Tag Archives: Mike London

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.

Spring Comes to Virginia Football

Spring has sprung for Virginia football, which means that spring practice has ended and the spring game…spring scrimmage…football festival (whatever) has mercifully passed. Now recruiting season kicks into high gear.

With all due respect to the 90,000 Alabama fans that pack Bryant-Denny stadium for the Red & White game, spring football is boring. It is a zero-sum game. If a great performance by your redshirt freshman running back is an indication that he is the next Heisman hopeful it also likely means that your run defense stinks. Many players sit out the spring healing from off-season surgery, quarterbacks wear red jerseys so no one hits them, and the new freshman class has yet to arrive. If you can find the fun in spring football, let me know. I’ve been to far too many spring games when I could have spent the day pulling weeds or stripping wall paper.

The importance, and the fun, of spring and summer for college football fans is recruiting season. For Virginia fans though, I think the fun of this year’s recruiting is going restrained. It might even be a little boring.

When Al Groh and Mike London arrived in Charlottesville, they each won big recruiting battles in their early years with the program. Al Groh brought consensus high school All-Americans Ahmad Brooks and Kai Parham to Charlottesville. Mike London landed 5-star super stars Andrew Brown and Quinn Blanding. These recruiting wins, among others, brought excitement, optimism, and paper victories to Charlottesville. The thing about paper victories is they don’t always translate into on-field victories. At least they don’t for Virginia.

It is no secret that Bronco Mendenhall is facing strong recruiting headwinds. The program has been in a funk for the past 10 years. It hasn’t beaten Virginia Tech in over 10 years. Then there is Bronco’s coaching philosophy. Bronco is all about earned not given, running a hyper-disciplined program, and success in the class room in addition to the playing field. If you were a 5-star recruit with Alabama & LSU wooing you daily, telling you that you will be their next future first-round draft pick who cashes-in after 3 years in “college”, would you return a call from Bronco Mendenhall?

Therefore, the fun of recruiting under Bronco will not compare with the fun we had under Al Groh and Mike London. Bronco is going to recruit over-achieving 2 and 3 star kids who want to play in Bronco’s system and go to class at UVa. A scan of BYU’s recruiting classes under Bronco shows long lists of kids that weren’t recruited very hard by Southern Cal, Oregon, and UCLA. Virginia generally had higher ranked recruiting classes than BYU during Bronco’s tenure with the Cougars. The happy news for Virginia fans who worry about Bronco’s lack of recruiting star power is that Bronco won a lot more football games in the fall than recruiting battles in the spring. He certainly won a lot more football games than his two predecessors at UVa.

A glance at the offers out to the high school seniors in Virginia’s 2018 recruiting class is a manifestation of things most fans already know. Virginia is woefully under-staffed on the offensive line. The defensive line is in better shape, but only marginally so. Bronco has over 60 active offers out to shore up his depth and talent in the trenches. Virginia also needs to upgrade it’s team speed. Virginia needs playmakers who can turn a short 4-yard slant into a long TD run.

A little deeper analysis of the current commit and offer lists shows that Bronco and staff are looking for kids they can develop, that might be a bit under the radar, and can survive the rigors of Bronco’s system and UVa’s classroom. Bronco is not recruiting a lot of kids with offers from the top of the Big 10 or SEC. Bottom line, there aren’t many 4-star and 5-star recruits on the 2018 offer list and there aren’t any on the commit list.

The glass half-full reality for Virginia fans is that UVa is not going to have to beat Clemson and Florida State for any of their recruits this summer. There are no Terry Kirby’s or Chris Slade’s committing to Virginia this summer that will make Virginia fans giddy and Hokie fans jealous. Bronco is recruiting kids that seem to align with the mold of players he recruited at BYU. The great news for Virginia is that Bronco won a lot of games with those kids. The sour pill for Virginia fans is that this requires still more patience. Instead of high-fiving big recruiting wins, Virginia fans are going to have to trust that Bronco and staff know what kind of kids thrive in their program and can win games of Saturdays.

Spring practices and spring games are inherently boring. Spring & summer recruiting is not. While the path that Bronco demands for his program might make for a subdued recruiting season, if Bronco gets the kids he wants, the fall should be a lot more exciting than the spring…and much more successful than the past several falls.

A look at Maryland’s coach hiring spree

The University of Maryland football program continued their offseason coach hiring spree last week, bringing in Arkansas State’s Walt Bell as offensive coordinator. Since the conclusion of Maryland’s horrendous 2015 season, the program has completely gutted and revitalized every significant position of the coaching staff, starting with the hiring of D.J. Durkin on December 2 to be the Terps’ next head coach. The complete staff overhaul is exciting, and comes as welcome change from the previous regime under Randy Edsall that only oscillated between mediocrity and comically awful for half a decade. With that in mind, I took a look at each new coaching hire and assigned each a grade based up the individual’s past success and potential for future success with Maryland.

D.J. Durkin, Head Coach

The University of Maryland and Athletic Director Kevin Anderson hired Durkin just four days following the conclusion of their 2015 season. An analysis of the Durkin hire itself would of course have to include his subsequent coaching hires. While I initially felt somewhat ambivalent about the university brining him in, Durkin has hired an all-star coaching staff of sorts, bolstering my opinion of his hiring and my hopes for the future of this program.

Despite comments by the Athletic Director and University President that the Terps would be seeking an offensive-minded head coach that could instill a “wide-open offense” (University President Wallace Loh even publicly dropped Chip Kelly’s name), the Terps went with Durkin, a defensive coordinator from the University of Michigan. While the Terps needed to shore up their defense, the offense was unquestionably the primary concern, leading to my original hesitancy of the hire.

Durkin had obvious success prior to coming to Maryland, as he played a large role in turning a football program around into becoming nationally relevant, and is an excellent defensive mind. What concerned me at first, however, is that those very same things were said of Randy Edsall before he arrived in College Park in 2011.

However, Durkin’s track record is still impressive, and he is considered to have one of the best young defensive minds in the game. He played a significant role in turning the Wolverines’ program around, as the team boasted one of the most prominent defenses in the country in 2015. While Michigan’s players are more talented than those of the Terps at this stage, I have faith that Durkin can bring those same winning ways to Maryland. He’s not the big name many were initially speculating could be taking over as head coach, but he appears to be a great hire for the Terps.
Grade: A-

Scott Shafer, Defensive Coordinator

Durkin hired Scott Shafer, the former defensive coordinator and head coach at Syracuse, on December 8. Durkin and Shafer previously coached together at Stanford; Durkin coached special teams and defensive ends, while Shafer served as the defensive coordinator. Shafer was the defensive coordinator for a number of teams over the past 15 years, including  Northern Illinois (2000–03), Western Michigan (2005-06), Stanford (2007), Michigan (2008), and Syracuse (2009–12). After previous Syracuse head coach Doug Marrone left the Orange to coach the Buffalo Bills of the NFL, Shafer was promoted to head coach after the 2012 season. After three seasons as Syracuse’s head coach, Shafer was relieved of his duties after posting an overall record of 14–23. In 2015, Shafer was faced with a large rebuilding project for the Syracuse defense, which finished the season ranked 96th out of 128 FBS Division I teams in points per game scored by their opponents (~33.8; the Terps ranked 102nd allowing ~35.6 points per game). While his duties were specifically relegated to being a defensive coordinator between 2007 and 2012, Shafer’s defenses allowed an average of about 27 points per game. His best season came in 2010-11, when the Orange allowed only 20.9 points per contest. Hopefully the collective defensive minds of Durkin and Shafer can turn a Maryland defense that has some very talented individual parts into a solid team unit.
Grade: B

Walt Bell, Offensive Coordinator

Durkin made his most recent hire on December 19, bringing Walt Bell on board to serve as the Terps’ offensive coordinator. Bell was the assistant head coach, offensive coordinator, and quarterbacks coach at Arkansas State, and directed a Red Wolves offense that scored nearly 40 points per game in 2015. He runs an up-tempo offense, one much closer the “wide-open offense” President Wallace Loh alluded to at the conclusion of the Terps’ season. Though the defenses Arkansas State faced in the Sun Belt conference are surely not quite of the same quality of those Bell will face in the Big Ten, he brings a style of play that undeniably comes as a welcome change from the dink-and-dunk, bubble screens, and predictable running plays the Maryland “offense” has centered around for the last five seasons.

In 2015, Maryland threw an average of 2.5 interceptions per game, good for 128th of 128 FBS Division I college football teams. Only one other team finished the year with more than two interceptions thrown per game. Maryland led all FBS Division I with 3.2 total turnovers per game. The Terps finished near the bottom in other related categories, such as 99th out of completions per game (15.5), passing yards per game (177.6), yards per pass attempt (5.3), and total offensive points per game (approximately 21.3).

And as long as four-star quarterback and local product Dwayne Haskins doesn’t flip his verbal commit to stay home and play for the Terps, the thought of him running the offense with Maryland’s returning receiving corps, as well as a few newcomers including four-star wide receiver Tino Ellis, is something every Terrapin fan should be thrilled about.
Grade: A+

Mike London, associate head coach

In one of the more surprising hires, at least to me, Durkin and the Terps hired former Virginia Cavalier head coach Mike London to be an associate head coach. London was fired by Virginia after five seasons, the most recent ending in a 4-8 overall record. London will help on the recruiting trail as well, as he has close ties within the Mid-Atlantic region. Though the Cavaliers went 27-46 during his five seasons with the program, he is certainly a big get for a program looking to widen their recruiting area as much as possible.
Grade: A

Aazaar Abdul-Rahim, defensive backs coach

In perhaps the most underrated hire for Durkin and the Terps, Abdul-Rahim was brought in to coach Maryland’s defensive backs. Abdul-Rahim is a Washington, D.C. native and led Friendship Collegiate Academy in D.C. into becoming a local powerhouse. Because of such deep-rooted football ties to the area, he will bring an even stronger recruiting presence to the Terrapins’ football program. He was previously hired by Alabama and Nick Saban in a player personnel/defensive analyst role. He will help bring the talent to Maryland, or in many cases, help keep it in the state.
Grade: A+

When Winning Kind of Feels Like Losing

Before writing anything about Virginia football this week, I think it is important to note that David Cutcliffe is ACC football’s incarnation of a miracle worker. While he has had some help from his athletic administration in scheduling embarrassingly weak out-of-conference opponents, before Cutcliffe’s arrival, Duke football was the decades-long joke of the ACC. Coaches came, coaches went. Presidential elections came, presidential elections went. The stock market boomed the stock market busted, but the one thing you could take to the bank was that Duke football was going to stink. A joke no more, Duke came to Charlottesville Saturday having won 6 of the past 7 games against Virginia. The George Welsh salad days of dominance over the tobacco road teams is a long forgotten memory and the former joke of the ACC was riding a 3 game Virginia winning streak.

An oft quoted cliché in sports is that “winning cures all ills”. I would modify that to say “a lot of winning cures all ills”. A little winning doesn’t change any hearts or minds and just confuses things. It’s been long time since Virginia football did a lot of winning. Since 2008, Virginia has averaged about 4 wins a year. The better programs in the nation generally win 4 games by the end of September. Therefore, when Virginia snapped its losing streak against Duke on Saturday to garner its 4th win of the season in the 3rd week of November, there wasn’t a lot of joy in C’ville.

While the 35,000 fans who bothered to show up for the game and the handful who watched it online via ESPN3 are downtrodden and demoralized, the win against Duke was actually more deflating for the fan base than uplifting. Despite the win, this game had all the earmarks of losses that we have endured over the past 8 years. Virginia had 8 penalties for over 100 yards. The defense gave up big plays at inopportune times. Special teams, which has set a new low for buffoonery this year, was as inept as usual giving up a touchdown on a kickoff return. Most glaring, as has been the hallmark of the Mike London era, confusion reigned on the sidelines. Virginia called timeouts to avoid delay of game penalties because they could not get the play in on time. Virginia took delay of game penalties because they forgot to call time out after not getting the play in on time. The specific play that told me nothing has improved on the Virginia sideline and never will as long as Mike London is running the show, was a routine punt that turned into the usual Virginia circus. Duke was punting on a 4th and long deep in their territory early in the second half. There was no doubt Duke was going to punt. Going for it on 4th and long from your own 20 with lots of time left was never an option. Yet, as Duke was getting ready to snap the ball, two Virginia players sprinted on the field getting to their spots as the ball was on its way back to the Duke punter. How can this be? We were a split second away from running our punt return team with 9 guys instead of 11. High school teams get this right every week, but Virginia cannot. How can a college program not know who is supposed to be on the field? Given the sideline pandemonium, the hardest question for Virginia fans to understand is how in the world we manage 4 wins a year?

The final straw for what became a demoralizing win, was the simple fact that Virginia, despite being up 42-20 to start the 4th quarter, had to scratch and claw to hang on to a win. After spending the day moving the ball up and down the field, Virginia went into the prevent-offense in the 4th quarter, sputtering on each drive giving Duke the opportunity to come back to grab a victory from the sideshow of defeat. Clearly this win was really just more of the same. Luck and the clock simply ran out for the Blue Devils. Virginia usually loses these games, but in an unusual twist, the fates lined up on our side and we ended up with a frustrating win instead of another embarrassing loss. Such is the psyche of a fan base that has been conditioned to expect the worst. A little bit of winning doesn’t change anything. It certainly doesn’t cure all ills, rather it highlights the shortcomings of the program. Sadly the cure for Virginia football will only come with a new coach and a new staff. Mike London is a fine and decent man. A role model for kids and benefactor in the community. Unfortunately he can’t win football games, and as Duke football as learned, it takes a lot of winning to erase the memories of years of losing.

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.

tjones
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.

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.

Coaching With A Hotseat

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Every year it happens as soon as the season ends. Fans, writers, and anybody else with a rooting interest in college football starts to speculate about which coaches may be coaching with a hot seat underneath them. It can be a difficult thing to coach under this type of condition, but it comes with the territory of being a big time college football coach. Which coaches in 2015 will need to improve their situation and avoid the “ex-coach” moniker?

Here’s my list of current Power 5 Conference coaches that will have a hot seat underneath them in 2015.

Bob Stoops is first up on my list of coaches on the short leash. The Sooners ended 2013 with a dominating performance in the Sugar Bowl against Alabama. That game was not even close in the score and in how each team played. Alabama played like they didn’t care and very flat. Oklahoma, on the other hand, dominated from the opening kick-off to final gun at the end of the game. Most thought that the Sooners would be coming into 2014 with the mindset of getting into the playoff and winning not only the Big 12, but a National Championship. As we all know, things didn’t go as planned in Norman, Oklahoma. Bob Stoops and his Sooners finished the 2014 season with an 8-5 record which was the worst record for Stoops since his first year at the helm. Plus, his team got annihilated 40-6 in the Russell Athletic Bowl and that did not go over well in Norman. The Sooners haven’t won a National Championship since 2000 and let’s just say that Sooner fans are not accustomed to waiting 15 years for their next title.

Next on this list is Mike Leach, Head Coach of Washington State University.  Getting a hire such as Leach for a school like Washington State was certainly a coup. It even raised some eyebrows in terms why would Leach go out to the Palouse to coach? Well, it may have been a great hire back then, but it hasn’t turned out the way people at Wazzu had thought. Leach fell victim to some very unfortunate injuries last season which ruined any chance at finishing with a decent record. He has been trying to lay a foundation Washington State, but the foundation keeps getting chopped down by injuries or players not performing to their potential. Washington State has a lot of players that are coming back for 2015, so the outlook may be up in Pullman, but another year like they have had recently in the rough and tumble Pac-12 and that could make things for Mike Leach extremely interesting.

Moving onto the Big-10 I would have to say that Illinois Head Coach, Tim Beckman would be at the top of Big-10 list. He did make a bowl game last year, but even in reaching that bowl game he and his Illini team lost the bowl game by three scores. Any safety that he may have found in reaching that bowl game was summarily wasted in getting torched in their bowl game. His predecessor Ron Zook was fired because being average was not acceptable, well, if you take a look at what Beckman has done, it’s not even close to what Zook did. His conference record is a paltry 4-20 after this past season.  Only one of those wins came by more than four points, so his teams are not blowing teams apart even when they win. Beckman’s overall record at Illinois is 12-25 in three seasons.  Some of his wins are over teams that you would expect a Power 5 school to beat, but they barely escaped with victories over a Texas State team (42-35) and Western Kentucky (42-34). They also did lose to Purdue and that didn’t sit well with fans because they have a mindset of being a better program than Purdue, but to many, including a very knowledgeable writer on the Big-10 that I know, Illinois is the toughest job in the conference. It almost seems like his departure is inevitable regardless of how he does in 2015.

The ACC is really a one horse team to me with Florida State reigning supreme over everybody. The coach that I look at as probably having the term hot seat attached to him is Virginia Head Coach Mike London. This is a tough job as it is with all the academic requirements it takes to get into UVA. London’s recruiting classes have been ranked in the top half of the ACC, but those successes off the field have turned into successes on the field for London and his teams. London lone winning season was in 2011, going 8-5, and since then he has had nothing but losing records. Since that first season, he has gone 15-33 overall and 6-26 in conference play. If the bottom line is winning, then Mike London has not done that. His recruiting issues with turning talent into wins is the perfect example of how much of a gamble recruiting really is for coaches in college football. You just never know how these players will turn out and if enough players don’t turn out well then the coach is looking for another job. Whether London makes it through 2015 remains to be seen, but another losing record and he’s done for good at Virginia.

Last, but certainly not least, the SEC. The conference where fans are little more rabid than other fans and even a winning record can get you in hot water. I would say that in the tough SEC where coaches can be chewed up and spit out, Derek Mason would be on the hot seat. I know he’s only been at Vanderbilt for a one season, but when you lose all your conference games and fire your coordinators at the end of the season then you put yourself on this list. Mason has to prove to administration, alumni, and fans that he deserves to be an SEC coach. His predecessor Coach Franklin, got the program to adequacy, but Mason hasn’t reached that level in the least.  Vandy is a tough place to recruit because of academics. They can’t really “smooth” over academics to bring a kid in. Bottom line with Mason and Vandy, he has to provide a glimmer of hope to the school that he is just going to be a cautionary tale in the mighty SEC.

In the end, coaches are graded on the records and these five coaches have yet to prove that they can win on a consistent basis. I never root for people to get fired and never like seeing good people get fired, but coaching is a cutthroat business where winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.

 

Why I am Glad Mike London is Back at Virginia in 2015

It is easy to come up with the a hundred reasons to be upset that Mike London is coming back for the 2015 season, his 6th leading the Virginia football program. 4-8, 2-10, & 5-7 are three very good reasons. If you want to pile on, you can point to the dismal record against the Carolina teams, which is especially distasteful when Virginia fans recall how George Welsh owned Tobacco Road. And just to finish off this easier-than-easy argument, no one needs to be reminded that Mike London has lost all of his matches against Virginia Tech and that 2 of the last 3 were more than winnable games, but Virginia found a way to lose both.

To be happy with Mike London’s return, Virginia fans have to look a little harder. I am one of those fans. I am happy that Mike London is coming back for a number of reasons. To set the stage for my enthusiasm for Mike London:

I don’t expect Virginia to win the national championship in football…ever. I don’t want us to cheat, I don’t want us to have bag men passing out cash to recruits. I expect our players to represent the University well. I expect them to graduate. I hope they are good ACC football players and perform well on the field. My expectation is that Virginia football is competitive, that we can be relevant in the ACC title race, and occasionally on a national stage.

My perspectives on and expectations for Virginia football are a part of the reason I am glad Mike London is returning to Charlottesville. During his tenure, football graduation rates and GPAs are up and disciplinary problems are down. We seem to be recruiting good kids who are good football players that can hold their own in the classroom.  Our players clearly have a tremendous respect and admiration for coach London which is important in a successful program.

However, these “soft” benefits of coach London’s performance are really just half of story and candidly are not enough for me to be enthusiastic about Mike London leading the program next year. In any analysis, it is always important to compare your current circumstance against the “next best alternative”. Let’s say Virginia had fired Mike London at the end of the 2014 season. The estimates I have seen suggest that it would have taken $ 6-8M to buy out the contracts of the current staff. The Virginia athletic department is not strapped for cash, but if we spent that kind of money to get rid of London and company, what happens next and what is the opportunity cost of spending $ 8M on contract buyouts?

While an interesting and challenging role, the head coach job at UVa is not one that is going to be a draw for a big name coach, and is likely viewed as a risky proposition at best for an up-and-coming coach. So after spending millions in cash and goodwill to dismiss the current staff, Virginia would have been pouring over a “B-list” of coaching candidates willing to take on the challenge of winning in Charlottesville.

Virginia fans need to be realistic about who would come to Virginia and what it takes to win. The list of winning coaches at UVa is not a long one. In the last 40 years, Virginia has had 5 football coaches. Only one of those coaches was able to figure out how to win at Virginia. It is not an easy task. Virginia doesn’t cheat. Virginia isn’t handing cash under the table to recruits and players. Virginia expects its athletes to go to class and do their work. UVa doesn’t offer physical education and apparel management degrees. It doesn’t have no-show classes to keep athletes eligible to play. Virginia flunked out its starting QB, and tossed his back-up off the team all in the same season. When was the last time that happened at Alabama, Florida, State, or Virginia Tech? It doesn’t happen at those schools. Virginia has good football facilities, but is not a player in the arms race to coddle football players with 5-star locker rooms.

When the time comes for Virginia to look for a new football coach, which I hope does not occur until after a successful Mike London tenure, Virginia needs to find a coach who can win playing by the rules, with kids who can cut the academic muster, in a university culture where winning football games is great, but not a critical part of the university’s identity. That time has not come, and I am glad that Craig Littlepage had the insight to recognize it and the courage to bring Mike London back to lead the Virginia program in 2015.