It would be easy to say that Virginia football delivered on expectations in Saturday’s opener against the Richmond Spiders. It might be more accurate to say that Virginia exceeds the tempered hopes of the fanbase. The Commonwealth of Virginia is blessed with a plethora of strong FCS programs. Good for football in The Commonwealth, sometimes problematic for the state’s FBS programs.
There were enough mistakes on Saturday for Virginia to fulfill the lowly expectations of many fans for the rest of the 2017 season – a blocked punt, dropped passes across the receiving corps, missed tackles that resulted in long gains. The first two plays of the second half resulted in Georgia Tech touchdowns. For those keeping score at home that was less than a minute off the game clock and a narrow one-point GT lead ballooned to a 15 point margin and the rout was on. Except it wasn’t.
Playing Georgia Tech is always a challenge. They play a different brand of football. They run on first down. They run on 3rd and long. They go for it on 4th down. Their blocking schemes are unique and their athletes are drilled in the nuances of GT football. So when the Yellow Jackets burst out to a big lead, it is not unusual for their opponents to collapse. As noted last week, teams don’t make defensive adjustments at halftime that stymie Georgia Tech. Either you break the code to stop the Jackets in the week leading up the game…or you don’t. There isn’t a lot of middle ground. Virginia looked like they could hang with Georgia Tech, but Virginia can never afford big mistakes. This is especially true against G-Tech who can grind games away with clock-eating drives. Virginia’s early mistakes looked like they would break their back.
When Georgia Tech broke the game open early in the second half, the hearty Virginia fans that braved the Charlottesville downpours could not have been blamed for heading for the exits – to dry tailgate tents and warm rides home.
A funny thing happened in Charlottesville on Saturday. While the crowd was thin due to the horrid weather and tepid team performances of the past two weeks, the fans in the stadium remained and a Virginia team that was expected to accelerate the rush to the exits, instead stormed back and sent the Engineers back to Atlanta with a stinging loss.
Tepid might be a kind description of Virginia’s performances against Boston College and Pittsburgh the past two weeks. Disheartening might be a bit more accurate. However, even in those losses, there was not the expected fatalistic sense of doom throughout the game. There was not the disorganized chaos that has marked Virginia football the past decade. Even in those disappointing losses, Virginia never rolled the tents, like they had in years past.
So when Virginia looked like they had thrown the game away in the first 2 plays of the second half against Georgia Tech, it would have been easy for Virginia fans to begin the groaning festival, reminiscing about the horrors of being a Virginia fan. But this team is not Virginia-business-as-usual. They don’t get rattled like Mike London’s Virginia teams. Instead, the guys that made big mistakes in the first half suddenly made big plays to win the game.
Lester Coleman, after a blocked punt and a touchback-punt that netted less than 20 yards in the fist half punted like an All-American. He flipped the field on Georgia Tech with a monster 60-yard punt on a soggy day when punting was a nightmare. Later, he pinned GT inside the 5 yard line that led to a safety and then again inside the 10. Andre Lavrone, Doni Dowling, and Olamide Zaccheous made fantastic catches after ugly drops early in the game. Kurt Benkert threw pinpoint touchdown passes in traffic after one of the season’s ugliest pick-sixes.
I know this goes against the grain for a program that has not been bowling since 2011, but it is time for the Virginia program – players, coaches, and fans to get greedy. Making a bowl game is great, and I am so happy for the players, especially the seniors who have slogged their way back to respectability. It’s time to move beyond respectable to pretty darned good.
Virginia was a 9.5 point dog to Georgia Tech and a 13.5 point dog to Boise State. The Wahoos have opened as a 9 point underdog to Louisville. I don’t think Vegas knows what to do with Virginia this year. I’m not a betting guy, but take the Wahoos and the points. Lamar Jackson is a fantastic talent and Louisville is hungry for a win after a subpar year. However, unlike too many prior seasons, I just wouldn’t bet a against this team. If they look sloppy in the first half or make a couple of big mistakes to go down to Louisville early, don’t change the channel, don’t go work in the yard. I know what “same-old-Hoos” looks like. These aren’t the same old ‘Hoos.
Virginia’s record stands at 4-1 six weeks into the 2017 season. It’s been ten years since Virginia has been 4-1. Four wins doubles last year’s total, and matches the full season win total the year before. The natural question to ask at this point is – do you believe in Virginia football? Long suffering Virginia fans who have had their hearts broken dozens of times over the years probably aren’t there yet. I don’t blame them. I am not sure I’m there yet either. What matters though, is that I think the players are there. They believe and after 5 games it is clear that their faith is not misplaced.
In the second quarter of Saturday’s win against Duke, the Blue Devils had just driven 88 yards down the field for a go-ahead touchdown. It was an impressive drive, as well as a disheartening drive for well conditioned Virginia fans. A passionate, long time Virginia fan in our section noted that lots of teams can put themselves in position to make plays, but good teams make plays when it matters.
He was right on the money. Virginia simply didn’t make the plays needed to halt the Duke offense. Virginia didn’t give up an 88-yard drive because they were out of position, missed coverage rotations, or made mental mistakes. At least 3 times during that drive Virginia was in position to make a drive-killing play, but missed a critical a tackle or failed to blow up a block on the edge. Duke took advantage and scored in impressive fashion.
It was the last time all day Duke scored in impressive fashion.
From that point on Virginia was not only in position to make plays, but they executed on the plays that mattered. An offense which to that point in the game had four 3-and-out series and two picks, scored 3 touchdowns and most importantly ran time off the clock with Virginia leading, when burning the clock was the path to victory. The defense that gave up the 88 yard touchdown drive forced Duke into four 3-and-outs and most importantly stopped Duke on downs to seal the victory for the Wahoos.
Two weeks ago, when Virginia shocked Boise State as a 13 point road-dog, they played very good football for 60 minutes. Against Duke, Virginia had to grind. Virginia didn’t have the A-game against Duke. In years past, this is a recipe for Virginia disaster. Duke is very well coached and always very well prepared under the miracle worker David Cutcliffe. Well prepared teams playing a Virginia team not hitting on all cylinders usually walk away with wins.
Not on Saturday.
There was never any panic on the Virginia sideline. Surprisingly, I didn’t get a sense of impending doom in the stands either. Instead, there was resolve on the sideline and steadily improving execution on the field. As Virginia went deeper into the game, they grew more confident, made more plays, and closed out a win against a Duke team that will certainly be bowl-bound in 2017.
Across the board, when the game was on the line, Virginia made plays. Offense, defense, and a much improved special teams. Lester Coleman averaged 50.8 yards per punt and made a couple of nice plays to avoid special teams disasters. He believes. Olamide Zaccheaus took a flair pass that looked to be a no gainer to the house by reading the defenders and picking the right angle to the end zone. He believes. Freshman linebacker Charles Snowden came in for his first action of the game to relieve a gassed Chris Peace. Snowden recorded a critical 4th quarter sack that killed Duke’s late game rally. Charles Snowden believes.
Virginia travels to Chapel Hill this week for a big game against a talented, but under-performing UNC team. In a refreshing change of heart, I think Virginia can win this game. I have no doubt however, that the Virginia players know they can win this game. They expect to win this game. They believe.
I am starting to as well.
A quick note to add…as mentioned in last week’s column, Virginia is playing well for the first time in 10 years. It was unfortunate that Virginia drew a 12:20 kickoff time against Duke, as any game starting within the noon hour is always less well attended than a 3:30 kick. While the crowd Saturday was @ 6,000 fans larger than the UConn game, it was still under 40,000. As noted before, this team has earned better fan support. The students are the biggest laggards, which is a shame. I hope that a win in Chapel Hill and favorable kickoff time the following week against Boston College will get the student section filled and give this team the support it deserves.