia’s defense has played three impressive games in a row and last weekend, for the first time, QB Greyson Lambert looked comfortable leading the offense.   Virginia’s defense leads the nation in takeaways with 13 and it is obvious after three games that defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta has the personnel to run the attacking defense that he is famous for.  Eli Harold and Mike Moore own the edge, David Dean and Mike Moore clog the middle, Henry Coley, Daquan Romero, and Max Valles clean up at linebacker and UVA’s secondary is one of the finest in the nation.
The Virginia locker room was very emotional after the Louisville win.  It was a huge win for a team that no one outside of the coaches and players believed in before the season started.  Team captain and vocal leader Henry “Bad Cop” Coley called a Sunday meeting after the Louisville win to make sure that the players stay grounded and focused on the bigger goal.  Virginia has put to bed some unfortunate statistics this season in scoring its first win over an FBS opponent in more than a year, winning a league game for the first time in more than 600 days, and beating a ranked team for the first time since November 2012, but Coley wanted to remind the team that these are things that winning programs do regularly and that such wins should not be cause for excessive celebration.  Not when so much more seems possible for this team. With every win the pressure ramps up for Virginia to do more.  Win more games and the stadium fills up.  Win more games and the coach they love keeps his job.  Win more games and the already-impressive recruiting of the past few years most likely gets even better. Win more games and prove everyone else wrong.
The Cavaliers can’t afford to take even one play off this season.  Too much is riding on the results. Virginia is at the crossroad this weekend.  The team has had the same 2-1 record for three years in a row now.  However, this year doesn’t feel anything like 2012 or 2013, when the early winning record did little to convince fans that the program was on the right path.  This year feels different.  This year is starting to feel like Duke’s 10-win 2013 season. I can’t predict ten wins given Virginia’s remaining schedule, but I can predict the type of meaningful progress that will prove to everyone but the most-ardent Mike London critics that he and his experienced staff know what they are doing.   If the team gets the win in Provo this weekend Virginia will have the look and feel of the nation’s 2014 surprise team.
“I feel like we are learning how to win again,” said Coley.

Status Check Week for Virginia

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DE Eli Harold leads a UVA defense that needs to stuff Louisville’s rushing attack this weekend. Photo by Mike Ingalls thesabre.com

After the season’s first two weeks Virginia sits at 1-1, precisely where the schedule suggested it would be. The Cavaliers surprised with a game effort against then 7th-ranked UCLA but the victory over FCS opponent Richmond did not provide much in the way of additional insight into the rebuilding campaign. So while UVA has now completed 1/6th of its schedule, we still don’t really have a very good idea which way Virginia’s season is going to break. This week’s tilt against 21st-ranked Louisville should give the Cavaliers a 2014 status check.
Virginia is an early 10-point home underdog against the Cardinals, who are 2-0 after thumping Miami 31-13 in its ACC debut and then hanging 66 on an overmatched Murray State team last weekend. If Virginia is going to improve its football fortunes it will need to beat Louisville for its first win against an FBS opponent in more than a year.  The back end of Virginia’s schedule looks incredibly difficult so the Cavs need to win early and hold serve at home if embattled Coach Mike London is to survive UVA’s overzealous scheduling.
On paper this matchup is intriguing as it pits a Louisville offense that is averaging 48.5 points per game against a Virginia defense that has nine takeaways and has surrendered just two touchdowns on the season.  Strength vs. strength. Murray State was the kind of cupcake matchup that schools use to pad their bowl resumes but that don’t really provide much in the way of an assessment. However, the Miami score was a bit of an eye-opener given that Louisville was expected to take a step back offensively this year after star quarterback Teddy Bridgewater matriculated to the NFL.  Louisville has a monster running back in 241-pound senior Dominique Brown.  Louisville wants to run the ball. Virginia is doing a great job stuffing the run.
Virginia’s defense last weekend overwhelmed Richmond, forcing seven turnovers and continuing the fine effort it showed against UCLA.  Richmond’s QBs did amass 363 passing yards against UVA, but the Cavaliers countered that with three interceptions.   On the season, UVA ranks in the top ten nationally in several defensive statical categories—sacks, turnover margin, fumbles recovered—and would rank 8th nationally in scoring defense if the NCAA only counted points actually given up by the defense in this category instead of total points surrendered. The Cavs have been especially stout against the run, stopping 40% of opponent rushes for a loss or no gain, ranking 5th nationally in that statistic.  It appears that Jon Tenuta’s attacking schemes have taken hold in this, his second season running the defense.
Virginia’s fans would feel a bit more comfortable about a possible defensive letdown this weekend were they not so concerned about the state of the offense. Virginia will need to show a little more on offense this weekend than it has shown so far.  Virginia’s play calling has been unimaginative and coordinator Steve Fairchild seems determined to establish the run despite the young offensive line’s struggles to open rush lanes.  Meanwhile, Virginia is again dealing with a quarterback shuffle.  Greyson Lambert entered the season as the clear starter and anointed team leader but his first half struggles against UCLA gave the coaching staff reason to turn to backup Matt Johns.  While Lambert appeared tentative and burdened by the expectations placed on him, Johns played fast and loose and looked like the second coming of Brett Favre.  The two QBs split time last weekend against Richmond and posted similar stats, but UVA’s offense appears to function better with Johns under center.  For now. If Lambert can increase his comfort level and stay with the play and not check down as quickly, he may regain control of the huddle. For now though, the coaching staff seems content to rotate QBs and play the hotter hand. Critics have noted UVA’s overwhelming propensity to run on first and second down and pass on third down.  UVA will need to mix up the play calling this weekend if the offense is to do its part and relieve some of the pressure on UVA’s defense to hold the line.
Which unit will be exposed this weekend—Louisville’s offense or Virginia’s defense? Louisville, once known only for its basketball team, has done an incredible job building a top-ten athletics program and the football team is the centerpiece of the effort.  Coach Bobby Petrino is back for his second stint at the school and the Cavs are squaring off against the Cardinals for the first time since a 16-15 home win against them in 1989. A home win this weekend would do wonders for the team, its coach, and the beleaguered fan base. You can be sure that the national media will take notice if the Hoos can record a victory over a nationally-ranked team and score its  first conference win since November 2012. Virginia came tantalizingly close against UCLA and that game and the follow up effort against Richmond no doubt has given the team some confidence.  Virginia appears to be missing only one ingredient in its turnaround formula: a winner’s mentality.  Beat Louisville this weekend and Virginia’s 2014 prospects improve considerably.

2014 – The Second Year for Mike London

It will be a happy day for Virginia football fans when the talk of the program is focused on games and players rather than the job performance of the head coach. Today is not that happy day.
 
Mike London was hired in 2010 to take over a program that was weary from the leadership of the know-it-all curmudgeon Al Groh. When Mike London was announced as the new head coach at UVa, I was as pleased as any Virginia fan. My brother-in-law (a fellow UVa die-hard) and I went to a “meet the staff” event where Coach London and his new staff mingled with UVa fans and donors. Mike London was impressive. His message was a breath of fresh air.  He said that Virginia football was going to win with kids who went to class, who showed class, and who graduated with their degrees.  He spoke of his background in law enforcement before he began his coaching career. It was obvious that he would connect with kids, their families, and high school coaches who for years had written off Virginia football. While Mike London was hired in 2010, it is my position that 2014 is only his second year with the tools he needs to win and in reality the second year of the Mike London era.
 
When we “met the staff” in 2010 I was enthralled, swept up by the overwhelming sense of optimism. I intentionally ignored the sneaking feeling that something was askew. Virginia football fans always feel like something is askew even in the best of times, so it was easy to suppress this feeling. I was delighted to see three former UVa greats, Anthony Poindexter, Shawn Moore, and Ron Mattes on the Virginia staff. These guys knew how to win at Virginia. I was pleased to see a mix of respected coaching veterans in Jim Reid, Jeff Hanson, and Mike Faragalli mixed in with coaching newcomers Bill Lazor and Vincent Brown.  Chip West and his legendary recruiting acumen was an added bonus to the staff. What I was choosing to ignore was an anxious concern that none of these coaches had a track record of winning D-1/FBS football games. I saw lots of FCS experience and 1-AA success, but no one had delivered sustained success in a major FBS conference. I chose to bury that concern with optimism and alcohol and I headed to the bar for another drink.
 
It might have been buried, but my concern was neither dead nor unfounded. After posting our second 4-8 record in three seasons, Virginia overhauled its coaching staff, firing coaches Reid, Hanson, Moore, and Faragalli. Bill Lazor left the program to return to the NFL. In their places, Virginia hired Tom O’Brien, Jon Tenuta, Mike Archer, Steve Fairchild. All of these coaches have significant D-1/FBS experience. They have won at national D-1 programs. They have a track record of success over time in the ACC or equivalent conferences. 2014 is the second year that Mike London has the tools he needs to win which is why this is the second year of his tenure. The first year of his new tenure was a disaster as we installed new systems on both offense and defense, shook off a ridiculous and ineffective quarterback rotation, and players figured out the nuances and expectations of 4 new coaches.
 
While the new coaches are a needed infusion of experience and know-how, there are lingering questions. Can the contrasting styles of Mike London (a players coach and inspirational leader who connects with the players) and Tom O’Brien (a stern disciplinarian and Naval Academy graduate who served 9 years in the marine corps and has won consistently everywhere he has coached) mesh to deliver a winning system and more importantly a winning culture? Can Mike London compliment his innate art of leadership with the science of winning football games? Most importantly, can we leverage the wealth of coaching experience currently in the program into a winning record in its second year? That’s all the time we have. We squandered the good will and optimism of Mike London’s first three years with a staff that was learning on the job. As a result, have one season to show that this is the staff that can bring winning back to Charlottesville.
 
There is no doubt that Mike London was a big part of the hiring process of his initial staff and owns the ultimate responsibility for its composition. However, as is always the case with Virginia football, something is always a little different. Meddling and heavy-handed Associate AD Jon Oliver is never far from the decisions surrounding the Virginia football program. How influential was he in the hiring of the first staff? We don’t know, but there is no doubt his fingerprints were on the hiring of the initial staff as they were on the hiring of Mike London. The unfortunate reality for Virginia football fans is that we have exactly one more year to find out if this new, highly qualified staff can win, or we get to start the coaching conversations all over again and the happy day when we move beyond talking about coaching staffs to talking about winning football games will be forestalled, once again.