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Third and 36, a Metaphor for Virginia Football

3rd & 36. What comes to mind when you think of a 3rd & 36 situation? For most football fans, it is a certainty that the ball is about the change hands. Virginia fans aren’t most football fans and the Virginia program is not any ordinary program. Virginia is different because Virginia gives up 3rd & 36 and its fans while dreading it, aren’t that surprised at its conversion. On Saturday, just for good measure, Virginia also give up 3rd & 12 not with just a first down but a 77-yard touchdown pass.

3rd & 36 might be a good metaphor for the Virginia football program, at least as it stands today. Saturday night’s 3rd & 36 certainly was representative of what Virginia fans have endured since the days of the ever caustic Al Groh and the affable, but ineffective Mike London. While we are only two games into the Bronco era, it wasn’t supposed to be like this. Fans expected change and maybe even a few wins. Allowing 3rd & 36 conversations was to be part of our football past, not our football present, but maybe we should not be so quick to judge.

The 2016 season opened with an air of optimism not seen for decades of Virginia football. It would be easy to toss all of the enthusiastic optimism out the window as Virginia lost handily to the Oregon Ducks. In a microcosm of what is Virginia football, Virginia’s defense had the Ducks facing a 3rd & 36 while the game’s outcome still was mathematically very much in doubt. A quick investigation into the probability of an offense converting a 3 & 36 will show that statisticians don’t even track such circumstances. However, the probability of converting a 3 & 20 is a mere four percent. Converting 3rd & 36 just doesn’t happen, or at least it doesn’t happen to other programs. Oregon completed a 44-yard pass, for a first down. A couple of plays later the Ducks capped a 99-yard scoring drive with a statement touchdown, letting Virginia know that they were in for a long night.

If Saturday’s game against the Oregon Ducks had been a final scrimmage before the start of the  season, it would have been a positive experience, a barometer of relative development. Unfortunately, instead of an instructive scrimmage, Saturday’s trip to Eugene was the second loss in what has been a disappointing start to the Bronco Mendenhall era of Virginia football. The defense was shredded for 634 yards, looking a bit like the UNC defense of 2014.

However, as much as Virginia fans are conditioned to look for and expect the worst, all was not lost in Virginia’s convincing loss to Oregon. There were clear signs of progress and Virginia fans had to be pleased with several results from the game.

Virginia moved the ball well all night generating 400 yards of offense. The Virginia running game was impressive and at times dominant. Kurt Benkert continued to hone his quarterback skills making several superb throws to a talented and determined posse of receivers. Benkert was effective in his ability to move the pocket and take off running when necessary. He still holds the ball too long at times and needs to have a better feel for the integrity of the pocket. On balance however, the offense was much improved, reasonably effective, and fun to watch.

Without going into details, the defense was everything the offense was not. 634 yards allowed a 99-yard touchdown drive which included to the aforementioned 3rd & 36. A friend of mine with no ties to Virginia football but a true football junkie who stays up watching the late games just to get his fill of college football texted me during the game. “3 & 36. Really?” Yes really. I wanted to text back all the things we were doing well and while we were losing I saw real progress in this game, but it’s too hard to explain and almost impossible to understand unless you’ve been there and lived the Virginia football experience. To be kind, the Virginia defense was ineffective. However, in all fairness, the Oregon offense is impressive and will hang a lot of points on some very good teams this year. Virginia is still figuring out the new 3-4 schemes, but on Saturday, the defense was more aggressive and looked like a team that was executing & playing more than thinking about what is was supposed to do.

I will accept that 3rd & 36 might represent the state of Virginia football for now but I do not think it will for long. As disappointed as I was with the result of Saturday’s game against Oregon, I was very impressed with the enthusiasm and determination of the Virginia team throughout the game. There was no quit on the field and no sulking on the sidelines.

Bronco has an uphill climb to keep his streak of consecutive bowl appliances alive with this Virginia football team, but I am not betting against it. At least not yet. I think Bronco’s first win is on the horizon and maybe along with it a 3rd & 36 conversion by the Virginia offense.

Tweet @dmrayner or e-mail David at david.rayner@campuspressbox.com.

Much Needed Change on Horizon for Virginia Football

Change is as inevitable as the sun rising in the east and setting in the west, every day for as long as the earth spins in orbit around our sun. As much as change is a part of our daily and evolutionary lives, all change is not the same. Some change is thrust upon us. Some change is a result of decisions we make and actions we take. Additionally, some change is good, some change is not so good.

For Virginia football in 2016, the inevitable, fast-approaching change from summer to fall is about the only change we will see that is not intentional, driven, and part of a plan. Coach Bronco Mendenhall and the majority of his BYU staff arrived in Charlottesville in late 2015 as part of a planned change in leadership and hopefully a change in the fortunes for Virginia football.

I wonder if the UVA administration understood exactly how much change would be thrust upon a football program that changed from nationally relevant in the mid-1980’s through early 2000’s to ACC laughing stock for the past decade. What the UVA administration & fans have seen from Coach Mendenhall, staff, and players is driven change, purposeful change, and certainly necessary change.

It is likely that by now, UVA fans understand that under Bronco nothing is given, rather everything is earned. The right to practice is earned, the use of the weight room is earned and numbers on jerseys are earned. Bronco has stated that in the Virginia program, there are two ways to do things – the right way and again. Anyone sensing a bit of positive change here? All purposefully scarce reports from the Virginia training camp have been that the players are committed to the new way of doing things in Charlottesville, that the players are starved for success, and willing to do what is demanded to win.

How will all of this manifest itself on the field? I can think of several ways:

New uniforms and a new entrance will connect the current program with past success while defining a new era of excellence in Virginia football moving forward.

Virginia will have fewer delay of game penalties in the 2016 season than in any given game in 2015.

Virginia will not be out of timeouts at the end of a game because they were wasted getting plays into the huddle or the right players on the field.

On offense, Virginia is going to run a play every 20 seconds. So fans will not see players sprinting on and off the field as the play clock expires. The defense practices against the no-huddle offense every day, so they will be similarly prepared and ready before every play.

Fans will see heart and grit all game, every play. Only players who have earned their time will be on the field at all times.

Given that starters on both offense and defense will have responsibilities on two special teams squads, I fully expect that Virginia will not lead the nation is punts/kickoffs returned for touchdowns or on-sides kick recoveries allowed.

I expect we are gong to see a few more fans in Scott Stadium on Saturdays and embarrassingly empty student sections for significant conference games will be closer to capacity. Maybe Bronco can figure out a way for students to have to earn their seats.

Good quarterback play has been scarce at Virginia since Matt Schlub’s senior year. I expect to see much better quarterback play in 2016.

I expect that Virginia will commit zero bone-headed personal foul penalties that extend opponents’ key drives that result in losses from what should have been wins.

I don’t think Virginia will lose on the last play of the game anymore.

In a change that I can affect, I am making a personal commitment to leave my tailgate in time to make the kickoff with time to spare. I don’t need Bronco kicking my butt for being late.

For a team that has had one winning season over the past eight years, change is almost by definition a universally good thing. Virginia has the talent to win in the ACC but is woefully thin in the trenches. One more thing that also could help Virginia is a little good luck, for a change.

E-mail David at david.rayner@campuspressbox.com and follow him on Twitter @dmrayner.

Luck of the Irish Evident in Charlottesville

They say winning requires talent, hard work, and a little bit of luck.

The Notre Dame Fighting Irish needed every ounce of all three in order to get past a pesky University of Virginia squad Saturday in Charlottesville.

From the beginning, it was evident that Notre Dame had the more talented team, and they showed that in the first quarter jumping out to a 12-0 lead, and physically dominating the Cavaliers all quarter.

The second quarter was a different story as the Irish were shut out, and the Hoos could not be stopped offensively.

After leading 12-0 following the first quarter, the Irish faced a two point deficit heading into the locker room at the break following the 14 point Virginia second quarter. The Irish defense looked like a different unit than the one that showed up in the 38-3 drubbing of Texas last week, and the defense that held UVA to less than 30 yards in the first quarter.

UVA quarterback Matthew Johns found rhythm in the second quarter connecting on two scoring strikes in the second quarter, a two-yard strike to TE Evan Butts and a 42 yard bomb on a trick play to WR Keeon Johnson. Johns’ favorite target on the day was Cavalier WR Canaan Severin, whom he connected with eleven times for 153 yards. A few of those completions were timing routes messed up by Irish pressure with Johns making the throw off his back foot.

The third quarter, much like the first, was all Irish, scoring wise at least.

The Cavaliers opened the quarter with a drive down the field resulting in a missed field goal, and that was their best series of the third. The Irish scored twice as Malik Zaire launched a beautiful 59-yard touchdown strike to Will Fuller to help the Irish regain the lead at 19-14. Closing out the third, CJ Prosise scampered in for a 24-yard touchdown run on the play following the Zaire injury.

The bad news out of the third was the Notre Dame QB Malik Zaire suffered a fractured ankle on a quarterback power late in the quarter. Zaire will miss the remainder of the season.

The fourth quarter saw a huge swing in momentum following the injury to the Irish signal caller.

The Cavaliers looked much like the team that dominated the second quarter, scoring two touchdowns to take the lead with less than two minutes remaining in the game.

At that point, ESPN’s color analyst Ed Cunningham (no relation to me) declared the ball game over, saying that Virginia had upset Notre Dame.

Ed forgot to account for the luck of the Irish.

Now under control of backup quarterback DeShone Kizer, the Irish faced a one-point deficit with 1:54 left on the clock.

Kizer, a sophomore, led the Irish on an eight-play, 80 yard game winning touchdown drive ending with a 39-yard bomb to Will Fuller, his second touchdown of the day.  Kizer then completed a two-point conversion to a wide open Torii Hunter Jr. in the middle of the end zone to make the score 34-27 with :12 left to go.

While the game was won by the Irish, Zaire being lost for the season could harm the lofty playoff expectations of Brian Kelly and the Fighting Irish.

The Irish will now turn to DeShone Kizer, a Toledo, Ohio native. Kizer, a redshirt freshman at Notre Dame told reporters after the game that he has been ready for this moment for awhile. Coach Brian Kelly also stated to reporters that Kizer has a deep understanding of the playbook and that he still believes the Irish have enough talent to make a run into the playoffs.

Notre Dame will need to turn to Jaylon Smith and the Irish defense if they want Kelly’s claims to come true. The Irish will face a tough task this upcoming weekend as Georgia Tech comes to town with their vaunted triple-option rushing attack. The Yellow Jackets have scored a whopping 65 plus points in both of their first two contests, blow out wins over Tulane and Alcorn State.

I do expect to see the Irish offense change a little bit heading forward. Running back CJ Prosise will need to be leaned on heavily, as he showed against Virginia that he could carry the load accumulating 155 yards on 17 carries. I also expect to see less running out of Kizer than we saw from Zaire. Zaire is built better for running than Kizer is, and the Irish would also like to keep the redshirt on freshman QB Brandon Wimbush.

Things might look bleak for the Irish, but luck was on their side in Charlottesville, I have a good feeling it may just follow them back to South Bend.

Virginia Continues to Beat Itself

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Virginia has been its own worst enemy this year. Kyle Green/The Roanoke Times

Turnovers have been both the boon and the bane of Virginia’s football existence this season. In fact, with better ball security I think that Virginia would be 6-4 or 7-3, not 4-6. The Cavaliers almost certainly beat themselves in losses to UCLA and UNC and probably did so again Saturday night in Tallahassee against a Florida State team that is undefeated but not invincible.  Virginia’s defense has played well enough to give the team a chance in every game this year but the offense has given the ball away at a rate that nearly matches the defense’s ability to get it back. What’s even more troubling is that Virginia’s turnovers have come not in the middle of the field but rather when Virginia is either in the red zone or in the shadow of its own goalposts. It’s hard to blame turnovers on coaching but with the staff on exceedingly thin ice, you can be sure that the boobirds are finding a way to pin Virginia’s turnover problem on embattled coach Mike London.

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The Cavaliers’ 24 takeaways places the team 10th nationally in turnovers created. However, its 22 turnovers places the team 116th out of 125 teams in a ranking of ball security. Overall, Virginia’s +2 turnover margin is good for just 51st. As I wrote last week, only Appalachian State among FBS teams has more red zone turnovers than Virginia’s five. When you couple that with Virginia’s propensity for turning red zone chances into field goals rather than touchdowns it is obvious that Virginia has let slip way too many scoring chances. As a result, Virginia’s promising 4-2 start has become a 4-6 spiral. The Hoos have an bye week to try to get the offensive line healthy before taking on Miami at home and Virginia Tech on the road in an attempt to break Tech’s ten-year stranglehold on the rivalry. The Tech game, for many reasons, will likely decide London’s fate. Beat Miami and Tech and London and the Cavs will be bowl eligible and he will finally have beaten Virginia Tech. That’s measurable progress. The Cavaliers undoubtedly are an improved team this year but the statistical improvement is not translating into wins.  If Virginia beats Tech and loses to Miami, the case for London’s retention becomes more questionable. With five wins–Virginia Tech being one of them–a case might be made that the incremental progress plus London’s recruiting ability should be enough to give him another year. But has London’s recruiting actually matched his reputation as a recruiter?

Mike London’s supporters have—in the absence of on-field success—pointed out that Virginia has made great recruiting progress with him at the helm. Virginia is a state that produces an outsized share of high major talent and the Tidewater area of the commonwealth is a hunting ground for every major program in the country. London’s predecessor, Al Groh, famously alienated many coaches at the state’s top high schools, with the result being that Virginia Tech and out-of-state programs became the destinations of choice for the state’s top talent.  Every recruiting analyst will tell you that state schools must be able to retain in-state talent. Under Al Groh Virginia had lost that ability. In-state schools—for a variety of reasons—should have an advantage over other schools when recruiting local talent.

Mike London must be given credit for repairing the damage Groh caused.  His message of ‘faith, family, and football” has resonated with recruits and their parents, who often are anxious about having their children away from home and are looking for a coach who will look after their children both on and off the field.  In Al Groh’s last recruiting class only one of the state’s top 30 players, Henry Coley, signed with Virginia.  Last year Virginia signed four of the state’s top 30, but two of them–Quin Blanding and Andrew Brown–were rated among the top recruits in the nation. Virginia has taken commitments from 91 players under Mike London.  Sixty-seven of those 91 recruits have been accorded three stars or less by ESPN.  Predicting college success for high schools players is a notoriously inexact science.  Two three-star members of Virginia’s 2012 recruiting class, Max Valles and Canaan Severin, now star for the Cavaliers while the top signee in Virginia’s 2013 class, Taquan Mizzell, has yet to become the star that his ranking would suggest.   London’s reputation as a recruiter seems to have been bolstered by a few high-profile in-state signings because the majority of his recruits are only of average ability per the ESPN rankings.   To London’s credit, his recruits appear to be good citizens.  His demand for personal accountability is a very real component of the recruiting process and has tended to weed out problem players.   Would Mizzell already  be a star at another scho0l like Alabama?  As a 5-star recruit he certainly could have gone anywhere he wanted to play football. Has Virginia’s weakness along the offensive line hampered Mizzell’s playmaking abilities? A recruiting class that is top heavy with a few stars but weak on the back end won’t fix Virginia’s problems.

London’s pitch to recruits has been the possibility of early playing time and the chance to help turn the program around.  That message works until recruits realize that the program is not in fact improving.  Playing in a losing program is a mentally taxing and hurts a player’s chances for a professional career.  When the coach’s job security becomes an issue, recruits go elsewhere and the coach’s recruiting reputation suffers.  London isn’t a bad recruiter and his connections to the state have allowed Virginia to get back into the mix with the state’s best players, but I don’t think that his recruiting record is such that Virginia will retain him if the Cavaliers post another losing record.

 

 

 

Mike London is a Great Guy, But…

UVA head coach Mike London reacts to a late-game penalty that sealed UVA's fate in a loss to North Carolina. Photo/Ryan M. Kelly/ The Daily Progress
UVA head coach Mike London reacts to a late-game penalty that sealed UVA’s fate in a loss to North Carolina. Photo/Ryan M. Kelly/ The Daily Progress

There was a universal theme in my conversations with agitated Virginia football fans after Saturday’s devastating loss to North Carolina. “Mike London is a great guy, a terrific role model, and a fantastic recruiter but…” What followed was some variation of “he’s not a very good head coach.” That “but” was once again on display this past weekend as Virginia made mental mistake after mental mistake in gift-wrapping and delivering a victory to a UNC team that was statistically inferior and beaten for 55 minutes. UNC head coach Larry Fedora put it best when he stated that his team was fortunate to find a way to win. Virginia has been far too generous this year in helping teams overcome their own mistakes. Complaints about mental preparedness have dogged Mike London’s Virginia teams and unless the Hoos execute an unexpected turnaround, Mike London almost certainly will be Mike Lon-done by the end of the season.
London’s perceived shortcomings as Virginia’s head coach were again showcased in the late game meltdown against UNC. London’s few remaining supporters might offer that it’s the players who block, tackle, run, catch and throw. True enough, but London, however, is the coach and “coach” is sports terminology for “teacher.” As such London and his staff ultimately are responsible for teaching players how to react to stressful late-game situations in which time is compressed and the effect of mistakes is magnified. Preparation and repetition are teaching fundamentals and Virginia has looked unprepared in failing to handle late-game stress in back-to-back losses. Virginia committed what basically were game-ending penalties in both games, drawing an inexcusable defensive substitution infraction against UNC and an equally-inexcusable 4th down delay-of-game flag against Duke. These types of mistakes—and the losses caused by them—identify Virginia as a team lacking mental acuity.
London admitted as much in a postgame press conference at which he made no attempt to hide his exasperation. “We coached poorly at the end and played poorly,” said London. “We did not recognize things that we should have. It is disappointing to have an opportunity to win a game down the stretch and have all the miscues that occurred. We beat ourselves. I did not do a good enough job coaching. Coaches didn’t do a good enough job coaching their players and the result is a loss.” Statements like this have been a familiar refrain during London’s time at Virginia and do not give his proponents much to work with in trying to counter the argument that London is not the man for this job.
The Cavaliers have lost 4 games by 8,8,7, and 1 point and have had a second half lead or a tie in 3 of those 4 losses. It is one thing to lose to a physically superior opponent but Virginia has beaten its opposition statistically even while losing. The Cavaliers have yet to be physically overmatched this season despite playing one of the nation’s most rigorous schedules. I find it curious that London has struggled so at Virginia but was 24-5 at Richmond and won a national championship. What is missing from London’s Virginia teams that was not at Richmond? Football at the FCS level is still football, so why the disparity? The rules are the same, the field is the same and the seconds tick off the clock at the same rate. Did his Richmond teams have more talent? Richmond currently has three players in the NFL and none of them played for London. Observers of the Virginia program seem confident that London’s teams have more talent than any Virginia teams in the last 20 years. Are FCS coaches less savvy than their FBS brethren? Hard to make that case. Were London’s Richmond teams not subjected to late-game stress? Certainly not. If London’s coaching philosophy is the same as it was at Richmond and Virginia has comparable talent and we assume that FCS coaches are just as capable as FBS coaches then what is it? Did London have a better staff at Richmond? Even though Virginia’s current staff has more than 38 years of head coaching experience critics insist that it has weaknesses. His staff is full of talented coaches but for whatever reason it just isn’t working out for some of them in Charlottesville.  The wholesale changes he made to his staff several years ago seemed to have brought improvement early in the season but now this Virginia team is looking very much like the teams of the past two years.
No teams play error-free football but the best teams find ways to overcome mental miscues. Virginia has been unable to overcome its own stupidity largely due to a continual problem with offensive efficiency. Virginia’s touchdown odds in the red zone are no better than a coin flip. The Cavaliers have 17 touchdowns in 34 red zone trips. Exactly 50 percent. Fans have chided offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild for the predictability of his playcalling. In a televised game earlier this season, commentator and former Virginia head coach AL Groh made sport of calling Virginia’s plays as the team broke the huddle. Either Groh is a soothsayer or Virginia is indeed too predictable. Couple this with Virginia’s inability to itself adjust to the adjustments that its opponents make at halftime and you are left with a team that is 4-4 despite being statistically superior to its opposition all year long. Against UNC, a team that allows 43.3 points per games (second most in the country) Virginia looked good early and terrible late. This is a pattern. If teams are consistently able to outmaneuver Virginia after halftime, does that not fall on the coaches?
Put it all together and it adds up to a perfect storm of ineptitude. Virginia can’t put away its opponents after halftime, leading to close games and late-game stress. Mental mistakes have a much bigger impact late in the game because there is less time to overcome their effects. Virginia’s players and coaches are desperate to turn things around and the stress of trying to avoid mistakes is having just the opposite effect. In a tragi-comedy that has come to define UVA football under London, defensive end Eli Harold made a vicious hit on UNC quarterback Marquise Williams, separating Wilson from his helmet. The rules mandate that a player who loses his helmet has to leave the game for at least one play, so UNC had to turn to clipboard-toting reserve QB Mitch Trubinsky on a game-deciding 3rd and 15 from the UVA 16-yard line. You know what happened. Virginia blew the coverage and Trubinsky found a totally-uncovered receiver for the 16-yard touchdown that gave UNC the lead and ultimately the game. Snake-bitten UVA fans knew it was coming. It was as inevitable as the sunrise.
If karma is a thing, Virginia has none of the good variety and plenty of the bad. As difficult as it might be in the short-term, the only way to change that might be with a new coach. Unless Virginia executes a stunning turnaround, that’s what is going to happen.

Mental Mistake Dooms Virginia

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The Cavaliers won the statistical battle but lost the game.

Four games, three ranked opponents, two losses, and one giant mental mistake. Virginia has played the country’s most daunting schedule to date and while many predicted Virginia would stand 1-3 at this point, the fact is that Virginia is 2-2 and really just a few plays away from being 3-1 or even 4-0. Playing away from Scott Stadium for the first time this year, UVA dominated the statistics in losing to BYU by eight points in a game in which it was a two touchdown underdog.  A moral victory?  Perhaps. In the losing effort Virginia proved again that the program has made significant strides in the past year.
The mental mistake? On the first play of the second quarter and at a point in which Virginia led 7-3 and clearly had the upper hand, the Hoos faced a 4th-and-1 at the BYU 1-yard line. Settling for red zone field goals while on the road against a ranked opponent is a losing strategy so I took it as a good sign that Mike London didn’t hesitate in deciding to go for the touchdown and the chance to extend UVA’s lead. It all looked very promising until right tackle Eric Smith committed a false start penalty that pushed UVA back to the six-yard line and out of London’s comfort zone.  The resultant field goal upped UVA’s lead to seven but the three points were a deflating result at a point when UVA badly wanted to impose its will on an off-balance Cougar defense. If London was willing to go for it at the one-yard line and potentially come away with zero, he should have done the same thing from the six.  UVA’s Canaan Severin and Miles Gooch had already won a couple of contested jump ball passes against BYU’s smaller secondary and Lambert looked sharp on his passes so why not go for it there?  UVA didn’t and BYU escaped. BYU QB Taysom Hill completed a 56-yard bomb to Devon Blackmon on the Cougars’ very next offensive play.  BYU scored four plays later to tie the score at 10.
It is of course impossible to say that one play decided the game but the false start penalty was huge and it changed UVA’s strategy.  Had UVA gotten the touchdown there and made it a two-score game there’s no telling how the rest of the game might have gone. As it was, UVA’s mistake allowed BYU to escape and the Cougars took full advantage of the reprieve by scoring the tying touchdown just five players later.  UVA does not have the luxury of being able to survive such mental miscues.  The 99-yard kickoff return that UVA surrendered later in the game was another costly mental mistake but had UVA scored in that earlier goal line situation it would have altered everything that happened afterward and UVA may not ever have been in the situation where BYU could return a late-game kickoff for a deciding touchdown.  Yes, I am making reference to the butterfly effect.
Nevertheless, the Hoos took some meaningful positives away from this game.  Last week I opined that a better showing by UVA’s offense would perhaps cover for the defense if the Cavalier defenders were unable to match the impressive effort it had put forth in the first three games.  Did you look at the box score?  Holy cow.
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In last year’s fourth game UVA posted a paltry 188 yards of total offense against Pitt.  Last weekend the Cavs put up an eye-popping 519 yards, the first time in sixty-three games that a team has posted 500 yards against BYU’s always-stout defense.  Virginia also ran a school-record 102 plays, completed passes to eleven different receivers, rushed for  192 yards and passed for 327 more.  When Lambert exited the game with an injury, Matt Johns again was effective and looked comfortable running the offense.  He gives Virginia a security blanket at a position that has been a real problem for the Hoos in recent years.  Looking at the box score you would be hard-pressed to believe that UVA lost the game, so dominant was UVA in the statistical battle.  UVA’s defensive game plan was to bottle up dual-threat QB Taysom Hill, deny him the rush and make him throw the ball. Again, a glance a that box score would indicate that this strategy was successful.  Hill rushed for only 72 yards and threw for 187.  Not eye-popping numbers for a player with Heisman Trophy aspirations but for the first time this year and for the first time in nine games UVA did not force a turnover. Prior to the BYU game UVA’s offense had scored almost half of its points this year off opponent turnovers so the lack of short-field scoring opportunities hurt despite the Hoos posting 33 points.  The Cavaliers also lost the field position battle for the first time this year thanks largely to the amazing punting day put up by BYU’s Scott Arellano, who had three punts of more than 60 yards and pinned UVA inside its own 20-yard line four times.
So, UVA comes back to Scott Stadium for its first game this season in which it is favored over an FBS opponent. Kent State is 0-3 and Virginia really should have no problem winning this game so long as it does the little things right, limits the mental mistakes, and remembers that it cannot look past any opponent this year, especially since every game is a referendum on Coach London’s job status.   Virginia has run the gauntlet in the season’s first four weeks, emerging with a better-than-expected 2-2 record.  These early season tests against ranked teams and Heisman candidates should serve the Cavaliers well when they enter league play and square off against teams with merely good quarterbacks and no national ranking. I agree with Coach London.  This team is legitimate.
 

Surprising Virginia is Flexing Defensive Muscle

The University of Virginia’s football program–and its coach–were declared dead-on-arrival before the first second ticked off the clock in the first game.  Given Virginia’s schedule, Coach Mike London faced an almost impossible task in saving his job.  The thinking was that UVA needed to win six games and go to a bowl or win five games and demonstrate meaningful progress to keep Athletic Director Craig Littlepage from having to fire a coach who has seemingly done everything right except win games.  Those parameters probably haven’t changed but I don’t think I am overstating things when I say that this team has so far shown the type of meaningful progress that could buy London another year if the six-win goal is not met. Virginia is flexing some muscles that no one thought it had.
Virginia has faced two-ranked opponents already this year and will face a third this weekend when it hits the road for the first time in 2014 to square off against BYU in Provo.  Last week’s upset win over Louisville was a must win game and the Cavs delivered.  Now the team sits at 2-1,  the same record it had last season season before suffering a reactor core meltdown and finishing 2-10.  If last week was a “must-win”, then this week is a “show me” game.  That’s what the fans are thinking and saying.
Virginia managed to pull in just 34,000 fans for last week’s game partly due to bad weather and an early start time but mainly because fans aren’t convinced. Yet. Here’s a sample of the collective thinking of UVA’s fan base so far this season.
Preseason: UVA will finish last in the Coastal Division. We need to fire Mike London and and start over. Again.
Week 1:  Well, that was interesting but UVA is still UVA.  We found a historic way to beat ourselves, giving up 3 defensive TDs for the first time in program history.  Our defense is pretty good but here we go with another QB rotation.
Week 2: So what? I don’t care how good they are, Richmond is still an FCS school.
Week 3: Alright, alright, alright.  That was pretty good. Maybe this team is better than expected. Let’s see how they handle a road game against a ranked opponent, though.
C’mon UVA, show us what you got.
So, what are we going to see this weekend?  Oddsmakers say that Virginia is a 16-point underdog presently.  Last weekend Virginia started as a 10-point home underdog against Louisville but by kickoff the line was down to 4.5.  I expect similar action this week. Sixteen points seems exceedingly generous.  Virginia knows what BYU looks like, having played them last year.  BYU, which looked impressive in dismantling Texas 41-7 a few weeks ago, looked a little less so in gunning down Houston 33-25 last weekend. Home field advantage counts for something and this is Virginia’s first 2014 road game, so there’s that.  However Virginia’s defense has played three impressive games in a row and last weekend, for the first time, QB Greyson Lambert looked comfortable leading the offense.   Virginia’s defense leads the nation in takeaways with 13 and it is obvious after three games that defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta has the personnel to run the attacking defense that he is famous for.  Eli Harold and Mike Moore own the edge, David Dean and Mike Moore clog the middle, Henry Coley, Daquan Romero, and Max Valles clean up at linebacker and UVA’s secondary is one of the finest in the nation.
The Virginia locker room was very emotional after the Louisville win.  It was a huge win for a team that no one outside of the coaches and players believed in before the season started.  Team captain and vocal leader Henry “Bad Cop” Coley called a Sunday meeting after the Louisville win to make sure that the players stay grounded and focused on the bigger goal.  Virginia has put to bed some unfortunate statistics this season in scoring its first win over an FBS opponent in more than a year, winning a league game for the first time in more than 600 days, and beating a ranked team for the first time since November 2012, but Coley wanted to remind the team that these are things that winning programs do regularly and that such wins should not be cause for excessive celebration.  Not when so much more seems possible for this team. With every win the pressure ramps up for Virginia to do more.  Win more games and the stadium fills up.  Win more games and the coach they love keeps his job.  Win more games and the already-impressive recruiting of the past few years most likely gets even better. Win more games and prove everyone else wrong.
The Cavaliers can’t afford to take even one play off this season.  Too much is riding on the results. Virginia is at the crossroad this weekend.  The team has had the same 2-1 record for three years in a row now.  However, this year doesn’t feel anything like 2012 or 2013, when the early winning record did little to convince fans that the program was on the right path.  This year feels different.  This year is starting to feel like Duke’s 10-win 2013 season. I can’t predict ten wins given Virginia’s remaining schedule, but I can predict the type of meaningful progress that will prove to everyone but the most-ardent Mike London critics that he and his experienced staff know what they are doing.   If the team gets the win in Provo this weekend Virginia will have the look and feel of the nation’s 2014 surprise team.
“I feel like we are learning how to win again,” said Coley.

Statement, Redemption, Questions, and a Joke

Week #2 in the ACC Coastal was a week for redemption, continuing questions, and one big statement.
Virginia Tech headlined week 2 in the ACC coastal with a road win at Ohio St. There are a several conclusions we can draw from this game. First, Bud Foster remains a most capable defensive coordinator whose defenses are the foundation of Virginia Tech success. Virginia Tech’s defense was expected to be the key to success in 2014 and the Ohio St game did nothing to alter that expectation. The Hokie defense played fast and smart for 4 quarters with few breakdowns. Second, it is also clear from the Ohio St game that Kendall Fuller will be a multi-year, 1st team all-ACC performer before he graduates. On the offensive side of the ball, it looks like the Hokies will finally have a consistent passing attack led by gutty transfer QB Michael Brewer. However, before we crown Virginia Tech the champs of the coastal, a couple of other things were also clear from Saturday’s game. After struggling to put away Navy last week and losing at home this week, there is little doubt that Ohio St is not a top 10 team with or without Braxton Miller. Also, while Big 10 programs are working desperately to upgrade their team speed to compete on the national stage, it was evident that Ohio St does not have top 10 speed on either side of the ball. When the brute force offense of Ohio St matched up against the fast and well schemed defense of Virginia Tech, the result was a big statement win for the Hokies, an embarrassing home loss for Ohio St, and the 3rd high profile loss of the day for the Big10.
Following the trend of teams that appear to be on an upswing, Pitt followed a ridiculous drubbing of Delaware with a solid road win against Boston College. No one will ever confuse the BC home field advantage with Death Valley or The Swamp, but a road win against a potentially solid Boston College team was a confirming win for a Pitt program striving to establish an identity in the ACC. James Connor and Tyler Boyd made statements against the Eagles that they are top tier offensive threats who can carry the Pitt offense and create matchup headaches for the most adroit defensive coordinators. Quarterback Chad Voytic was an efficient game manager against better competition this week and showed flashes of upside throughout the game.  The Pitt defense was impressive as it held Boston College under 300 total yards for the game. After what should be a tune-up against Florida International next week, Pitt can make a statement that they are Coastal contenders in week 4 when they host Iowa.
 
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North Carolina’s performance against San Diego St was a confirmation win as well. The Tar Heels confirmed that their pre-season expectations may have been a tad aggressive. The Aztecs gained over 500 yards against a UNC defense that was equally unimpressive last week against FCS Liberty. Were it not for a late 4th quarter, game-saving interception in the end-zone, Carolina would have entered their early season bye-week with a 1-1 record.
Virginia followed up a strong performance in a losing effort against UCLA with a convincing win over a well coached but over-matched Richmond team. While Virginia fans were pleased with a second week of strong defensive production (7 turnovers and 4 sacks) the Wahoos are going to have to deliver more consistent production on offense to contend for the division crown. In what may be a blessing as well as a curse, both quarterbacks Greyson Lambert and Matt Johns played well for the Cavaliers and a QB rotation may be in the offing for a critical matchup with Louisville this weekend.
For the second week in a row Georgia Tech was underwhelming in victory. This week’s struggle against Tulane was little solace to the GT faithful looking for improved play after a lackluster win against Wofford.
Miami took care of business as expected against Florida A&M dominating all phases of the game. Al Golden’s Hurricane’s did exactly what they needed to do against  a struggling FAMU team. Miami needed a convincing win to rediscover a bit of the Miami swagger which they delivered in spades. A week four matchup against Nebraska in Lincoln will give Miami a chance to make a statement for the 2014 season.
It is hard to make any credible commentary about the 2014 Duke football team. Unfortunately that will continue to be the case for the next two weeks. Head Coach David Cutcliffe’s results at Duke are nothing short of miraculous. However, the 2014 Duke schedule is laughable and sinks the concept of scheduling for success to new depths. The first four opponents for the defending coastal champions are Elon, Troy, Kansas, and Tulane. Every program feasts on cupcakes early in the season, but this cornucopia would give Augustus Gloop a stomachache. The reality is that Duke will be 4-0 after it’s first 4 games yet we will have no idea what kind of football team they have. Maybe next year Duke can save some travel money and schedule all of their out-of-conference games against Southern Conference opponents.
With the exception of Virginia, which plays host to Louisville in what may be the most important game on their schedule, next week’s ACC coastal schedule compares favorably with a yawning festival. We look forward to weeks hence when coastal versus coastal matchups will begin to shake out the division hierarchy for 2014.

Blue Horseshoe Loves UVa Football

If Virginia football was a stock, a week before the season opens or “trading” starts, would you buy, sell, hold, or avoid at all costs? There is one thing for certain about potentially investing in UVa Football, Inc., the shares are going to be cheap. Beaten down from the historical highs of the late 1980’s and 1990s, UVa football might even be a penny stock as we start the 2014 trading season.
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Like any company battling to win back customer and investor confidence, the 2014 Virginia football season is all about execution.  The ‘Hoos must improve in every phase of the game. There are 14 teams in the ACC. At the end of the 2013 season, in almost every statistical team category, Virginia’s ranking was a double-digit number. Let’s look at the basics. How did Virginia rank in putting points on the board and keeping opponents out of the end zone? This would be like looking at a balance sheet and income statement. Virginia was second to last in the ACC in scoring offense and last in scoring defense. Oddly enough, we were 10th and 11th respectively in passing and rushing yards which suggests that Virginia moved the ball, but then self destructed. This conclusion is supported by the fact that Virginia ranked in the bottom quartile of the NCAA for most penalties per game. Virginia did lead the ACC in one category in 2013…punting yardage. Thanks to Alec Vozenilek who did an outstanding job punting last year combined with the fact that no one in the ACC punted more often than Virginia, the Cavs led the league in the one category where it’s okay to finish last. Are you ready to sink your 401K into UVA Football, Inc yet?
 
When a company doesn’t have the best results to report to the street, investors always look to management for a track record of success and for assets that can drive profitable revenue in the future. Virginia has mixed news here as well. A leadership shakeup just before the 2013 season set the program back 3 years as new schemes were introduced on both offense and defense with predictable results. This is analogous to taking a very large charge against earnings. However, the new leadership has a track record of success. Specifically Tom O’Brien has led major turn around successes at Boston College and NC State as head coach and at UVa working on the staff of Jack…I mean George Welsh. The current staff knows how to win at this level and has the track record to prove it. Additionally, the UVa roster has talent across the board with offensive and defensive playmakers that could play for many of the best national programs. The offensive line is the biggest question mark heading into the UCLA opener on Saturday. It is talented, but young and for the most part untested.  The O-Line sustained two untimely preseason injuries to Jay Whitmire and Sadiq Olanrewaju – both projected starters. If the Offensive line can create a few seams for Kevin Parks and Taquan Mizzell and give Greyson Lambert a little time to find his playmakers, this offense will be vastly improved from 2013. Still not ready to buy?
 
Before you decide whether to invest in UVa football or a different ACC program, remember that many investors lose their shirts chasing last year’s winner. I am not saying that Florida State isn’t going to be very good and potentially repeat as national champion, but the program is flying high, trading at a hefty premium. Clemson is coming off a very productive year and should open the season trading at a premium as well based on recruiting classes that have ranked in the top 15 nationally each of the past 4 years. Other teams like UNC and Miami are going to jump on preseason hype and the promise of improved results over 2013. If I were shorting any program it would be Duke. As wonderful as the turn around story was for Duke football in 2013, the upside to improve on last year’s performance is limited at best. Blue Horseshoe loves Anacott Steel, not Duke Football.
 
If Virginia football was a stock, I’d be buying, but I wouldn’t bet the farm. The best returns are found in under valued stocks that can double or triple over time versus buying the $ 100 stock that goes up five bucks over the same period. There is no program with greater upside than Virginia and many of the pieces in place to deliver on its potential. There is a leadership team in place that has turned around other troubled programs. The talent, based on recruiting rankings is as good or better than many programs in the ACC. The key is execution, making first downs, finishing drives, avoiding stupid penalties, and converting turnovers into points. Virginia didn’t do any of these things well last year and has the stats to prove it. Virginia has the talent and leadership that should produce much improved results in 2014. If Billy Ray Valentine and Louis Winthorpe III can get rich while sending Mortimer and Randolph Duke to the poor house, then Virginia can win 6 games this year and deliver big returns for all of us who believe.

Mike London Needs to Win Now

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Geoff Burke/Getty Images

The University of Virginia will find itself in a difficult situation at the end of the upcoming season if its football team does not reach bowl eligibility. The school will be forced to make a decision on the continued employment of head football coach Mike London, revered as a mentor and “father figure” to his players.  London’s off-field successes are numerous but it’s his 18-31 record as UVA’s coach that is the problem.
London demands accountability and his off-field mentorship is defined by these three principles:

  • Go to class
  • Show class
  • Treat People with Dignity and Respect

While all schools talk the talk of athletes being students first, UVA walks the walk. Virginia is first and foremost an institution of higher learning, charged with molding students into career-ready graduates. But while UVA’s alumni delight in seeing the school routinely ranked among the nation’s best academically, they pine for the days when UVA made another ranking: the football top 25.
The current status of the football program puts the school’s administrators in an awkward position.  A successful football program determines the profitability of any school’s athletics department and allows for the funding of the non-revenue sports. Football success also spurs the giving that supports all areas of the university, not just athletics.   Because state funding now makes up less than 5% of the school’s operating budget, alumni giving is especially important at UVA. It is therefore economically vital for UVA to field a winning football team.
Mike London was hired in 2009 and given, by current coaching standards, a relatively modest salary of $1.7 million per year for five years. After UVA surprisingly went 8-4 in 2011 and was invited to the Chick-Fil-A bowl, the school extended his contract, adding two years to his deal and giving him a 23% raise.  London is due to make $2,330,213 this year on his current contract, which runs through 2016.
Were UVA fans and alumni happy with the state of the football program this would all be a non-issue.  However, last year UVA had its worst year since 1982, winning just two games and no conference games. The media reports that London has the most tenuous job security of any football coach in the country.  Athletic Director Craig Littlepage has been adamant that London is the right man to coach the team, putting him at odds with fans longing for a return on their investment in the football program.
Making the situation even more difficult is the fact that London recruits phenomenally well and his players love him.  Some coaches, knowing that tenure doesn’t exist in coaching, prefer not to get too close to their players.  London is the opposite, embracing his role as a mentor. “I’m in it for the players. I’m in it for the players’ development.  My personal goals are that they become educated men because one day they’ll be husbands, fathers, employees, employers much longer than they’ll be a football player,” London said recently.
“We can come in and talk to him about whatever we want, whether it’s something about football, about class, something personal, something with our lives, something going on with the program,” said senior cornerback Demetrious Nicholson. Tony Covington, a former UVA  and NFL player and currently a UVA football radio commentator, speaks glowing of the man. “Coach has a great football mind and kids love playing for him.  They love playing for him because they know that he genuinely cares about them. Not just as football players but as family.  Coach London goes into a recruit’s home and tells that young man and his family that he will treat that young man like his own son…and he actually means it.  How else do you think that his recruiting classes have consistently ranked in the top 30 nationally despite a UVA winning percentage of only fifty-eight percent?” (Tony’s math is off because, at 18-31, London’s win percentage is actually 37%, but the message is clear and his recruiting prowess is a testament to the power of that message.)
ACC football writers have predicted that UVA will finish last in the league’s Coastal Division this year.  There are just too many questions about this team to give the media any confidence that this team will be markedly better than last year. This is the fifth year of London’s tenure and his rebuilding efforts should be showing some results by this point. He has pulled in recruiting classes that amaze pundits and that belie UVA’s status as a struggling program.  However, London’s message of early playing time, the chance to turn around a program while earning a degree from a prestigious university, and the opportunity to play for a man who has demonstrated more than just a football interest in their wellbeing resonates with recruits.  Despite his hot seat status London so far this year has verbal commitments from 15 recruits who are forming another impressive recruiting class for next fall. It was rumored that commitments from two 5-star recruits in the last class saved his job and UVA may be facing the same situation this year.  Were London to be dismissed, would this year’s highly-ranked recruits opt out?  Everyone knows that a team must have talent to win.  If London is fired, UVA risks alienating the impressive talent that he has brought to town and that he hopes will reverse UVA’s fortunes.
This year is critical. London’s contract runs through 2016 and with another losing season there is no way UVA could extend it.  Were he retained as the coach and not given an extension it would mean that he would be recruiting as a lame duck.  Opposing coaches would feast on this. Additionally, London will be due a longevity bonus of $250,000 if he still is the coach on January 15, 2015.  The football program must make meaningful progress this year in order to quell fan unrest and allow the school to extend his contract.  London’s situation is hopeless otherwise.
For those who choose not to follow the media herd, there are hints that a turnaround is in the offing.  If new starting QB Greyson Lambert can effectively manage the game and if his young offensive line can open holes for the running game and also give Lambert time to pass, everything else looks pretty good. UVA’s defense should be stout this year and there are playmakers all over the offense if they can find room to operate.  Granted, these are big ifs but there is room for some optimism.
UVA hired London thinking that he was the right man for the job.  The school would rather not fire him, eat the remainder of his contract, and start another rebuilding program. London is a good mentor and a good representative of the University, but is he a good coach? The players know that they are playing for their coach’s job. “Coach London looks out for us players,” senior running back Kevin Parks said. “He puts his players first. We’ve got to play harder for him and do everything within our will to win games for him and keep him around.”