Tag Archives: Virginia Cavaliers

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.

Virginia Football, Still Looking for Win Number 7

For many Virginia fans, after qualifying for the first bowl game since 2011, the football program was playing with house money. Virginia was ahead of most every projection for wins in 2017. Many experts saw 5 wins as the mark of good progress and here Virginia sat with 6 wins and 3 games to play. This is the definition of “house money” and Virginia had nothing to lose the rest of the way, right?

I think not. Despite their performance against Louisville, I don’t think the team is thinking that way either. I didn’t see anyone on the sidelines that looked satisfied with the season to date, resting on their laurels waiting for the announcement of the formerly elusive bowl game destination.

Rolling into Saturday’s game, Louisville was due to put it all together. Unfortunately their best game of the season came against Virginia. Any team with Lamar Jackson is dangerous. He is an exceptional talent. Virginia fans will be glad to see a new quarterback in Scott stadium next year leading the Louisville program. However, everyone knew the Cardinals could produce on offense. The shocker on Saturday, and the driver of the win for Louisville, was the performance of their defense. A talented unit on paper, they had been shredded on multiple occasions in 2017, and as a result, Louisville was a surprising 5-4 heading into their match with Virginia.

While there have been many games over the years when obscure players and teams have had exceptional performances against Virginia, this was not one of those occasions. There was no excuse for Louisville’s defense to be ranked in the 80s among D1 (sorry, I still think in terms of D1, D2, & D3…not FBS & FCS) programs. There was too much talent on the sidelines for that kind of performance. Unfortunately for Virginia fans, the Cardinals’ defense put it all together against the Wahoos and the Cavs left Louisville with a convincing loss, and a record of 6-4. Virginia is still well above season expectations, but not lacking more than a dash of hope for a 7th win before Virginia learns its opponent and destination in the post-season bowl frenzy.

I don’t think Virginia was flat on Saturday against Louisville and I don’t think they were overly sloppy. Virginia just had one of those days when their opponents played very well and the Cavaliers were simply not up to the task. Remember Miami’s last game in the OB? Virginia won 48-0 against a Miami team that had far more future NFL players on the field at all times. Virginia steamrolled the Canes as Miami had one of “those games”.

Virginia has done a good job of putting tough losses behind them in 2017. Ugly losses against Indiana and Pitt have been followed by nice wins against UConn and Georgia Tech. This is a team that seems to have no memory. The past is the past and the next game = the most important game of the season. I credit the staff for building this culture and the players for executing in several tough circumstances.

After watching Miami dismantle Notre Dame this weekend, I am not going to call a Virginia win next week in Miami. However, I am going to predict that Virginia shows up next week well prepared and mentally ready to do what it takes to win, to fight until the final whistle, and possibly pull off the biggest surprise since their last blowout win in Miami.

Virginia might be playing with house money when looking at the “expert’s” predictions for the season. However, when I watch Virginia on the field, I see a team that is focused on nothing but win number 7, and after that win number 8.

What we saw against Louisville was the uncomfortable reality of a team rebuilding from the foundation up not a lackadaisical performance due to a sense of entitlement because a bowl game is in the cards. Unlike so many teams in the past decade, this Virginia team is focused and well-prepared and they win more than in the past..just not every week.

Not the “Same old Hoos” – Virginia is Going Bowling!

There were enough mistakes on Saturday for Virginia to fulfill the lowly expectations of many fans for the rest of the 2017 season –  a blocked punt, dropped passes across the receiving corps, missed tackles that resulted in long gains. The first two plays of the second half resulted in Georgia Tech touchdowns. For those keeping score at home that was less than a minute off the game clock and a narrow one-point GT lead ballooned to a 15 point margin and the rout was on. Except it wasn’t.

Playing Georgia Tech is always a challenge. They play a different brand of football. They run on first down. They run on 3rd and long. They go for it on 4th down. Their blocking schemes are unique and their athletes are drilled in the nuances of GT football. So when the Yellow Jackets burst out to a big lead, it is not unusual for their opponents to collapse. As noted last week, teams don’t make defensive adjustments at halftime that stymie Georgia Tech. Either you break the code to stop the Jackets in the week leading up the game…or you don’t. There isn’t a lot of middle ground. Virginia looked like they could hang with Georgia Tech, but Virginia can never afford big mistakes. This is especially true against G-Tech who can grind games away with clock-eating drives. Virginia’s early mistakes looked like they would break their back.

When Georgia Tech broke the game open early in the second half, the hearty Virginia fans that braved the Charlottesville downpours could not have been blamed for heading for the exits – to dry tailgate tents and warm rides home.

A funny thing happened in Charlottesville on Saturday. While the crowd was thin due to the horrid weather and tepid team performances of the past two weeks, the fans in the stadium remained and a Virginia team that was expected to accelerate the rush to the exits, instead stormed back and sent the Engineers back to Atlanta with a stinging loss.

Tepid might be a kind description of Virginia’s performances against Boston College and Pittsburgh the past two weeks. Disheartening might be a bit more accurate. However, even in those losses, there was not the expected fatalistic sense of doom throughout the game. There was not the disorganized chaos that has marked Virginia football the past decade. Even in those disappointing losses, Virginia never rolled the tents, like they had in years past.

So when Virginia looked like they had thrown the game away in the first 2 plays of the second half against Georgia Tech, it would have been easy for Virginia fans to begin the groaning festival, reminiscing about the horrors of being a Virginia fan. But this team is not Virginia-business-as-usual. They don’t get rattled like Mike London’s Virginia teams. Instead, the guys that made big mistakes in the first half suddenly made big plays to win the game.

Lester Coleman, after a blocked punt and a touchback-punt that netted less than 20 yards in the fist half punted like an All-American. He flipped the field on Georgia Tech with a monster 60-yard punt on a soggy day when punting was a nightmare. Later, he pinned GT inside the 5 yard line that led to a safety and then again inside the 10. Andre Lavrone, Doni Dowling, and Olamide Zaccheous made fantastic catches after ugly drops early in the game. Kurt Benkert threw pinpoint touchdown passes in traffic after one of the season’s ugliest pick-sixes.

I know this goes against the grain for a program that has not been bowling since 2011, but it is time for the Virginia program – players, coaches, and fans to get greedy. Making a bowl game is great, and I am so happy for the players, especially the seniors who have slogged their way back to respectability. It’s time to move beyond respectable to pretty darned good.

Virginia was a 9.5 point dog to Georgia Tech and a 13.5 point dog to Boise State. The Wahoos have opened as a 9 point underdog to Louisville. I don’t think Vegas knows what to do with Virginia this year. I’m not a betting guy, but take the Wahoos and the points. Lamar Jackson is a fantastic talent and Louisville is hungry for a win after a subpar year. However, unlike too many prior seasons, I just wouldn’t bet a against this team. If they look sloppy in the first half or make a couple of big mistakes to go down to Louisville early, don’t change the channel, don’t go work in the yard. I know what “same-old-Hoos” looks like. These aren’t the same old ‘Hoos.

Virginia and North Carolina Both Got What They Deserved

After a hard fought game, Virginia left Chapel Hill with what it deserved – a victory over the struggling, but athletic North Carolina Tar Heels. Virginia snapped a 7-game losing streak to a Carolina team that also got what it deserved on Saturday.

After the NCAA issued the University of North Carolina a “get out of jail free” pass for academic fraud that kept its athletes eligible for almost 20 years while robbing them of any chance for a real education, UNC got what it deserved Saturday as well – a loss and a pot to stew in until the teams meet again next year.

UNC coach Larry Fedora was fuming as the clock ticked down to zeros and Virginia lined up in its victory formation. Fedora and the Carolina nation were outraged at a no-call on what they felt was a face mask penalty on a 4th down, game ending sack by Chris Peace. Carolina fans aren’t used to calls not going their way. Ignore the fact that Carolina just as easily could have been called for a block below the waste on the same play or the missed holding call on Eli Hanback the play before. UNC is supposed to get the breaks and get the calls, whether their athletes go to class or not.

When the NCAA acknowledged that Carolina ran an academic charade for 17 years that helped keep its athletes eligible to compete in its revenue sports, but then stated that the academic curriculum of its members is outside the jurisdiction of the NCAA infractions team…you might say Carolina is used to having its way. Maybe Carolina fans should go back and listen to the interviews and read the chronologies laid out by their internal whistle-blowers describing barely literate athletes getting “As” in classes that never met and turning in papers they never wrote before they get too indignant about a no-call that didn’t go their way.

The University of North Carolina, after spending $ 17 million dollars defending its systemic academic fraud, essentially threw the entire university under the proverbial bus by stating that their sham classes were part of the regular curriculum and were available to all students. Wow, the entire university population can take no-show classes? That must be very comforting to the parents of students and to major benefactors of the university.

While UNC was busy throwing its academic integrity out the window to defend its athletic department, Virginia was busy taking care of business on the field, resurrecting its dormant football program. Jordon Ellis in particular, personifies the 2017 Virginia Cavaliers. On Saturday in Chapel Hill, Ellis had his most productive day as a Cavalier. His legendary work ethic was on full display as he consistently ran for yards after contact, always fell forward, and gained needed yards on 3rd and 4th down.

Jordon Ellis embodies what we love about college athletics. He is a humble, hard-working young man who waited his turn and is reaping the rewards along with his teammates. The best news for Ellis and for Virginia fans is that Ellis is a red-shirt junior and Virginia fans can look forward to him grinding out 137 yards against UNC again next year in Scott Stadium.

Virginia played a far from perfect game against the Tar Heels on Saturday, but they made plays when the game was in the balance. That is what good teams do. I was disappointed that the ‘Hoos did not convert UNC turnovers into more points. The Virginia defense broke down twice against talented freshman Michael Carter allowing two long gains that resulted in or set up two Carolina touchdowns. Virginia will need more nearly perfect performances to generate more wins in the second half of the season. Big tests await the Cavaliers, starting Saturday with a home game against a rapidly improving Boston College program that Virginia has never beaten.

If karma is indeed about retributive justice, then maybe UNC just made their first, very small installment to bring the scales back to balance and Virginia a might be reaping the rewards for the hard work of the past two years.

For the first time ever, I think I might pull for the Blue Devils when UNC and Duke play in basketball this season.

Note for this coming Saturday – I realize that no one loves a 12:30 kickoff, but this team is 5-1. Boston College’s series record against UVa is 5-0 and they are coming off a huge win against Louisville. This Virginia has earned a crowd of 45K or more to help them clinch a bowl bid for the first time since 2011. Not loving the kickoff time, but loving this 2017 Wahoo team – Bloodies and Screw Drivers at 10:00 on a beautiful fall morning in C’ville ain’t all bad.

Virginia Football: Do You Believe?

Virginia’s record stands at 4-1 six weeks into the 2017 season. It’s been ten years since Virginia has been 4-1. Four wins doubles last year’s total, and matches the full season win total the year before. The natural question to ask at this point is – do you believe in Virginia football? Long suffering Virginia fans who have had their hearts broken dozens of times over the years probably aren’t there yet. I don’t blame them. I am not sure I’m there yet either. What matters though, is that I think the players are there. They believe and after 5 games it is clear that their faith is not misplaced.

In the second quarter of Saturday’s win against Duke, the Blue Devils had just driven 88 yards down the field for a go-ahead touchdown. It was an impressive drive, as well as a disheartening drive for well conditioned Virginia fans. A passionate, long time Virginia fan in our section noted that lots of teams can put themselves in position to make plays, but good teams make plays when it matters.

He was right on the money. Virginia simply didn’t make the plays needed to halt the Duke offense. Virginia didn’t give up an 88-yard drive because they were out of position, missed coverage rotations, or made mental mistakes. At least 3 times during that drive Virginia was in position to make a drive-killing play, but missed a critical a tackle or failed to blow up a block on the edge. Duke took advantage and scored in impressive fashion.

It was the last time all day Duke scored in impressive fashion.

From that point on Virginia was not only in position to make plays, but they executed on the plays that mattered. An offense which to that point in the game had four 3-and-out series and two picks, scored 3 touchdowns and most importantly ran time off the clock with Virginia leading, when burning the clock was the path to victory. The defense that gave up the 88 yard touchdown drive forced Duke into four 3-and-outs and most importantly stopped Duke on downs to seal the victory for the Wahoos.

Two weeks ago, when Virginia shocked Boise State as a 13 point road-dog, they played very good football for 60 minutes. Against Duke, Virginia had to grind. Virginia didn’t have the A-game against Duke. In years past, this is a recipe for Virginia disaster. Duke is very well coached and always very well prepared under the miracle worker David Cutcliffe. Well prepared teams playing a Virginia team not hitting on all cylinders usually walk away with wins.

Not on Saturday.

There was never any panic on the Virginia sideline. Surprisingly, I didn’t get a sense of impending doom in the stands either. Instead, there was resolve on the sideline and steadily improving execution on the field. As Virginia went deeper into the game, they grew more confident, made more plays, and closed out a win against a Duke team that will certainly be bowl-bound in 2017.

Across the board, when the game was on the line, Virginia made plays. Offense, defense, and a much improved special teams. Lester Coleman averaged 50.8 yards per punt and made a couple of nice plays to avoid special teams disasters. He believes. Olamide Zaccheaus took a flair pass that looked to be a no gainer to the house by reading the defenders and picking the right angle to the end zone. He believes. Freshman linebacker Charles Snowden came in for his first action of the game to relieve a gassed Chris Peace. Snowden recorded a critical 4th quarter sack that killed Duke’s late game rally. Charles Snowden believes.

Virginia travels to Chapel Hill this week for a big game against a talented, but under-performing UNC team. In a refreshing change of heart, I think Virginia can win this game. I have no doubt however, that the Virginia players know they can win this game. They expect to win this game. They believe.

I am starting to as well.

A quick note to add…as mentioned in last week’s column, Virginia is playing well for the first time in 10 years. It was unfortunate that Virginia drew a 12:20 kickoff time against Duke, as any game starting within the noon hour is always less well attended than a 3:30 kick. While the crowd Saturday was @ 6,000 fans larger than the UConn game, it was still under 40,000. As noted before, this team has earned better fan support. The students are the biggest laggards, which is a shame. I hope that a win in Chapel Hill and favorable kickoff time the following week against Boston College will get the student section filled and give this team the support it deserves.

Virginia Posts a Strong Performance in Boise

Is the Virginia football jinx dead? (Gasp!) Thinking such things seems outlandish, risky, and maybe even blasphemous. Serious consideration of such a possibility is premature. However, the thought occurred to me as the final seconds ticked off the clock in Virginia’s improbable 42-23 victory Friday night.

Winning football games is hard. Winning football games against good programs on the road is harder still. Over the past 10 years, Boise State has won 110 games. The Broncos have beaten teams that Virginia only dreams of beating – Oklahoma, TCU, and Virginia Tech among them. I don’t know if this year’s BSU team is up to the usual Broncos’ standard, but I do know that on Friday night, Virginia took a good Boise State program to the woodshed.

Contrary to the Las Vegas betting line of 13 points in favor of the Broncos, I had a good feeling about Virginia’s chances against BSU. In its first 3 games of the ’17 season, Virginia had really cleaned up their play. Turnovers, penalties, and mental errors were way down from what the Virginia faithful had come to expect from the Cavaliers. The turnover trend was positive for Virginia. It seemed like the Cavaliers were on the brink of putting things together for the first time in many years.

My good feelings about Virginia’s chances to win were converted into assured confidence for victory on one critical turn of events in the first half. As any Virginia fan knows, the probability of converting fake punts and on-sides kicks is very low…except against Virginia. In recent years, conversion rates against Virginia for these plays has been the inverse of the rest of the football universe. Virginia football of the past 10 years gives up the trick play. The Virginia team Friday night did not and quickly converted the resultant opportunity into points.

That’s what good teams do. They take advantage of their opponent’s miscues. They make them pay. Virginia’s inability to do this with any consistency the past 10 years is why they have a 10+ year losing streak against Virginia Tech. It is why Virginia has been absent from the bowl picture 8 of the last 9 seasons. Now, for 2 weeks in a row, when Virginia’s opponents have made mistakes, Virginia has capitalized and won in convincing fashion.

Equally encouraging, and also swimming against the traditional Virginia currents, the ‘Hoos never took their foot off the gas against Boise State. Despite a couple of late game blunders after victory was in the bag, Virginia played to win for 60 minutes. Well conditioned Virginia fans, in any game where Virginia leads, start doing the math in their heads when it looks like Virginia might win. How many touchdowns does the opponent need to score divided by the time remaining…and what is the probability of the making the needed scores in the remaining time? No matter how improbable, Virginia fans have a fatalistic feeling anytime a win looks possible. Think Notre Dame. Think Louisville. Think Michigan, Texas, UNC, and a host of others.

Friday against BSU, Virginia was as focused and aggressive in the final minutes of the game as they were at the start. It was clear that Virginia’s players were intent on this win, on making a statement, that they were not going to let this one get away. How refreshing. How encouraging.

Friday’s win was a good win. The challenge now is stringing together multiple good wins to become a good team. Virginia gets an extra week off to rest and prepare before a solid Duke team comes to Charlottesville. This is an important game. It’s at home. It comes off a bye-week. It comes on the heels of 2 strong wins. Good teams win this game. Virginia gets a chance to take another step towards becoming a good team in 2 weeks.

Is the Virginia football jinx dead? Is the curse of Al Groh finally broken? It seems risky to ponder such things. When seeking guidance in life on important questions…investment advice, house purchase decisions, predictions on the fortunes of Virginia football, I find the Magic 8-Ball as good of source of truth as any.

Magic 8-ball, is the Virginia football jinx and the curse of Al Groh dead? “Concentrate and ask again”

Magic 8-ball, is the Virginia football jinx and the curse of Al Groh dead? “Signs point to yes”

Even though the Magic 8-ball said “my reply is no” when I asked if I should sell Sun Microsystems at $ 75/share many years ago, I think it is on the right track now, as is Virginia football.

I hope Virginia fans reward their team in 2 weeks by coming to the game, not just the tailgate. This team is vastly improved over last season. In Bronco Mendenhall’s culture of earned not given, this team has earned increased fan support. Let’s do what we can to deliver.

Virginia Takes Care of Business

At this stage of the reclamation project that is Virginia football, I think the highest compliment that for the program in any given week is that they took care of business. On Saturday against the UConn Huskies, Virginia took care of business.

Virginia was the better team on Saturday. They had better athletes, they were better prepared, they had the better coaching staff. For this those who have been following Virginia football since the departure of George Welsh, that is usually a recipe for disaster. Another chapter in the  on-going Virginia Athletics saga “Can you believe we lost to…”

Not so Against UConn. It has been a long time since a game seemed like it was never in doubt from start to finish – in Virginia’s favor. Virginia’s offensive line, which saw personnel changes from last week’s loss to Indiana was effective all day. Kurt Benkert consistently had time to check down to secondary receivers, who were frequently wide open, sometimes well behind the UConn defense. Gone were “the drops” from last week and well-thrown Benkert passes were hauled in for big gains. Jordon Ellis, Olamide Zaccheaus, and Daniel Hamm had seams to run and were often able to get outside of the Huskies’ containment.

Virginia’s defense was not dominant but played outstanding assignment defense. They were in the position to make plays and far more often than not kept the UConn offense off balance and between the 20s. While Micah Kiser had his usual all-American performance (15 tackles & 2 sacks), the most exciting defensive performance came from Brenton Nelson. Formerly a member of the Virginia track team, Nelson looked more like Kenny Easley than Carl Lewis. He had an athletic interception that killed a promising UConn drive and 2 pass break-ups, one of which prevented a UConn touchdown, to go along with 8 tackles. Virginia’s defense often depends on its defensive backs being on islands and playing 1:1 defense. Nelson, Thornhill, Blanding, and Hall showed well all day, allowing Virginia’s front several to focus on controlling the line and penetrating the UConn backfield.

Heck, Saturday was so good for Virginia that kicker AJ Mejia kicked a season-best FG of 28 yards. It is my opinion that it had enough leg to be good from 35 yards. While we are not ready to declare the kicking game effective yet, it has improved and needs to continue that trend if Virginia has any chance to go bowling in 2017.

While Virginia was dominant the entire afternoon, a couple of issues raised their heads that Virginia needs to clean up before they head west to Boise. After 2 weeks of very clean play, Virginia committed 9 penalties for 109 yards. Some of these penalties were classic bonehead mistakes. Two chop-blocks and one very bad targeting penalty accounted for 45 penalty yards and the ejection of Andrew Brown. Virginia was a good enough to get away with these mistakes against UConn. Boise State is likely to make Virginia pay if they commit similar mental errors next week.

Virginia’s kickoff team also needs to improve its performance. Despite a tremendous kickoff coverage hit from former walk-on Ben Hogg that pinned UConn back at their 15-yard line in the 4th quarter, Virginia allowed over 31 yards per kickoff return. Virginia can give up field position against UConn, but you can bet your last dollar that Virginia Tech, Miami, and Louisville, will convert field position advantages into points. Virginia has a very thin margin for error as they rebuild the program. Mistakes like these can turn potential wins into frustrating losses, prolonging the rebuild of the program.

Rolling into week 4 of the ‘17 season, the good news is that Virginia has matched its win total from last year and has a winning record for the first time since 2014. The sobering news is that Virginia is heading into the meat of its schedule. Virginia has some tough contests ahead, starting Friday night in Boise. Call me crazy, and clearly the hope was that Virginia would be 3-0 heading to Boise this week, but I am becoming more optimistic about the game this week and the rest of the season.

Virginia has not been spectacular in their first 3 games, but they have been well prepared. With a few exceptions, Virginia has avoided the self-inflicted wounds that have deflated so many potential wins the past several years. We have the right players on the field at the right time and are making more plays than not. The weaknesses that have plagued Virginia in the early games this season seem to be trending in the right direction.

I hate making predictions because I usually get them wrong. My good friend Nick is much better prognosticator of Virginia fortunes than I am. I usually defer to his predictions. However, I am encouraged by the progression of the program in the first three weeks of the season and I expect Virginia to be very competitive against Boise State this weekend. Okay, I’ll say it. Despite opening as a 13 point dog on the Vegas meeting line, I think Virginia takes care of business again this weekend and comes home with a hard-fought and much-deserved win. I hate making predictions and I hate making bets. At least the prediction won’t cost me any money.

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

Sunny Day, but a Gloomy Loss in Charlottesville

The weather on Saturday was a glorious reminder that Charlottesville is a beautiful place to spend an (almost) early fall afternoon. Tailgating was a delight and the lots around Scott stadium were close to capacity. Revelry was in full swing. Once the game started, the weather was still glorious and the tailgating around Scott stadium was still in full swing. Many of the Virginia faithful chose to continue to enjoy the Charlottesville weather and not let a football game spoil the good tidings of the day. Smart move.

While last week, Virginia won pretty decisively on a gloomy day, this week was the inverse of last. While I am was not overjoyed with the winning performance against William & Mary, I am not ready to throw in the towel on the 2017 season based on this week’s loss.

While Indiana is no football power, they are losing their moniker as the perpetual doormat of the Big 10. They went to a bowl game last year. Looking at their schedule and their performance to date, they have a decent shot to go bowling this year as well. This was a solid test for Virginia, which it failed, though not as miserably as some might project.

Virginia was well prepared for this game. They were not surprised by any of Indiana’s offensive plays or strategies. Virginia’s defense did not give up big plays throughout the game that exposed an ineffective game plan. Virginia did not commit any turnovers for the second week in a row, though the ‘Hoos had some help from the officials keeping that streak alive. Virginia committed 5 penalties for a paltry 26 yards. Poorly prepared teams turn the ball over and commit stupid penalties. Virginia did none of those on Saturday. The defense was well prepared for the Indiana’s hurry-up offense and made plays early that showed they knew what they were doing against the fast-paced Hoosiers.

For three quarters, the Virginia defense was solid. They are not going to overwhelm anyone with their speed, but they were generally in position to make plays and made the most of the many bad positions into which they were thrust by the offense and special teams.

So where did Virginia go wrong? That would be the offense and special teams.

While special teams was a disaster for the second week in a row with the punt team matching the ineptitude of the field goal unit, the offense was not a disaster, they were just ineffective.

Virginia will not win more than 2 games this season if it cannot improve the field goal execution. No team can succeed if the maximum field goal range is inside the 10 yard line. This is embarrassing for a D1 program. Virginia has the worst kicking team I have ever seen at the college level.

I believe the offense was not bad much as it was just ineffective. Receivers were consistently open all day, and they dropped passes. One notable drop was an easy touchdown early that could could have changed the complexion of the entire game. Other times receivers were open and Kurt Benkert over threw them. In fact, Benkert over threw literally every pass beyond 15 yards notably missing a wide open Andre Levrone for a touchdown.

I blame the eclipse. It is unusual for both receivers and a quarterback to be that off at the same time. It is my feeling that such a condition was an outlier and will not happen again.

What was not an outlier was the poor play of the offensive line. I was concerned last week when Virginia could not manage 100 yards rushing against an enthusiastic but over matched William & Mary front 7. The Virginia line was exposed again with a meager 55 yards rushing against a solid, but not spectacular Indiana front line.

Jordan Ellis does not need much running room to be a very solid runner. However, he needs some room and for most of the day on Saturday he had none. The Virginia O-Line had was pushed around all day. I understand the new players on the line and learning new roles. It is time for the offensive line to step up and deliver.

Kurt Benkert attempted 66 passes Saturday on a day when he was not at his best. Not because that was the game plan, but because it was the only option given the running game was so hopelessly ineffective. Any game where Kurt Benkert throws over 60 times is going to be a Virginia loss. The Virginia O-line has to find itself or Wahoo fans are in for another long season.

The biggest exposure on defense was was that Virginia’s front 7 depth is shallow. That said, Virginia held Indiana 100+ yards under their total against Ohio St. The Virginia defense made some big plays Saturday, but the Virginia offense could not capitalize on presented opportunities. Juan Thornhill made a spectacular interception that gave Virginia the ball inside Indiana territory. Most teams turn this kind of play into points. Virginia went 3-and-out, and the defense was back on the field.

It was clear by the 4th quarter that the defense was gassed. They were consistently put in poor field position throughout the day. Several times they rose to the occasion in the first half and stopped the Indiana attack, but given enough chances over an entire game, even mediocre teams will find ways to score, which Indiana did.

The weather forecast is for another delightful day in Charlottesville next week I quit giving stock-buying advice a long time ago and I am not big on making predictions on college football games. However, I think Virginia’s performance this week against UConn matches the weather and Virginia comes away with a solid win.

When Virginia wins Saturday, they will be a crossroads. Heading off to play Boise St the following week, everyone expects a loss…everyone but me, but then again, I quit making predictions on college football a long time ago, for good reason.

The New Era of College Football: The Haves Trump The Have-Nots

The evolution of college football has created a new reality. Thanks to the college football arms race in facilities, fan support, and money as well as the nascent playoff system, there are two types of college football programs:

  1. Those that have a chance to win a national championship
  2. Those that have no chance to win a national championship

There is no migration between the types of programs. You either have a chance to win it all or you don’t. The rich teams get richer, everyone else treads water or drowns.

While there are two types of college football programs, there are three types of college football fans:

  1. Those fans who correctly recognize that their teams have a chance win a national championship
  2. Those fans who correctly realize their teams have no chance to win a national    championship
  3. Those fans who incorrectly believe their team has a chance to win the national championship, when in reality, they have no chance.

No convinced? Take a look at the following videos:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NVC3UziHeGk and this https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZU4NXtu2T5E.

These are, theoretically, facilities for college students. But we all know what these really are. Recruiting tools to draw top athletes to Texas and Texas A&M. These are “in-kind” payments to players who are ostensibly amateur athletes.

I have no doubt that the other programs with a chance to win a national championship have (or will soon have) facilities on par if not better than these. We all know the names of these programs – Alabama, LSU, Georgia, Auburn, Florida, Ohio St, Michigan, Clemson, Florida State, & Oklahoma. You could probably add Oregon, Tennessee, Notre Dame and a small handful of other programs to this list, but that’s it. No other programs have a chance.

It is not shocking for fans of programs like Virginia, Wake Forest, Duke, Boston College, Vandy, Kansas, and Northwestern that they have zero chance to win a national championship…ever. I think the fans of these programs understand that they will never have facilities like Texas or Texas A&M. They will never compromise their integrity to the extent that the contending programs must to get the numbers of top players needed to compete for a national championship. Fans from these programs and many more like them realize their role in the world of college football. They are fodder for the teams with a chance to win it all. They can have successful seasons and win bowl games, but they will never hoist the national championship trophy. Maybe that’s okay. The point of college, after all, is to educate young minds, not win national championships. College athletics is supposed to be entertaining, so if you recognize your place and revel in reaching the heights of success within the boundaries of your possibilities, college football is a great deal of fun.

What might be shocking to the vast majority of the fans of programs not listed above, is that their teams also have no chance to win a national championship. None, zero, zilch, nada… they just don’t realize it. Many programs fit this description…we can all name these programs with perpetually frustrated fans who mistakenly think they are on the cusp of breaking into the top tier of college programs – Virginia Tech, NC State, UNC, West Virginia, Michigan State, South Carolina, TCU, Baylor, Arizona, Missouri, Maryland, Iowa, Kansas St, and Arkansas among many others, have no chance to win a national championship. Unfortunately, their fans think they do.

Think about how excited fans of these programs are when they land a big-time recruit. A 5-star or high 4-star kid who is a “can’t miss” prospect. There are high-fives all around and dreams of winning the college football playoff. The sad reality is, the teams that have a real chance to win it all, get at least a half a dozen of these players – every year. Not one per year or every other year like the wannabe programs. So the teams with a real chance to win it all have 30 or more can’t-miss players on their teams. The wannabe teams might have 5.

None of this is lost on the best coaches in the industry either. Do you think Nick Saban is going to leave Alabama to coach Northwestern anytime soon? Urban Meyer going to Wake Forest? Which programs have huge donor bases that make space-age locker rooms possible? (hint: it’s not Duke and it’s not Virginia…nor NC State or West Virginia) The best coaches go to the programs with the biggest donor bases that pay the biggest salaries & fund the best facilities, which draw the best talent…and so the cycles continues.

Like gambling in Vegas, the college football game is rigged. Over the course of any season, there will be exciting times when wannabe teams beat the odds and score big upsets. But over the course of a full season (including the playoffs), a single wannabe program cannot beat the system. There are too many 30+ mega-recruit teams out there, getting better every day and one of those teams will win the national championship every time. It’s why house wins over time in Vegas. The swanky trappings of the Bellagio are not there because gamblers go home winners. The odds favor the house, so it always wins. The system favors the top programs, so they will always win.

As we begin the 2017 college football season, we could create a list of 18-20 programs with a chance to win it all. It would be the same list from 2016. The participants in the football championship will be from that list – with no chance for an upstart to crash the party. It’s like the list to get into the VIP section of a popular night club. Not on the list? Not getting in.

The downside of this could be that as more college football fans realize the game is rigged against them, fans will lose interest and the game’s popularity could begin to fade. Then again, Las Vegas doesn’t seem to be losing its steam and state lotteries continue to be wildly popular. Maybe the fans of the wannabe programs understand their fate better than they let on. Maybe they are like the lottery players, thinking that someone is going to win this jackpot, if I buy a ticket it might be me, so every season, misplaced hope springs eternal. Unfortunately, the odds of winning the Powerball are better than their team winning the national championship.

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