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.