Close, but not close enough. These were the words echoed by Virginia's Mike London following a 30-24 home loss to Southern Miss on a dreary evening in Scott Stadium. London summarized a disappointing Saturday perfectly in his post-game presser, stating "In order to change the perception of this program and this team...we need to come out and win games like that." Too many mistakes, however, cost the Cavaliers dearly on Saturday - with Kris Burd's drop on a fourth-and-4 sealing Virginia's fate. For a young team still finding their way under a new coaching staff, this 2011 Virginia football team has a razor-thin margin for error. Interceptions, missed tackles, special team gaffes and dropped balls will result in a loss every time. If there is a positive to take away from Saturday's losing result, it has to be the effort the Cavaliers gave down 11 points late into the game. Despite all of the errors that had been made, Virginia still found themselves in a position to win at the end of the game. As Coach London said, however, winning is the only thing that will change the perception of this Virginia program. The Cavaliers were unable to take that next step on Saturday.
With a narrow 3 point lead and only 3 minutes left on the clock, Southern Miss faced a third-and-23 from it's own 41 yard line. Virginia's defense was solid in the second half and the 43,000 Wahoo fans were making their presence known - momentum was clearly on the Cavaliers side. An innocent screen pass to the opposite side of the field later, and Southern Miss had gained an unbelievable 41 yards - breaking the backs of the Cavalier defense and shocking the crowd. The linebackers were out of position, the defense line had caved and Virginia's defensive backs whiffed on their tackle attempts. While it was a brilliant call on behalf of the Southern Miss offensive coordinator, it's simply unforgivable for a defense to give up first down yardage on a third-and-twenty-something, much less 41 yards. I hate to say it, but that one play is just classic Virginia for fans suffering through a rough last decade of Cavalier football. For Virginia football to be playing in the post-season, these are the types of game changing plays that need to be made. Equally as frustrating is that this same Cavalier defense gave up a similar play last year - leading to a loss at the hands of Duke. Live and learn, as they say. At the moment, however, it seems that this Virginia defense is taking steps in the wrong direction.
Not So Special Teams
Virginia's bizarre decision to line up and then actually attempt a fake field goal following it's first score was perhaps ominous for the special team's mistakes that would ensue for the Cavaliers. Taking it from the top, senior - and usually reliable - punter Jimmy Howell had a very disappointing day for the Cavaliers. Howell averaged only 4o yards and failed to down a punt inside of the 20 for Virginia. Southern Miss' punter, however, averaged 5o yards / punt with 2 being downed inside the 20 (one - questionably, I might add - downed at Virginia's 1 yard line). As a result, Virginia lost the field position battle badly on Saturday. Speaking of the Golden Eagles' punter, no play was as huge as the successfully converted fake punt early to start the second quarter from Virginia's 8 on a fourth-and-15. With Virginia leading 13-7 and going all in for the return, Southern Miss appeared to be the same rugby style punt that Cavaliers had already seen from them in the 1st quarter. What happened next dramatically changed the complexion of the game. Instead of receiving the ball with great field position and the offense hot coming off of two straight scores, Virginia simply handed the Golden Eagles a free series - which they converted with a touchdown to take the lead and, more importantly, the momentum. Again, credit to Southern Miss for taking an unbelievable risk and making a great play. But for the Cavaliers, these types of gaffes are simply unacceptable. With the lead, momentum and guaranteed solid field position, Coach Poindexter has to have a better feel of when to go 'all in'. He went bankrupt on Saturday.
4 games, 7 interceptions. While Mike Rocco has shown he can move the Virginia offense, his inability to get the ball into the end zone - just 1 passing TD on the season - and propensity to throw the ball to the other team is absolutely killing the Cavaliers. You have to ask, when is enough, enough? For an armchair quarterback, David Watford further muddied the the situation with his steady play down the stretch. For a true freshman, Watford showed great poise leading the Cavaliers on a 10 play, 76 yard drive - capping it off with a tremendously athletic play in which he escaped the pocket and found Kris Burd for the successful 2-point conversion. His athletic ability alone brings another dimension to a Cavalier offense struggling to find it's identity through 4 games. Watford showed he can move the Virginia offense, pick up substantial yardage with his feet and get the ball into the end zone on Saturday. While Coach London was adamant that Mike Rocco is and will remain Virginia's 'guy' at quarterback, it will be interesting to see if Watford's reps increase this weekend when the Cavaliers take on Idaho - especially if there really is an injury situation at hand with Rocco. For a team that has mismanaged the quarterback position for the last 10 years, this is a situation that Virginia fans will be anxiously watching. For the team's sake, the coaches need to pick a guy and stick with them. Quarterbacks play on feel, and dividing up series between two very young guys is only hurting the rhythm and flow of the Cavalier offense at this point in the season.
Back to Fundamentals
[caption id="attachment_274" align="alignright" width="300" caption="Defensive breakdowns by Coach Reid's guys, especially on third downs, have hurt the Cavaliers. Photo / Virginia Media Relations / Matt Riley"][/caption]
The most troubling part of Saturday's loss is that several of the costly mistakes made by the Cavaliers were the same ones that kept Coach London from post-season play last year. Now 4 games into London's second year, it appears that the Cavaliers are regressing to the bad habits of a season ago. Poor tackling, constant turnovers, atrocious safety play and special teams miscues cost Virginia a golden opportunity to get one step closer to a bowl game this year. While I'm sure the coaches hammer on these issues day in an day out, something has to give here. I'd like to see the Cavaliers give Idaho a heavy dose of Perry Jones, Kevin Parks and Clifton Richardson next week. You can't throw interceptions if you keep the ball on the ground. And far too often Virginia quarterbacks are throwing the ball 15 yards to one side of the field only to gain 4 yards on the play. There is just too much down side to these plays. Throw the ball down the field where Virginia's receivers can make a play on the football. On the defensive side of the football, the Cavalier fan base is going to have to remain patient as the defensive coaches are still missing a ton of pieces to have consistent success in the new 4-3 scheme. One thing that can be improved, however, is third down efficiency. The Virginia defense simply needs to be play smarter football on these critical downs. And then there's special teams. For a team with such a thin margin for error, UVA cannot afford mistakes in this phase in the game. If that means absolutely vanilla special teams play, so be it. Focus on getting yards the old fashioned way - by efficient blocking on kick and punt returns. Virginia is still a program early in a rebuilding process and mistakes are expected. For Virginia coaches, this means putting their guys in the best position to win by helping to limit the opportunity for mistakes - playing it safe on special teams, establishing the run and prioritizing field position. Sure, chances need to be taken. Might I suggest taking a chance at a passing play over 15 yards instead of going for 2 following a touchdown.
Odds and Ins
Patience. For a fan base that is desperate to have a consistent winner in Charlottesville, Saturday was certainly a let down - and a major wake up call. This is still an extremely young team that is devoid of talent at key positions. While UVA is making progress, there is still a way's to go. Let's not kid ourselves, getting to 6 wins this year was no easy task before the season started and getting to a bowl is certainly not looking any easier through the first 4 games of the season. While the Cavaliers missed a great opportunity to steal a win on Saturday, remember that they were only a 1.5 point favorite at home. Also note that Southern Miss has had 17 straight winning seasons. There are still 8 games left for Virginia to write it's story for the 2011 football season.
Fans. Speaking of patience, the 43,000 reported attendance at Saturday's game was very disappointing. While weather may have played a small factor, Virginia fans need to come out and support their team. Winning will certainly bring the fans, but Virginia should have more folks in the seats for the season's second home game. And for the fans that were there, leaving with the Cavaliers down 11 mid-way through the fourth quarter is just unacceptable. If we've learned anything about this team through the first third of the season, it's that they never quit. So don't quit on them.
Team Entrance. Once again, it was botched. This has been a major blunder for the last year and absolutely needs to be corrected. It's killing me.Back to the Virginia Cavaliers Newsfeed