Tag Archives: Matt Johns

Branding Virginia Football…

Marketing firms will tell you that it takes substantial time and effort to build a brand. A brand represents those thoughts and ideas that immediately pop to mind when viewing, consuming, or considering a particular product or service. A brand represents perception, reputation, and value. The Richmond Times Dispatch captured the UVa football brand perfectly in their headline following the loss to Pitt. The RTD cited “the Usual Blunders” as the reasons for UVa’s most recent winnable loss. I wondered if the writer had consulted with one of Richmond’s fine marketing firms to come up with that assessment because it captures the devolution of the UVa football brand perfectly.

The usual blunders. The Pitt game had them all. It was a microcosm of the Mike London era. It is easy to recount the blunders, because we know them by heart:

Special teams breakdowns

5 games into the season Virginia has had two punts blocked in their own end zone. Some programs go for consecutive seasons with zero blocked punts. UVa has two, with 7 games to play. Does anyone remember when the winnable loss to the Hokies started to unravel last year? If you said a blocked punt in the end zone, pour yourself a tall scotch. Last season Virginia led the nation in blocked punts. We are on track to repeat again this year. I suppose it’s good to be the best at something and surrendering blocked punts seems to be a UVa specialty. Blocked punts, especially in our end zone, is definitely a usual blunder.

Giving up the big play

It’s standard practice in our section of Scott Stadium, when our opponents are in a 3rd and long situation, for someone to knowingly state “they’ve got us right where they want us”. No one gives up the big play like UVa. The longer the third down distance the better. In fact, opponents might be best served taking a knee on first and second down to set up their highest probability for a successful conversion looking at 3rd and 14. Against Pitt, sometimes we chose to give up the big play prematurely, but in the first quarter, we gave up a season’s-worth of big plays, sometimes with a receiver so wide open he was alone in the camera shot. While the defense righted itself in the second half of the Pitt debacle, we surrendered enough big plays in the first quarter to doom our chances for a rare road victory. Giving up the big play, especially the crucial 3rd and long is a cornerstone in building the UVa brand of usual blunders.

Erratic Quarterback Play

Quarterback play under Mike London can best be described as consistently erratic. Against Pitt, Matt Johns missed low on a walk-in, 4-yard TD pass that a backyard QB makes 99.9% of the time. He missed high on a sure-fire fade route for a touchdown when 6-2 Canaan Severin was matched against an irrelevant 5-9 corner. Fittingly, when Matt Johns threw one of the best long balls I have seen all year, hitting TJ Thorpe in stride right in the bread basket, Thorpe dropped what would have been a certain touchdown. Erratic quarterback play has been the most dependable of our on-field blunders throughout the London era (recall Greyson Lambert’s screen pass, picked off by a UNC defensive tackle last year that was returned 40 yards deep into Cavalier territory, beginning the end of what was yet another winnable loss? I could go on…)

Who’s on First?

Seemingly the most incurable of the usual blunders have been poor sideline decisions and general confusion during any given game. These may be the most maddening of all, because the source of these blunders comes from a well-compensated staff of professionals who are paid specifically to avoid these blunders. It is standard operating procedure, coming off a timeout, for Virginia to break the huddle with either 12 men or 10 men on the field. Players regularly and randomly run on and off the field with 10 seconds or less left on the play clock. It seems to me, having the right players in right numbers on the field is the most basic of coaching responsibilities, yet Virginia commits personnel blunders on a weekly basis resulting in wasted timeouts and costly penalties. Against Pitt personnel issues wasted timeouts and forced penalties which contributed to a stalled touchdown drive and the aforementioned blocked punt. Game day confusion is a hallmark of the Virginia program is the most recognizable and most frustrating of the usual blunders.

It takes a long time to build a brand. The usual blunders are not a new phenomenon in Charlottesville. They are persistent and interminable. There are three paths the Virginia football program can take in the coming weeks. They can reinforce their current brand of blunders by simply committing more of them. They can come up with some new blunders to add to the usual blunders. Or they could stop committing these blunders and produce a string of improbable wins. Wouldn’t that be unusual?

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.

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 Needs Touchdowns

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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.

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.
 

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.