Tag Archives: Micah Kizer

An Unlikely Virginia Football Contrarian…

I was out of town this weekend when kickoff for the Virginia/Pitt game rolled around. The bartender was either unwilling or unable to find RSN. There was no doubt in my mind that my fellow bar patrons included few UVa fans, so I am not sure if the failure to locate the game was due to a lack of coverage in the area or by design to keep the bar filled and happy.

Frankly, I am not sure it matters. I read the articles and studied the box score. Another convincing Virginia loss. The second in a row as Virginia remains one win shy of bowl eligibility. If I was going to completely miss a game, this was probably a good one. The anatomy of the loss – the shortcomings of the offensive line, a high school caliber field goal kicking game, and squandered opportunities inside the Pitt 40 yard line are not the biggest challenges for the program right now.

I think the biggest problem for the program is that fans are perilously close to or have already thrown in the towel on the season and some on the football program at large. I got several texts during the game, while I was out for a hike in the Virginia mountains, that predicted a 5-7 season and another bowl season without Virginia as a participant. They were done, waiting for basketball season.

It is hard to blame them. Virginia has been consistently pretty bad over the past 10 years. Al Groh and Mike London each had flashes success during their tenures, but ultimately both were major players in the disintegration of the Virginia football program. Bronco’s first season at 2-10 didn’t do much to repair the damage. Fans are justified in their short fuse.

I understand the sentiments of those who have seen enough. Virginia athletics has a long and storied history of leaving its fans at the alter, especially in the “money sports” of football and basketball. While Virginia has built itself into a national player on the basketball scene, there is no doubt that recent teams had final 4 potential, yet have fallen short of basketball nirvana. Football has been a train wreck since George Welsh was prematurely pushed aside. I get it, for many it’s time to move on.

I’m not there yet. While the playing margin for error for Virginia football is razor thin and the tolerance for injuries among the starters is even thinner, I think there is another win in this team and a bowl game on the horizon. I’d love to cite a mountain of stats that back up my position, but they aren’t there. In fact, the stats clearly support the opposite position. If I were at the blackjack table in Vegas, I’d be the hated player going with his “gut” hitting a “15” while the dealer shows “6”.

I think that Quinn Blanding and Micah Kizer will rally this team for one more win this season. As it sinks in on the rest of the team that these warriors may go their entire college career without a bowl appearance, I think the rest of the team will dig deep and find a way to pull off a major upset victory.

Virginia will be the betting dog the rest of the season. The Wahoos opened as an 8.5 point dog to Georgia Tech, which will likely be the smallest spread we see the rest of the way.

In past seasons, undermanned Virginia teams have stymied the maddening triple option to upset the Jackets in Charlottesville. I think it is possible again this Saturday, but I think the options this week are polar opposites. Virginia will either eek out a close victory or get blowout by 25 points or more. If it is close, Virginia can will its way to victory. If the roof starts leaking early and Virginia struggles in the first half, it will get ugly in a hurry. The triple option is not a riddle you solve at halftime. It is a puzzle you unravel the week before the game.

Let’s hope for a good week of practice and a sharp performance on Saturday, otherwise I’m the guy that took the dealer’s bust card. You’re welcome.

Virginia Football – Let’s Try This One More Time

The pre-season might be the best time of year for many college football programs. It certainly was for Virginia football last year. Standing ovations for new head coach Bronco Mendenhall making an appearance at JPJ, followed by bullish statements about bowl games. Graduate transfers infusing talent into a program that clearly had holes to fill. Late summer ’16 was awash with optimism. Then the Richmond Spiders came to town and washed all expectations for a return to football respectability down the drain as Virginia suffered the first of its 10 losses for the season.

Here we are again. Late summer. The joy of pre-season excitement is in the air. I am hearing lots of optimistic football chatter among the Virginia faithful once more. Virginia hasn’t had a punt blocked in months, hasn’t given up a 4th & long since the Louisville game, and its record stands at a level 0-0. Is this the zenith of the ’17 football season for the Cavaliers? Maybe, but then again, maybe not.

A lot has changed since the start of the ill-fated 2016 campaign:

Virginia has added experienced graduate transfer talent across the offensive line bringing much needed depth to an area of persistent weakness for the Wahoos.

Virginia has jettisoned teams like UCLA and Oregon from the schedule. While Virginia has one last debt to pay in its non-sensical scheduling over the past several years with an away game at Boise State, it is both prudent and hopeful to see teams like UConn, Indiana, & William & Mary on the schedule…where Virginia has a fighting chance for a win. Mercifully the ACC scheduling gods kept both Clemson and Florida State off the Virginia slate in 2017.

Virginia has 2 pre-season all-Americans on defense in Quinn Blanding and Micah Kiser as well as a potential early-round NFL pick in Andrew Brown.

The health of the team is good with few summer-camp injuries.

The staff has another year under their belts and a better understanding of the talent on hand. Comments from the staff indicate that they are making adjustments to both offensive and defensive schemes that leverage the skills of the team and cover deficiencies where they exist.

Virginia has experience across the offensive line, in the receiver corps, and at QB. The defense returns a mix of seasoned veterans and red-shirt freshmen ready to make their mark on Virginia football.

Anyone ready to book their bowl season travel plans yet?

In the words of Lee Corso ‘Not so fast!”

While it is great to have a stable of returning upperclassmen on the team, let’s not forget that those upperclassmen went 2-10 last year. Bronco’s recruiting class was ranked 57th nationally according to Rivals. The football tide is rising in the ACC and the biggest question for Cavalier fans is can Virginia keep up with the pace?

It is certainly possible that Virginia will post a respectable season in ’17. It is not completely ridiculous to think that Virginia could make a bowl game for the first time since 2011. However (you knew that was coming) Virginia needs some good luck.

The Cavaliers are woefully thin at many positions, most notably at quarterback. If Kurt Benkert gets hurt, guess how many combined snaps the backup quarterbacks have played at the college level? The unfortunate answer for those hoping to spend the holidays in Shreveport at the Independence Bowl, is zero. Making the quarterback depth chart more frightening is the fact that Virginia’s offensive line play has not been stellar the past few years. While the expectations are high for improvement in the trenches, if Kurt Benkert is running for his life the first few Saturdays in September, the Virginia season could come unravelled in a hurry.

Maybe the biggest asset in the Virginia arsenal this year is the simple fact that if any program in the country is over due for a little good luck, it’s Virginia. So Virginia fans, cross you fingers, go dig up that old rabbit’s foot, and look for some 4-leaf clovers. Virginia can put up a respectable season this year, but the fates are going to have to smile on the Cavaliers.

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E-mail David at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @dmrayner.

Photo: Wikipedia

Encouraged, Concerned, and Puzzled – Virginia Lets One Slip Away Against Pitt

I listened to the post game show on this ride home from Charlottesville on Saturday. Virginia had just produced a disappointing loss to a solid but beatable Pitt team. I heard the same comment several times. “This game was a tale of two halves”. On paper it was that simple. Sitting in the stands it wasn’t.

Virginia’s loss to Pitt this weekend was really a tale of three plays. A kickoff return for a touchdown after an impressive Virginia drive, a pick-six to end the first half and a second kick return to the Virginia 20 yard line. Absent those plays, Virginia likely pulls off an unlikely win.

I am concerned, encouraged, and puzzled by Saturday’s game. I am concerned that on the 3 aforementioned plays that cost Virginia the game, Virginia players looked like they were waiting for someone else to make a play. Over the last 3-and-half games, Virginia has played with an increased sense of urgency and commitment.  On these three plays, they were not with the program. They were not making plays, but rather observing the action.

While concerning, it was actually more puzzling. It was puzzling given all we have heard about the culture Bronco is building at Virginia. 100% every practice, every conditioning session, every play of every game. Yet there we were, watching along with our players on the field as Pitt scored two touchdowns and set up a third with their offense standing on the sidelines.

Part of me thinks that the rebuild of the Virginia program is bigger than anyone imagined. Building a culture takes time. Recruiting, developing, and slotting talent to fit systems takes time. Changing the hearts and minds of Virginia fans is a big task. I imagine that changing the expectations and attitudes of players who have been through the wringer with their popular but terribly ineffective prior coaching staff is a herculean task.

As I watch Virginia play, in what is clearly a rebuilding year, I see kids with obvious and exceptional talent. I can’t help but wonder what we would see from Quinn Blanding, Micah Kizer, Andrew Brown, and Smoke Mizzell had they spent the previous 3 years with Bronco versus the past 6 months. If I could wish anything for Virginia football, other than a full stadium, it would be the fully entrenched culture of Bronco Mendenhall in NFL-caliber players whose eligibility is winding down this year or next.

Ironically, I was encouraged by one of the plays that turned this game from an unlikely win into a disappointing loss. The pick-6 to end the first half was part of strategy to try to put more points on the board with 44 seconds left in the half. The safe call would have been to run the ball twice and take a 28-28 tie into the locker room. However, as we have seen across 6 games with Bronco at the helm, he plays to win. He and his staff call the game as though all the pieces are in place to execute their strategy. I am encouraged that Bronco’s decision making is unchanged by evolving and transient conditions in the program. Virginia is going to win, and we are going to win the Bronco way.

I am also encouraged with the streaks of execution we have seen from this team. These kids can score points against good defenses. They can contain All-American talent in opposing offenses. However, Virginia has to do it every time out and to get there they have to believe that they can do it every time out. There still seems to be a lingering fatalism in the program. Like the guy who wins the lottery and expects to be run over by a bus walking home with his check, I am not sure the Virginia team thinks they have earned the right to win. Not yet, anyway.

The players, staff, and fans all want the Virginia program to succeed. It is my expectation that it will succeed. The only question we have, is how long we will have to wait. Is Christmas just around the corner or are we making a Christmas list in July? I am encouraged enough to think it might be the former, but I was also that kid who had his Christmas list finished before the first leaf turned.

On a side note, what a privilege it was to watch James Conner play football. He is warrior, a champion, an All- American. Virginia’s defense did better than most keeping Connor in check even though he still managed 90 yards on 20 carries and scored 2 touchdowns. Considering just 12 months ago he was in the midst of chemo treatments, his performance and courage is an inspiration to us all. James Connor – American Bad Ass.

 

E-mail David at [email protected].

Photo: David Rayner

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