Tag Archives: Steve Fairchild

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

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

Mike London is coming back and here is why:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Inept versus Inept

I read a headline about the UVa/UNC game that said “Cavaliers Self-Destruct in Painful Loss”. I fully agree with the Cavalier self-destruction, but I might add to the description of the loss as also “ridiculous” or “farcical”. Just when Virginia fans think they have seen everything in there is to see in creative losing, the Virginia football program gives a new demonstration.
A day after the fact, it is still hard to fathom how Virginia lost to North Carolina. As has been noted, while Marquise Williams might be the best offensive player in the ACC, the UNC defense is the worst in the ACC with one of the most pervious secondaries in the nation. Yet, the Virginia coaching staff seemed confounded by the UNC defense. Add in a poor offensive scheme and equally poor quarterback play and the Cavalier’s hopes of a win were doomed, along with it possibly the 2014 season, and likely Mike London’s career in Charlottesville.

keepingitheel.com
keepingitheel.com

Virginia offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild is committed to the short passing game, no matter how ineffective. Like a gambler thinking that some day he is going to bluff the table holding a pair of deuces, Fairchild opens with the short passing game and doubles down as defenses align to stop it. Saturday was no exception. When Virginia threw the ball down field against the inept Carolina secondary they frequently moved the ball. However, when the game was on the line and Virginia needed to convert a key third down to get into game-closing field goal range, Fairchild dialed up a screen pass that Virginia fans have seen a hundred times. Apparently Carolina defensive lineman Nazair Jones had seen it too, because he made an effortless interception and set up the winning UNC touchdown with an impressive run after catch. This is the second critical interception Virginia has given up to a defensive front seven this year. The first was returned by Eric Kendricks for a UCLA touchdown in a game where the Virginia offense surrendered three touchdowns. I suspect the Georgia Tech front seven is giddy with anticipation as Fairchild brings his “dink and donk” passing game to Atlanta next Saturday.
The Virginia loss on Saturday was replete with the mistakes that have marked the London era. Virginia continued its 2014 regression by committing too many penalties, none more glaring than an illegal substitution penalty, after a Virginia timeout, that sealed an improbable UNC victory. However, the mistakes that cost Virginia the game were two unsightly interceptions thrown by Greyson Lambert. The first, deep in UNC territory cost Virginia points when Lambert threw behind receiver Doni Dowling in double coverage. Checking down or throwing the ball out of the endzone preserves the UVa drive and likely wins the game for Virginia. The second, more egregious gaffe was the aforementioned interception by defensive lineman Nazair Jones. The ineptitude of this play call was only exceeded by its execution. As noted early in the pre-season, Virginia can have a winning season if quarterback play improves from bad to average. Bad quarterback play combined with an ill-conceived offensive scheme almost guarantees a Virginia loss.
I suspect that Virginia fans are most frustrated by the fact that the Cavalier defense played well enough to win. The Virginia defense held a potent UNC offense to 28 points and 374 yards of total offense. The Virginia defense held UNC to 7 points in the second half despite four UNC drives that started on the Carolina 46 yard line or better. The Virginia defense is good enough to put Virginia in a position to win every game. However it is not so dominant that it can win games covering for the listless Virginia offense.
If the Mike London era in Charlottesville comes to a close at the end of the season, we can look at the loss to UNC as the point at which we started to write the final chapter. That Virginia lost to UNC was not a complete shock. UNC has an offense that has improved throughout the year and hung some big numbers on some good defenses. If I were voting for ACC offensive player of the year right now, I’d have a hard time not voting for Marquise Williams. No, the simple fact that Virginia lost to a very beatable North Carolina team was not as distasteful as the way Virginia lost. Excessive penalties, poor offensive execution, and special teams breakdowns have been the hallmarks of the Virginia program under Mike London and were the reasons for the unfortunate loss to North Carolina.
A long time friend of mine who played football at the University of Richmond and is still close to the program told me soon after he was hired that when Virginia fires Mike London Virginia would have the best kids, with the best graduation rates, and fewest disciplinary problems in Virginia history. He said Mike London was a great leader and a great mentor, but he just wasn’t a very good head coach. Unfortunately, I think we saw his prophetic words in action on Saturday and may see them again at the end of the season unless Coach London can win at least 2 of the next 4 contests, each of which presents a special challenge.

Status Check Week for Virginia

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

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

2014 – The Second Year for Mike London

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