There are only so many ways to write this tale of woe. Different opponent, same result. Facing its third quality opponent of the month, the University of Virginia football team absolutely embarrassed itself on Friday night. The Cavaliers’ 56-14 loss to Boise State in front of a national television audience was not the worst loss Virginia has endured under London’s leadership but it sure felt like it. It was a debacle of the sort that coaches don’t survive and I think that last weekend’s result included the knockout punch that will put an end to Mike London’s coaching career at Virginia.
Against Boise State the pressure of a completely ridiculous and fantastically overzealous schedule finally broke the Cavaliers. In a game that Virginia absolutely had to have, the Wahoos stopped being competitive at the conclusion of the national anthem. After fourteen seconds, Virginia was down 7-0. Boise State scored 10 more points in its first two possessions and led 17-0 before most fans had finished their hot dog. Virginia’s first three possessions produced 2 interceptions and a three-and-out. Virginia, with a roster full of London recruits, the same recruits whose hype had likely saved his job previously, were completely, totally, and utterly non-competitive.
By every metric which can be used to assess a team’s performance Boise State destroyed Virginia. Virginia was outplayed, outcoached, outhustled, outmuscled, outthought…outeverything. Thomas Jones is one of Virginia’s most storied players. He is Virginia’s all time rushing leader. He was the seventh overall pick in the 2000 NFL draft. He had a twelve-year NFL career. Like most Virginia fans, he tuned in to watch the nationally televised game. As the horror unfolded, his pregame Twitter excitement turned to frustration and then embarrassment.
Virginia fans are fed up–and have been for some time now–by the sorry state of the football program and last weekend’s result has them demanding that someone answer for it. Head coach Mike London is the obvious choice, but there is talk that Executive Associate Athletic Director Jon Oliver’s overzealous scheduling and micromanagement has put London in an untenable position. There was a time when fans accepted the notion that Virginia’s academic standards made fielding a top-25 football team a difficult proposition. Those same fans now point to Duke’s football resurrection and shout, loudly, “See? If Duke can do it, why can’t we?” Northwestern University, another academic stalwart and the not-proud owners of college football’s longest losing streak (34 games from 1979-1982) currently is 16th in the latest AP Top 25 football poll. Notre Dame, Michigan, Stanford all are academically rigorous and have historically successful programs. Even Virginia has done it before, rising from complete irrelevance to national power under George Welsh in the 1980s-90s. Virginia has everything that it needs to be successful except an exceptional coach.
London’s abysmal coaching record has been at least partially offset–in some people’s minds at least–by his recruiting successes and his good character. However the highly touted recruits aren’t developing under London’s tutelage and fans aren’t coming to the stadium to see the head coach showcase his good character. Virginia fans want a coach who has good character, wins the recruiting battles AND wins games. Winning sells tickets. Winning makes donors generous. Winning makes everybody happy.
Individually, these Cavaliers have talent. Many of them were heralded recruits whose commitment to Virginia was viewed as confirmation of the program’s resurgence. Collectively however, these Cavaliers are ineffectual. Virginia’s offensive line has plenty of game experience. It was expected to be an area of strength this year. It’s not. The line play has been terrible. Someone–perhaps a Virginia fan–once said that all runners look the same when there is no hole. Virginia’s tailbacks have nowhere to run and the quarterback has no time to throw. It wasn’t that long ago that Virginia regularly was sending lineman to the NFL as high draft picks. Not anymore. Is that a talent or a coaching issue? Where does the fault lie for this ineptitude?
One need look no further than Athens, Georgia for the answer. Virginia transfer Greyson Lambert is thriving as Georgia’s quarterback after struggling last year as UVA’s signal caller. Working behind a superior offensive line, Lambert two weekends ago set an NCAA efficiency record when he completed 24 or his 25 passes for 330 yards and 3 touchdowns. On a better team, Lambert is living up to the hype that never was evident during his time in Charlottesville. Given this, do you think that Andrew Brown and Taquan Mizzell wish they had signed with another school? Lambert looks like a champ at Georgia. London sold recruits on the promise of early playing time and parents on hands-on mentorship. These recruiting wins in turn fostered the belief that Virginia was turning things around. It’s not happening for the team or the players. Rushing 7 times for two yards won’t get Mizzell drafted but completing 24 of 25 passes for 330 yards and 3 touchdowns will do that for Lambert. A team with no coaching won’t win any more games than a team with no talent will.
And let’s be clear. It is the coaching. The mental mistakes that Virginia regularly commits game after game reflect a lack of mental discipline, a lack of focus, a lack of preparation. At this point Virginia’s players are so desperate to make a play, to cause a turnover, to do anything to jumpstart Virginia’s nonexistent momentum that they are taking reckless chances. Their overpursuit leaves them vulnerable to the cutback, their desire to strip the ball causes them to miss tackles. Virginia’s defense is among the worst in the country.
The players and coaches admit that last weekend’s loss is unacceptable. They said the same thing about Virginia’s close win against lower-division William and Mary two weekends ago. They lamented not being able to finish against Notre Dame, when finishing–plays, drives, games–is the team’s stated mission this year. They say that, with the entire ACC schedule ahead of them, the goals of an ACC championship and a bowl berth are still in front of them. The facts belie this, however. Virginia has not won an ACC road game since 2012. London’s overall ACC record in five seasons is 8-24. He has never beaten primary rivals Virginia Tech and North Carolina. I think it would be impossible for Mike London’s ice to be any thinner or his seat to be any hotter. Barring a miraculous turnaround, I don’t see how the psychological damage can be repaired by anything other than a fresh start.