Tag Archives: UVA football

Virginia Football is Heading in the Right Direction – Despite the Last 2 Games

It’s a shame that disappointment was the overriding sentiment among Virginia faithful as the regular season came to a close on Saturday in Charlottesville. The current sentiment is understandable but should not be the prevailing sentiment when looking at the full body of work and the progress Virginia football demonstrated during the year. That said, I get the current feelings of disappointment and pondering what might have been.

Two weeks prior, Virginia completely dominated the #3 team in the country, on the road, for two and a half quarters before falling apart and adding an expected, but still disappointing loss to the 2017 record. Overmatched and on the road, Virginia looked like they could play with some of the best teams in the country before mistakes and fatigue showed that they couldn’t.

If I’d have been offered the following bet prior to this weekend’s game against Virginia Tech – if UVA holds VT to 10 points in the game, would you bet $ 100 that UVA wins the game? – I would have taken the bet in a heartbeat…which reinforces the reasons why I’m not much of a gambler. Virginia’s defense played very well against a respectable Virginia Tech offense, while Virginia’s offense posted its worst performance of the year against a solid but far from great Virginia Tech defense.

Virginia Tech feasted on wimpy opponents to start the year, bolstering its defensive stats by smashing lousy Delaware, ODU, and ECU teams while pitching shutouts in two of those three scrimmages. On Saturday however, Virginia’s offense helped the Hokie defense look like 1975 Steelers. It is hard to fathom that this was the same Virginia offense that racked up 28 points and 440 yards of total offense the prior week against a far more talented Miami defense. The Virginia offense had a couple of chances to score enough points to beat Virginia Tech, but unlike several games prior, dropped passes, overthrown balls, and a fatigued offensive line sealed Virginia’s fate.

Virginia fans know this drill. So close, but no cigar. Hence, the pervasive and familiar feeling of disappointment.

I’d suggest that Virginia fans need to shake off the disappointment and recognize that the 2017 football season was not only a success but could be a turning point in the return to football respectability. Optimistic projections entering the 2017 campaign predicted 5 wins in ’17. Many fans would have seen progress if not success in more than doubling last season’s win total with a 5-win season.

While close-but-no-cigar is recognizable territory for Virginia fans across the athletic spectrum, “close” has not really been part of the equation for football for the past 5 years. Not only was Virginia close in most of their games this season, they won 6 of them and are going bowling for the first time since 2011.

While a bowl game is a significant achievement for a previously 2-10 team and a nice reward for seniors who worked hard to turn the fortunes of Virginia football around, the best outcome of making a bowl may not be apparent until next season. Making a bowl means an extra month of practice for a Virginia team that sports a plethora of red-shirt and true freshman in their 2-deep. An additional month of practice gives Bronco and his staff the opportunity to give younger guys significant practice time and more first-team reps than usual. This extra practice time is invaluable for young teams working to build on a successful season.

Virginia fans can do their part in the turn around of Virginia football by forgetting the disappointment of 2 losses to end the season plus the distraction of a nice start to basketball season by turning out for the bowl game this year. Most projections have Virginia playing in the Military Bowl in Annapolis which is right in the drivable heart of the Virginia fan base. If Virginia draws the short straw and ends up in Detroit at the Quick Lane Bowl I understand that is a slightly less desirable trip and may not see a stellar Cavalier turnout.

Given the breaks of the last two games, I think this team is overdue for a bit of good luck. See you in Annapolis!

The Unfortunate Return of “The U”

Like Jason in the “Friday the 13th” Movies, “The U” appears to be back.

I know “everyone” (defined as the college football media and the FCS-sized Miami fan base) seems to be excited about the reemergence of “The U”. I’m not going to lie, I kind of liked Miami more when they were “The Who?” based on their pedestrian performance since joining the ACC in 2004.

Let’s be honest about Miami, they don’t represent the best that college sports have to offer America’s youth, even when they aren’t very good. What does Miami have in common with classic NFL warriors like Franco Harris, Jack Lambert, Joe Montana, Ronnie Lott, Heath Miller, & Mike Singletary? I’d say the answer is nothing.

Unfortunately, Virginia gave the ‘Canes the opportunity to sport their ridiculous turnover chain 3 times on Saturday. Virginia played a spirited game against Miami on Saturday. Virginia fans might complain that this was a winnable, signature game that got away. Virginia has rallied well many times this season when they took a punch from their opponents and turned tough games into wins. Miami’s punches didn’t crush Virginia on Saturday, rather Virginia punching itself undid its aspirations for an unlikely win. For all the things Virginia did well against the Canes, to beat the #3 team in the country on the road takes a near flawless performance. For all of the positive plays Virginia made, there were too many field-position mistakes that allowed Miami’s offense to start with short fields well inside Virginia territory.

The bottom line on the game? Miami has more better players than Virginia, an outstanding head coach, and played in front of a crowd that exceeded Miami’s normal FCS standards. Virginia made a few critical mistakes that hurt their cause. If one is a conspiracy theorist, the fix was in from on high from the ACC or the NCAA as officiating was below Pop Warner quality, with the worst calls all going against Virginia.

The worst part of Virginia’s loss to Miami was not the loss itself, but rather that it tossed fuel on the fire for the resurrection of “The U” and all that it entails. Some things are best left in the trash bin of American culture. Breakdancing, Pet Rocks, The Bee Gees, and the unfortunate antics of “The U” are things we all could have done without in perpetuity.

“The U” joined the ACC in 2004 along with Virginia Tech. There is no doubt ACC leadership had dreams of regular FSU/Miami championship games with packed stadiums and signed contracts for the first 5 ACC title games to be played in Florida. When Wake Forest showed up to play Georgia Tech in 2006, and Boston College played Virginia Tech the following 2 years, things were not exactly going according to plan.

Miami is finally going to make it to the ACC title game this year, albeit 12 years late. The worst thing that could happen for the ACC, college athletics, and the future of American culture would be for Miami to win this game. While the antics of “The U” are not yet down to the standards of the past, I loathe the thought of what could pass, should Miami beat Clemson in 2 weeks.

When I think about the epics struggles in American athletics over the years and the societal good that so many have delivered to American culture, I wonder what true legends like Jackie Robinson, Joe Louis, and Hank Aaron would have to say about the turnover chain and the bravado of “The U”. I suspect they might wonder what it was they suffered and fought for if this was the end result.

Let’s hope for a Clemson victory in the ACC championship game and for a modicum of restraint if the unthinkable happens.

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.

Virginia’s Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

Did you ever have one of “those days”? You know, the days that start realizing you are out of toothpaste because you forgot to go to the store the previous day? Usually this is followed by a crushed button on your last pressed shirt, an unexpected rain shower on your walk to a client meeting, a dead car battery before heading home, and a late Uber driver who gets stuck in a traffic jam.

We have all had those days. The cure for those days is sunrise the following morning. A fresh start to the next day with a full tube of toothpaste and new challenges on the horizon.

Virginia had one of “those days” on Saturday against Boston College.

Take a second to consider this stat: At the end of the first quarter, Boston College had amassed 256 yards of total offense against Virginia. That’s right, BC was on pace to have over 1000 yards of total offense. That only happens on one of “those days”.

Everything went wrong for Virginia, including possibly underestimating the ability of their opponent. I was worried about BC for a couple of reasons. First, they are a lot like UVa in that they are not getting world-beating 5-star athletes to build their program. Rather BC head coach Steve Addazio depends on hard work, discipline, and player development to compete against more talented opponents. Second, BC had played a brutal schedule leading up to Saturday’s game in Charlottesville. They had played Notre Dame, Clemson, Virginia Tech, and Louisville, beating Louisville on the road and hanging tough for at least most of the other games. BC was battle tested to say the least and probably looked at the Virginia game as a chance to show what they could do…mission accomplished for BC.

Conversely, Virginia was 5-1, getting its sea-legs, and talk of Virginia football turning the corner was in the air leading up to Saturday. Then, the few fans that were in Scott stadium at the time, watched Virginia lose the coin toss.  Things went down hill from there.

On Boston College’s first drive. Virginia was inches away from a safety on 3rd and long from the BC 5 yard line. Instead of taking a sack & a safety, BC quarterback Anthony Brown scrambled for what would be one of seven 3rd down conversions in the first half. Boston College drove 85 yards for a field goal.

Things broke BC’s way all day. Virginia, not so much. Still in the first quarter, a very good WR block at the edge on a jet sweep took out not one, but two Virginia defenders resulting in a 75 yard TD run. A great block that should have resulted in a 10 yard gain, results in the longest run from scrimmage all year, when it is not your day.

Again on 3rd and long on the ensuing drive, the play clock ran out, hitting 00 on the scoreboard. The officials missed the delay of game call, BC snapped the ball and tossed a 76 yard TD pass on what should have been a 5-yard penalty. BC was ready and played aggressively all day. Virginia was not and did not. When it is not your day, things that have gone well in the past go terribly awry.

What does all of this mean for Virginia football for the rest of the season? It means Virginia has to approach every game as if they are a 13.5 dog. Virginia has to assume they have been overlooked and treated like bottom feeders by the media and their opponents the rest of the way. It means what we all knew before Virginia went on a 4-game winning streak – this is an evolving Virginia team with little margin for error. The fates along with disciplined and inspired play on the field must align for Virginia to win. If one of these is off kilter, Virginia is in trouble. It means that Virginia coaches and players still have a lot of work to do.

What does Saturday’s loss not mean? It does not mean that rest of the season is going to be a complete bust. The schedule is tough the rest of the way, but as we have seen already this season, this team knows how to win. It does not mean that all the progress this season is lost. Last year’s 2-10 team is 5-2 this year. They block better, throw better, and tackle better than last year’s team. None of this goes out the window because they laid an egg against a highly motivated Boston College team.

At the beginning of the season if Virginia fans were magically offered the chance for their ‘Hoos to be 5-2 after 7 games in the season,  do you think anyone would have declined, thinking 6-1 or 7-0 was a more probable outcome? Fans are understandably greedy, however. Success feeds the desire for even greater success. A little perspective after a crummy performance can be a good thing, though not as much fun as winning. The perspective Virginia fans need to appreciate is that 5-2 heading to Pitt next week is a dramatic improvement over last year’s performance as well as this year’s expectations.

Virginia had a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day on Saturday. Everyone in the program had a bad day. Players and coaches alike were off their games. For the first time all year Virginia looked disorganized on the sidelines blowing timeouts to get the right players on the field. Players made mistakes in execution and the breaks all went against Virginia.

Like the stock market, the resurrection of Virginia football is not going to be a straight line up and to the right. Virginia will hit bumps in the road and see periodic regression. I remain confident that the trend of the program is correct and heading in the right direction. The key for players, coaches, and fans is to let go of days when everything goes wrong and wait for the sun to rise the next day, looking forward to the next challenge on the horizon…which is Pittsburgh on the road.

Virginia opened a 4.5 point dog, which is exactly what we wanted.

Perspectives on Virginia Football from the Glory Days

I had the pleasure to meet a former UVa football star at a cocktail party recently. He was an iconic figure from the salad days of Virginia football. A George Welsh recruit and player. A football warrior and a very nice guy who laughed when I asked him if he had any eligibility left because we sure could use him next year.

I have no doubt that he has endured the same conversation a hundred times with UVa fans looking for insight and inside scoop on the state of football affairs in Charlottesville. He was engaging, patient, insightful, and generous with his time. His perspective was thought-provoking at best, distressing at worst.

I asked if he thought Virginia was going to be better this year, if we were heading in the right direction. I hoped for a big smile and confirmation that indeed football at UVa was emerging from its 10-year funk. Instead I got a dose of reality that made me wish I’d gotten a double scotch before I started the conversation. The facial expression was one of concern, from someone who clearly wants UVa to get back to its winning ways. The net of his comments – we don’t have enough athletes. I rattled off a few of names of kids I viewed as top notch players…no confirmation, no bright smile, no “yes, that kid is a player”. Just sincerely held concern that we don’t have enough athletes.

I was taken aback, but who was I to argue about talent levels with someone who had been there and knew first hand? How could I question what it takes to win in the ACC with one of the many star players who had won in the ACC through his entire career under George Welsh?

So, after I got home, before I changed, I poured another drink and spent an hour or so looking at some of the rosters from the George Welsh days. The days when Virginia won a lot of football games. When Virginia was clearly the best team in The Commonwealth and one of the best teams in the ACC. A scan of the rosters of the late 1980s &1990s yielded the same conclusion – there was a lot of talent in the program in those years. I needed to pick a point of comparison for the current roster, so I picked one outside of my conversation and settled on the 1998 team. While a little bit of a “cherry pick” this was not the No. 1 team in the nation nor the team that featured the Barbers of C’ville in the final years in orange & blue.

The 1998 team was a good one, however. They went 9-3 overall, 6-2 in the ACC, and lost a heart-breaker to a good Georgia team in the Peach Bowl. As I looked at the roster, my heart sunk a bit, as did my expectations for the 2017 football season.

Let’s bounce around a few names from the Cavalier roster in 1998:

Aaron Brooks, Thomas Jones, Antwoine Womack, Anthony Poindexter, Terrence Wilkins, Casey Crawford, Billy Baber, Chris Luzar, Monsanto Pope, Noel LaMontagne, John St. Clair, Antonio Dingle, Patrick Kearney, Wali Rainer, Byron Thweatt, Donny Green, Antwan Harris, & Maurice Anderson. If you are keeping score at home, that is a count of 18 players…all of whom played at least 1 season in the NFL. Several had exceptional NFL careers. At least 2 had exceptional careers in the NFL cut short by injuries they sustained at UVa. There was also a pack of players who were borderline NFL talent that played big roles for UVa in the late 1990s. Guys like Anthony Southern, Kevin Coffey, Ahmad Hawkins, Brad Barnes, Tyree Foreman, & Tim Spruill.

Wow! Anyone want to send George Welsh a heartfelt thank-you note for all he and his staff did for Virginia football? Recall before Coach Welsh arrived, Virginia was a joke program, de-emphasized by design by the big dogs in The University administration. Virginia lost to good teams. Virginia lost to bad teams. Virginia lost to a mediocre Wake Forest team by 50 points not long before coach Welsh arrived. Yet there we were in 1998, with 18 future NFL players on the roster, playing toe-to-toe with the SEC (Virginia went 1-1 versus the SEC in 1998 beating Auburn on the road before losing to UGa in the Peach Bowl).

With all due respect to Kurt Benkert, Daniel Hamm, and Jack McDonald, the comps to Aaron Brooks, Thomas Jones, and John St. Clair are not encouraging. So where does that leave Virginia football with the 2017 season only 3 months away and counting?

Scanning the 2017 roster, it is not void of NFL talent. Quinn Blanding and Andrew Brown are solid NFL prospects and likely low to middle round picks in next year’s draft. After that, it gets hard to find kids destined to play on Sundays. My guess is Bronco will develop a few, but if the comparison for talent & depth is the 1998 roster, there are not 18 NFL players on the 2017 roster. Virginia might be fortunate if there are half that number.

This talent reality leaves Virginia fans pinning their hopes and guarded optimism on Bronco and his system. Going back to his BYU days, Bronco never had herculean high school players on his roster. However, during his tenure at BYU he sent 25+ players to NFL careers which shows his eye for undervalued talent and his talent for player development. I think this works for Virginia. At least it works for Virginia right now.

Virginia football needs stability. It needs discipline. It needs to learn how to win. It needs coaching grounded in fundamental football that results in strong player development. Bronco can deliver these things. I think Bronco can consistently deliver 5-7 wins a season. That might be good enough for Virginia football. It is certainly an improvement.

That said, Virginia is never going to be truly and consistently competitive if Clemson and Florida State have 25 or more players on their teams who are a step faster and push-up stronger than Virginia – discipline and player development be damned. It is hard to consistently win against teams that not only have better athletes, but that have a lot more better athletes.

I would never have thought this absent my recent conversation, but maybe Branco is a transitional coach for Virginia. Maybe he stops the bleeding. Maybe he brings discipline and a culture of winning more than losing to Virginia football and then hands the keys over to the next young hotshot coach who can build on Bronco’s foundation by recruiting 18 NFL caliber players on the same roster.

In this context, I think Bronco is the right guy for the Virginia job. Certainly, he’s the right guy for right now. If 5-7 wins a year with an occasional bump to 8 wins is good enough for Virginia fans, maybe he is the long-term answer too. I still think it is a coup that Craig Littlepage and Jon Oliver brought Bronco and his staff to Virginia. At some point however, Virginia is going to need “the athletes” to win consistently in the ACC and beat top-shelf SEC opponents on the road. Maybe winning will allow Bronco to ramp up his recruiting, though winning at BYU didn’t change his recruiting results dramatically over time. Maybe that is a function of BYU.  Maybe unfettered by BYU’s strict college experience, Bronco can compete with the national programs and close on 4 and 5 star recruits. Maybe.

I wish I’d had more time to ask more questions about the progress of Virginia football to someone who knew about winning and player development, but I had probably intruded too much already and as noted before, due to my short-sightedness, my drink was glass was empty. After the brief conversation and doing a little homework afterwards, I might want to keep a full drink glass for the coming season.

E-mail David at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @dmrayner.

 

Can Bronco Deliver Before Moses?

Moses wandered 40 years in the desert leading the Israelites in search of the promised land.

Since it decided to relieve George Welsh of his duties leading it’s football program, Virginia has wandered for 16 years in the wasteland of college football. 15 years were essentially wasted chasing false prophets. Let’s hope it doesn’t take another 24 years for Bronco Mendenhall to find the promised land. Unfortunately, watching the debacle in Blacksburg on Saturday, 24 years looks about right.

Just for a little comparative ACC perspective, it took David Cutcliffe 5 years to start winning at Duke after decades of football futility. Dave Clawson didn’t start winning at Wake Forest until his third year leading the program. Heck, our own football legend George Welsh went 2-9 in his first year at Virginia. So before we all panic and assume that Bronco Mendenhall should have stayed in Provo, I think it is safe to say that fan expectations were well ahead of reality for Bronco’s first year leading the program. 

That said, I have seen some bad performances by the Virginia football team in my decades as a fan, but I would have a hard time coming up with one worse than this year’s drubbing against a pretty good, but not great, Virginia Tech team. The players made mistakes early and often on both sides of the ball. I don’t have the space nor the stomach to review Saturday’s on-field miscues.

I am most perplexed however, by the decisions of the coaching staff. When your team is 2-9, there is nothing wrong with going unconventional. There is a difference between unconventional and stupid. Calling a flanker option pass on 4th & 1 is unconventional. High risk & high reward. Rotating quarterbacks with similar skill sets based on down situations is stupid. If we were going with stupid, why didn’t we play barefooted or with our helmets on backwards. At least that would have given us a legitimate excuse for the results on the scoreboard.

I’d love to know who on the staff thought that the situational quarterback rotation with two pocket passers would be an effective strategy for an upset win. Oh, and let’s toss in a QB option run with our 3rd string quarterback, also a pocket passer. Who wouldn’t have guessed that play along with this game would end in tragedy? Maybe this was Bronco’s way of throwing in the towel. Letting Matt Johns play in his final game with the team, but not letting him be the sole scapegoat for the inevitable embarrassing loss. I can’t think of another reason for such an inexplicable strategy.

Whatever the reason for the quarterback carousel, the fanbase is not amused. Virginia fans are tired of being the doormat of the ACC Coastal, which is the doormat division of the P5 cartel. If Virginia had a solid game plan and played their hearts out but just lost to a better Virginia Tech team, I think Virginia fans could have accepted that result. However, the team played like the plan for the game was to throw the towel early. It is too bad Virginia couldn’t have just gotten on the bus back to Charlottesville at halftime and saved everyone a lot of time. There was no fight, no adjustment in game plan in the second half, just more of the same nonsense that didn’t work in the first half. In poker I think that is called throwing good money after bad or doubling down on a pair of 2s.

I suppose the good news is that what should be the worst season of Bronco’s tenure in Charlottesville is over. Like lousy corporate earnings from a prior year, the comparison for next season is based on a pretty low bar. Let’s hope that Bronco and staff can double the number of wins and show some heart in both play on the field as well as game planning & strategy.

While Virginia fans are generally a patient bunch, they do not have the patience of Job and are tired of directionless wandering. I’ll renew my season tickets for 2017, but may not have 24 year’s worth of patience left to see this program get back to relevance.

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

Photo: Wikimedia

Virginia Lays an Egg in Winston

Did you ever have one of those days on the golf course when you snap hook your first drive out of bounds on the first hole? The hooks plague you until you fix it with a power slice into the trees. No matter what you do, it’s wrong and the things you look forward to the most are the last putt on the 18th green and cocktails in the 19th hole. Ever have one of those days? Kurt Benkert had one of those days on Saturday against Wake Forest. 

I am not here to say that Benkert is not our best option at quarterback. He has a cannon arm. He can avoid pressure and extend plays with his legs. Some of his throws are nothing short of spectacular with a high degree of difficulty and perfect execution. Then there are days like Saturday.

Benkert had a dreadful day. His throws were erratic, at best. His decision-making was the only thing worse than his passing accuracy. While the offensive line didn’t have one of its best days either, at least three of the five sacks yielded were the result of Benkert holding the ball too long and not feeling pressure in the pocket. He tried to force difficult passes when he had yards of running room in front of him. Later in the game, when he realized he’d missed multiple first down runs by forcing passes that fell incomplete, he started to take off running, when there was no gain in sight.

It was simply one of those days. Benkert couldn’t do anything right, so he started to press. I mistakenly thought that his first interception throwing into triple coverage would be his last. I was wrong. A second pass into triple coverage that had no chance for success was intercepted and returned for a touchdown. Bad decision, bad throw, bad result. Game over.

The problem for Virginia is that the margin for error in 2016 is razor thin. If any team cannot afford erratic quarterback play, it is Virginia. The depth charts are shallow. Multiple injuries have forced too many freshman into prime time minutes. Some have made remarkable plays that give Cavalier fans glimmers of hope for the future. The problem with freshman however, is freshman mistakes. For all the hope the first year kids have provided, they also get sucked into fakes, miss coverages, and blow routes. They are talented, but they are freshmen.

It is completely unfair for the burden of the program to rest on the shoulders of Virginia’s quarterback in his first year as a starter. Sometimes life isn’t fair. Since the Oregon game, when the defense grew up in the second half, the key variable for Virginia’s win/loss margin has been quarterback play.

Without the two interceptions which resulted in 10 points for Wake Forest, Virginia gets a nice comeback win on the road when it wasn’t hitting on all cylinders. That’s what good teams do. ‘Bama didn’t have its “A-game” against LSU, but they left Baton Rouge with a win. Virginia endured a long bus ride home with the all remaining hope for a bowl appearance gone. That’s what rebuilding programs do.

The cherry on the sundae for Benkert’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day, the final putt that lipped out of the hole on 18 was the sack on the last play of the game. Working for an unlikely Hail Mary to tie the game, taking a sack was the worst possible outcome. It was the final in a string of bad decisions. Virginia fans hope that we left all the bad mojo in Winston Saturday, with a beatable Miami team on the docket for this coming week.

As tough as this game was for Benkert, there is no reason not to continue with him at quarterback. When he has been good, he has been very good. He has the tools. He has the moxie. Both of the options to replace him are seniors. Bronco’s priorities this year are: 1) Laying the foundational pieces that will turn the program into a winner in the coming years, 2) Developing existing players and recruiting new talent that fit into his systems – systems that produced winners at BYU for 10 consecutive years, and 3) Winning games in 2016.

Benkert is part of the foundation that Bronco is laying. Sometimes when laying a foundation, players who are new starters lay an egg. Unfortunately, in 2016, if Benkert lays an egg, Virginia loses. I felt bad for Benkert on Saturday. He never quit fighting, but it was simply one of those days when the best outcome for him was to be on the bus riding home, thinking about winning out the rest way.

E-mail David at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @dmrayner.

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Virginia Fans Get an Education Against Louisville

There they were, gathered on the hill. The uninitiated. The idealists. The dreamers. A thousand students ready to storm the field at Scott Stadium after an unthinkable upset win against the #5 Louisville Cardinals. My guess is they were first year students. I suspected that none of their parents or grandparents brought them to Virginia football games when they were younger. They reminded me of last year’s dreamers who gathered in similar numbers to storm the field, waiting for the final 20 seconds to click off the clock in equally unlikely win against Notre Dame.

Education in life sometimes comes at the most unexpected times and in the most unusual modes.

No one stormed the field on Saturday, just like no one stormed the field last year after the Notre Dame game. If the Virginia athletic department budgeted money for replacement goal posts this season, they can probably redirect those funds to more productive purposes. Just like last year. Virginia lost yet another game giving up a game-winning touchdown with mere seconds left on the clock. It seems Virginia can hang with some of the nation’s best football teams. They just can’t beat them.

I doubt that any of these first-year fans have ever heard of Mercury Hayes or Obed Ariri. For the same reasons that I will never forget those names, I doubt they will ever forget Lamar Jackson.

Virginia’s defense did a better job bottling up Lamar Jackson than both Clemson and Florida State which is to say that Jackson still put up good numbers but had been kept under control…until the last drive of the game.

Unfortunately in football, a very good throw and a very good catch will almost always beat very good defense. Virginia’s Juan Thornhill played defense as well as any coach could ask on Louisville’s winning touchdown pass. The sad reality for veteran Virginia fans who knew this was coming and uninitiated fans who were actually surprised, is that the throw and the catch were just a tad better.

In many ways, Lamar Jackson’s performance Saturday reminded me of Shawn Moore during the glory days of Virginia football…when Virginia won enough games that storming the field was rarely in the cards. Like Moore at his best, Jackson can run, he can thread the needle between defenders, and he has uncanny touch on passes that need a little air under them waiting for receivers compete their routes. Also like Moore, Jackson is a leader. When his team needs a big play or a kick in the rear he delivers. I hate that he single-handedly won the game for Louisville Saturday, but he was impressive to say the least. Moore finished out of the running for the Heisman in 1990. Jackson should win in a landslide in 2016.

Jackson’s performance was probably the best quarterback performance in Scott Stadium since Marcus Mariota led the Oregon Ducks to a win when fans stormed the liquor store rather than the field after the game. Jackson and Louisville won this game. Virginia didn’t lose it. Maybe it’s splitting hairs, and as heartbreaking as it was to lose on Saturday, Jackson is a gamer and his supporting cast is very good. Virginia didn’t give this game to the Cardinals, instead Virginia gave the Cardinals all they could handle.

It is refreshing to see excitement and optimism from the Scott Stadium newbies. It is tough to watch their hopes and dreams dashed as they watch Virginia let another big win slip into UVa football lore. They reminded me of Ralphie in “A Christmas Story” when he discovers his Little Orphan Annie decoder pin is a ruse. A scheme for selling more Ovaltine instead of secret communications for exclusive insiders.

A thousand “Ralphies” got their initiation into the Virginia football family on Saturday. If there is ever a need for a trigger warning, watching idealist fans transform into grizzled realists before your eyes might be a fitting time. Just like Ralphie wasn’t going to waste any more time decoding secret messages that turned out to be “crummy commercials”, when Virginia stages its next big almost-upset, this group of fans now knows that there is no need to be the first in line to rush the field. Not until the clock reads 0.00 and Virginia is still winning. I am not sure that game is coming in 2016, but it’s coming.

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

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Encouraged, Concerned, and Puzzled – Virginia Lets One Slip Away Against Pitt

I listened to the post game show on this ride home from Charlottesville on Saturday. Virginia had just produced a disappointing loss to a solid but beatable Pitt team. I heard the same comment several times. “This game was a tale of two halves”. On paper it was that simple. Sitting in the stands it wasn’t.

Virginia’s loss to Pitt this weekend was really a tale of three plays. A kickoff return for a touchdown after an impressive Virginia drive, a pick-six to end the first half and a second kick return to the Virginia 20 yard line. Absent those plays, Virginia likely pulls off an unlikely win.

I am concerned, encouraged, and puzzled by Saturday’s game. I am concerned that on the 3 aforementioned plays that cost Virginia the game, Virginia players looked like they were waiting for someone else to make a play. Over the last 3-and-half games, Virginia has played with an increased sense of urgency and commitment.  On these three plays, they were not with the program. They were not making plays, but rather observing the action.

While concerning, it was actually more puzzling. It was puzzling given all we have heard about the culture Bronco is building at Virginia. 100% every practice, every conditioning session, every play of every game. Yet there we were, watching along with our players on the field as Pitt scored two touchdowns and set up a third with their offense standing on the sidelines.

Part of me thinks that the rebuild of the Virginia program is bigger than anyone imagined. Building a culture takes time. Recruiting, developing, and slotting talent to fit systems takes time. Changing the hearts and minds of Virginia fans is a big task. I imagine that changing the expectations and attitudes of players who have been through the wringer with their popular but terribly ineffective prior coaching staff is a herculean task.

As I watch Virginia play, in what is clearly a rebuilding year, I see kids with obvious and exceptional talent. I can’t help but wonder what we would see from Quinn Blanding, Micah Kizer, Andrew Brown, and Smoke Mizzell had they spent the previous 3 years with Bronco versus the past 6 months. If I could wish anything for Virginia football, other than a full stadium, it would be the fully entrenched culture of Bronco Mendenhall in NFL-caliber players whose eligibility is winding down this year or next.

Ironically, I was encouraged by one of the plays that turned this game from an unlikely win into a disappointing loss. The pick-6 to end the first half was part of strategy to try to put more points on the board with 44 seconds left in the half. The safe call would have been to run the ball twice and take a 28-28 tie into the locker room. However, as we have seen across 6 games with Bronco at the helm, he plays to win. He and his staff call the game as though all the pieces are in place to execute their strategy. I am encouraged that Bronco’s decision making is unchanged by evolving and transient conditions in the program. Virginia is going to win, and we are going to win the Bronco way.

I am also encouraged with the streaks of execution we have seen from this team. These kids can score points against good defenses. They can contain All-American talent in opposing offenses. However, Virginia has to do it every time out and to get there they have to believe that they can do it every time out. There still seems to be a lingering fatalism in the program. Like the guy who wins the lottery and expects to be run over by a bus walking home with his check, I am not sure the Virginia team thinks they have earned the right to win. Not yet, anyway.

The players, staff, and fans all want the Virginia program to succeed. It is my expectation that it will succeed. The only question we have, is how long we will have to wait. Is Christmas just around the corner or are we making a Christmas list in July? I am encouraged enough to think it might be the former, but I was also that kid who had his Christmas list finished before the first leaf turned.

On a side note, what a privilege it was to watch James Conner play football. He is warrior, a champion, an All- American. Virginia’s defense did better than most keeping Connor in check even though he still managed 90 yards on 20 carries and scored 2 touchdowns. Considering just 12 months ago he was in the midst of chemo treatments, his performance and courage is an inspiration to us all. James Connor – American Bad Ass.

 

E-mail David at [email protected].

Photo: David Rayner

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Virginia Football – Buy, Sell, or Hold?

If UVA football under Bronco Mendenhall was a publicly traded stock (ticker symbol BRNC), for all intents and purposes, it had its initial public offering on September 3 when UVA was thumped by FCS contender University of Richmond. This game was the equivalent of a stock that went public at $20 and finished the first trading of day at $15. It was not what anyone vested in the success of BRNC wanted to see. Many were ready to sell early and cut their losses.

Storm clouds on the horizon did little for the next two trading days. A lopsided loss in Eugene and a close but embarrassingly ugly loss in Hartford drove BRNC’s value down further. Analysts had to be wondering whether they should have kept BRNC out of the public eye and how could they have been so wrong about its prospects.

BRNC futures were trading down sharply when undefeated Central Michigan came to Charlottesville. However, those who were short BRNC took a bath as the Wahoos took down the Chippewas in convincing fashion. A second impressive win on the road at Duke rallied BRNC past its IPO price as fans started to jump back on the BRNC wagon.

As with all stocks, the biggest question looking forward is: where do we go from here? While this question tends to focus on the potential wins and losses over the coming seven games, there is more to the success of BRNC in the UVA market than winning six games in 2016 and going to a bowl game.

Bronco, assuredly, has to win games. However, UVA fans are an unusual bunch. He has to win back a weary UVA fan base. He has to replace the sense of impending doom that has surrounded the program for the past 12 years and with a sense of anticipation. Additionally, style points matter for Virginia fans. Virginia fans want to win, but they won’t accept athletes that embarrass dear old UVA. Therefore the value of BRNC with the Virginia faithful is much more complicated than the win-loss record.

This probably explains why BRNC got so far ahead of itself in its pre-IPO excitement. Bronco said and did everything that Virginia fans cherish. He was tough on his players. He spoke of earning versus giving. He spoke of discipline, focus, and speed. He had a system that had produced winners for 10 years in a row. His players stayed out of trouble and graduated on time. He was thoughtful and engaging when meeting with the donor community. Most of all, he had a track record of winning the right way. He was a CEO who had thrived in an environment at BYU that was equally as complex and demanding as UVA. It is little wonder initial expectations were inflated. It is also not a shock that over-blown expectations were quickly dashed.

However, as anyone in the financial market will tell you, there is a big difference between investing and trading. Both investors and traders were overly giddy about BRNC when it went public against Richmond. The traders started to jump ship after the first couple of losses. Most UVA fans are investors though. Over the decades they have celebrated jubilant highs and endured heart-breaking lows. Over the past couple of decades, the trend of the athletic program has been up and to the right, with football being the notable laggard.

Therefore, it is understandable that fans over-bought BRNC in the run up to the final horn on September 3. Some felt like they had been sold a bill-of-goods. However, BRNC is is not a fly-by-night. It is not BRNC.com. BRNC is built on foundational principles that last, that win games over the long term. While the UVA fan base might be a little less patient than Bronco would like, I think they are on board for the long term.

BRNC might not be Google or Amazon in terms of it’s performance, but it’s not going to be Enron either. Hang in there UVA fans. Happy returns are not far off!

E-mail David at [email protected].

Photo: en.wikipedia.org

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