Coming off a 4-8 season and only in year two of Coach Mike London’s rebuilding project, many outside observers left the Virginia Cavalier football team for dead at the onset of the 2011 season. The Cavaliers, picked to finish 5th in the Coastal Division during the ACC’s preseason media day, far exceeded all expectations – finishing the year at 8-4 (2ndin the Coastal) andcurrently awaiting a bowl selection with Nashville or Charlotte the 2 most likely destinations. Of course, a 38-0 home-drubbing by hated in-state rival Virginia Tech was not exactly the cherry on top that many Wahoos were hoping for heading into the Cavaliers final regular season game. That bitterly disappointing ending to the season aside, Virginia far exceeded expectations in Charlottesville this season and the future looks bright for the Cavaliers under Mike London, who – by the way – was named the ACC’s 2011Coach of the Year. For the first time since the conclusion of the 2007, the Wahoosare bowl-bound– giving the football team an extra month of invaluable practice time as well as giving Coach London additional momentum on the recruiting trail. Let’s take a look at how the Cavaliers got there….
Virginia started the season in style, pasting William & Mary 40-3 and leaving fans excitedly curious about the way this team could play. The Cavaliers got off to an extremely hot start the following week in Bloomington, leading the Indiana Hoosiers 23-3 late in the 3rd quarter and seemed primed for another big win. Perhaps these guys were going to be better than we all thought! Things began to unravel rather quickly from there, however, and the Cavaliers found themselves tied at 31 with less than 2 minutes play. On a third-and-2 from their own 23, defensive end Cam Johnson made one of the year’s top plays when he sacked and stripped Indiana quarterback Edward Wright-Baker to set the Cavalier’s up for a game-winning field goal by Robert Randolph. It was then that Virginia fans should have realized that the Cavaliers might just have a little magic up their sleeves for the 2011 season.
The Bad…With a Ray of Hope
The Cavaliers took to the road again the following week, travelling to Chapel Hill to face Butch-less Tar Heel team in an early-season ACC contest. UNC got off to a fast start andVirginia, behind a controversial rotation of quarterbacks Mike Rocco and David Watford, never could get anything going on the offensive side of the football. While many had chalked this up as a loss for Virginia before the season began, it was certainly disappointing to take an early-season Coastal Division hit. All was not lost, however, as Virginia had a 4-game home-stretch coming up and – on paper at least – the Cavaliers had a chance to win every one but the Georgia Tech game. Those hopes were dashed early, however, as Virginia fell in a back and forth game to Southern Miss 24-30 to kick off what was supposed to be a winning home-stretch – leaving many Virginia fans feeling that the Cavaliers were poised to live-up to the lowly preseason expectations [at the time we didn’thave the foresight to know that Southern Miss would spend a majority of the season ranked andwin their conference division]. Just when fans were feeling down, the Idaho game happened. You know, the one that the Cavaliers barely pulled out by the slimmest of margins (1 point, to be exact) in OT to a team that has no business playing with Virginia, especially within the confines of Scott Stadium. To make matters worse, the quarterback carousel had generated a genuine quarterback controversy amongst Virginia fans and attentive media. Despite the OT win, it appeared the Cavaliers were headed in the very wrong direction – in fact, several message board goers wondered if Virginia would win another game. Well, one apparently cannot underestimate the healing powers of a bye week. With the second week of October off, Coach London and the Virginia staff would need to work miracles if the Cavaliers were to put up a fight against the 12th-ranked Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets. Virginia came out and played a nearly flawless defensive game, beating former head coach Al Groh at his own game of chess while holding the potent Yellow Jacket offensive attack to under 300 total years. Coach London had given the Cavalier fan base the biggest win since Virginia had defeated the 4th-ranked Seminoles in the 2005 season. Seeing the sea of orange flow onto the field in Scott Stadium was a defining moment for the 2011 Virginia Cavaliers. Sitting at 4-2 and facing 2 more home games, hope was restored in Charlottesville.
The game giveth, and the game taketh away. The Cavaliers came back to earth faster than a falling meteor the following Saturday, dropping a game to a depleted NC State squad in an absolute stinker of a performance by the Cavalier offense. The quarterback controversy had come to a head and, after a combined 249 total yard, 3 interception performance between Mike Rocco and David Watford, something had to give. More concerning for Virginia fans was the fact that the Cavaliers schedule was not set to get any easier with road tests at Miami, Maryland and Florida State looming. At this point, the chance to end Virginia’s post-season disappearing act seemed rather bleak. Most attributed the Georgia Tech victory to the extra week of preparation and began to settle on the realization that the Cavaliers were just a mediocre football team.
Heading into a prime-time Thursday night match-up with Miami on ESPN, the Cavalier football team sat on a 4-3 (1-2 ACC) record and many fans – this one included – feared for the worst. A drubbing at the hands of a hot Miami football team in front of a large national audience was not at all what the program needed. If there was any silver lining to previous NC State loss, it was that the Virginia coaching staff had finally decided to scrap the two-quarterback system and ride Mike Rocco. And boy did he ever deliver in Coral Cables. Rocco passed for 226 and 2 touchdowns, leading the Cavaliers to a 28-21 victory in a game that was never in any real doubt for Virginia. With 4 games remaining, the Cavaliers were sitting at 5 wins…needing just one more victory to achieve bowl eligibility. So you’re saying there’s a chance? Heading into College Park the following week, many fans were still hesitant to completely buy-in to the Virginia football team. And with their constant Jekyll-and-Hyde act, who could blame them? I, for one, had no idea at this point how to guess the results of each game. Well, lucky for us, Maryland sucks. The Cavaliers came out and laid the wood to the ‘Terps, racking up 527 yards of offense in a 31-13 victory that felt much closer than it really was (likely due to the inherent doom and gloom nature of a life-long Virginia fan). Just like that, the Cavaliers were looking at a bowl berth for the first time in 4 years. It couldn’t have come at better time either, as the Cavaliers faced a Duke squad who had their number 3 years running, a Seminole team that was undefeated at home against the Cavaliers, and a Hokie team riding a 7 year winning streak over Virginia. At 6 wins 9 games into the season, anything more should have been gravy. But where’s the fun in that?
Duke came into Charlottesville with a chip on their shoulder, but an otherwise pedestrian football team at 3-6 and little hope to achieve post-season play. Still, the Blue Devils were riding a 3-game winning streak over the Cavaliers. This game was about redemption. In what was one of the more ‘chippy’ games Scott Stadium had seen in years, Virginia was able to outlast the Blue Devils 31-21. In two consecutive weeks, Virginia was able to exercise two huge demons in getting back to post-season play and shaking the embarrassing monkey that was a 3-game losing streak to Duke (in football) off their backs. Next up: Florida State. Riding an improbable 3-game winning streak and the stellar play of quarterback Mike Rocco, the Cavaliers now faced another ‘streak’ – Virginia had never won inside the confines of Doak Campbell stadium, going ‘0-fer’ in their previous 8 attempts. With the Seminoles riding a 5 game winning streak and Vegas setting the early line at 2 touchdowns, this one had all the makings of a disaster for the Cavaliers. Surely there was no more magic left in Coach London’s Cavaliers. Surely Virginia couldn’t go into Doak Campbell in front of another national Saturday night audience and achieve their 8th win of the season, setting up a Coastal Division showdown with Virginia Tech the following week to determine who would go to the ACC Championship in Charlotte. That’s what most everyone thought at least. One masterful late game drive by Mike Rocco and an-ever-so-wide-right Seminole field goal attempt later (I’d rather not get into the last minute referee shenanigans that gave FSU every last chance to win), the Cavaliers escaped from Tallahassee with a 14-13 victory over the 23rd Seminoles in a game that will go down as one of the Cavaliers greatest victories. Just like that, a down-trodden, left-for-dead football team just 6 weeks earlier was set to face their arch-rival with a championship berth on the line.
Remember that thing I wrote earlier, you know, the thing about this team being the biggest Jekyll and Hyde act in all of football? Well they sure as hell pick the most inconvenient of times to let Hyde out of the cage. In the prior 3 weeks, the Cavaliers had shaken nearly every negative monkey off the back of the Virginia football program. Haven’t been to a bowl since 2007? Check. Haven’t beaten Duke since 2007? Check. Never won in the state of Florida? Check. Check. Indeed, it seemed that the Cavaliers were finally due to beat a Virginia Tech team that had taken 7 straight from UVA and earn their first-ever berth in the ACC Championship game in the process. And why not? Nobody had expected the Cavaliers to get this far…at least not this quickly in only the 2nd year of London’s tenure. The Cavaliers had beaten the then 12thranked Yellow Jackets and then reeled off 4 straight late season victories – including 2 on the road at Miami and at FSU (becoming the first-ever team to beat both schools on the road in the same year). It almost seemed like….destiny. Charlottesville was buzzing, the players were ready, and the media was confident not only in Virginia’s ability to meet the 5th-ranked Hokies head on, but to emerge victorious (hell, even David Teel picked the Cavsto win). Unfortunately, people seemed to forget that Virginia Tech entered the game with 6 straight 10-win seasons and was riding a winning streak of their own that saw quarterback Logan Thomas mature into one of the ACC’s best quarterbacks. Oh, and they boasted a top 20 defense as well. And then 38-0 happened. There’s no real point in hashing out how it happened. Should Virginia everlose at home to its arch-enemy by a score of 38-0 with everything to play for on the line? – Absolutely not. That being said, Virginia Tech is simply a better football program than Virginia right now. Besides, everyone knows Beamer made a deal with the devil many moons ago. And that’s all I have to say about that. The Cavaliers vastly over-achieved my wildest expectations for the 2011 football season. Virginia won 4 games last year; this year they are sitting at 8 with the chance to get win number 9 in the upcoming bowl game for only the 6th time in Virginia’s history. Virginia had the 78th ranked total defense last year; this year they finished with the nation’s 30 ranked squad. Virginia went 4-1 on the road this season, the best such record since the 1999 season. I could go on and on, but the bottom line is that Coach London has this program on the right trajectory. Are there still problems to solve? – Absolutely. We still need to learn how to field punts, how to defend the long pass and (for God’s sake) how to play a competitive game against Virginia Tech. With the improvement seen across the board this year (not to mention the player development – 8 Cavaliers made the All-ACC teams, the most since 2004), there’s no reason to believe that Virginia simply caught a flash in the pan this season. More importantly, the stark difference in the way this program is run off the field (be it on the recruiting trail, in the classroom or in the community) should leave Cavalier fans with both their heads and hopes high following a fantastic season that showed the promise of what this program can achieve under Mike London.
Quips and Quibbles
- Prior to the bowl game, can we please figure out how / when to field a punt?
- Shame Beamer is perhaps the biggest jackass I’ve ever seen on college football sideline. Waving to Virginia fans as they leave the stadium early…seriously? You’re going to get what’s coming to you, pal.
- According to both 247Sports and Rivals, Virginia has landed the #1 player in the state of Virginia for the 2012 recruiting class in Virginia Beach’s (Ocean Lake HS) Eli Harold. Speaking of recruiting, the Cavaliers currently have a top 20 class according to both previously mentioned services as well.
- So it looks like the Cavaliers are heading to either Nashville or Charlotte? Not bad…not bad at all. See you there!
- Who will lead the Nittany Lions into Charlottesville next year? I know I’m glad I bleed orange and blue instead of white and blue.
- ESPN’s new love-affair with Coach London should only serve to help the Cavaliers on the recruiting trail, especially considering Virginia will likely get some more favorable time slots with their excellent prime-time showings this year at Miami and FSU.
- I motioned earlier that 8 Cavaliers made All-ACC teams while Coach London received ACC Coach of the Year honors. How many of you saw that coming?
- Virginia’s 8-4 regular season ties the Cavaliers eighth-best win total with Coach London engineering the nation’s 5th best turnaround after only netting 4 victories last season. Even more impressive, Virginia went from 1-7 in the conference last year to 5-3 this year. What a great season.
- I know people still have their doubts, but Mike Rocco proved to this writer that he is the guy for Virginia at quarterback. And we return all three running backs next year. Giddy up.
- 38-0….Remember that (I know, how the hell can you forget?). Redemption will be so sweet. And if it makes you feel any better, we apparently beat Tech 38-0 way back in 1991 and they seem to have recovered okay.
- I’ve got another game circled on next year’s calendar…the wife is a Wake Forest alum. We have to win that one…