North Carolina 28, Virginia 17: Three up, three down

It’s not often a team accumulates 468 total yards in a game and comes away with questions about its offensive efficiency.

But that’s exactly the situation in which the Virginia football team finds itself today after Saturday night’s 28-17 loss at North Carolina.

The Cavaliers tallied 23 first downs. Sophomore quarterback Michael Rocco threw for 287 yards and completed 59 percent of his passes. Virginia recorded 170 rushing yards against a defense that entered the game as the No. 3 run defense in the nation. All of that was encouraging.

And yet, Virginia entered into the red zone once Saturday. The Cavaliers’ drives stalled at the most inopportune moments, and the consequence was that they did not score a touchdown until the third quarter was well under way. And by that point, Virginia trailed by 18.

Afterward, Offensive Coordinator Bill Lazor wondered aloud whether he was calling enough “big plays.” It’s a worthwhile thought. But calling such plays and having them pan out are two entirely separate issues.

“Over the long haul, what we want to be is an offense that can throw the ball all over the field,” Lazor said. “We don’t want to be a team that just throws it short all the time. … When you’re starting with young guys, it doesn’t always look that way at first, but that’s where we’re headed. I think at times it showed up (Saturday), but certainly big plays in a game are critical. We have to find a way to get more.”

Three Up:

1) Rushing offense. North Carolina’s defense allowed its first two opponents an average of 30 rushing yards per game. On Saturday, Virginia had 40 rushing yards at the conclusion of its second offensive series. Redshirt freshman tailback Kevin Parks led the way with 98 yards on 14 carries. Junior Perry Jones (eight carries for 39 yards) and true freshman Clifton Richardson (seven carries for 26 yards) chipped in, as well.

2) Kris Burd and Matt Snyder. The two senior wideouts combined for 12 catches and 182 receiving yards. Burd, who had gotten off to a slow start in the first two games, especially came alive in the fourth quarter, as the Cavaliers were attempting to make a comeback. With his performance Saturday, Burd now ranks No. 11 on the program’s all-time receiving yards list with 1,439 and No. 10 in career receptions at U-Va. with 109.

3) Offensive line. North Carolina’s defensive front seven had tallied nine sacks in the Tar Heels’ first two game. But on Saturday, Virginia’s offensive line protected Rocco well and limited North Carolina to one sack. While zero is the ideal number when it comes to giving up sacks, one isn’t bad at all against the Tar Heels.

Three Down:

1) Missed opportunities. Four of Virginia’s first five offensive series Saturday ended in North Carolina territory. Here is how those four drives concluded: Missed field goal, made field goal, turnovers on downs, fumble. Yikes. Robert Randolph sails a 45-yard attempt wide right? Okay, it’s going to happen. It was unlikely he was going to make it through the entire season without missing a single field goal. But the Cavaliers possessed the ball for nearly 12 minutes in the first quarter. They ran 41 plays in the first half. And what did they have to show for it? Three points. I’m not sure if more big plays is the answer, but something has to change either in the play calling or the execution when Virginia moves into an opposing team’s territory. North Carolina’s defense got stingy when it needed to, but it wasn’t playing that well.

2) Missed tackles. It seems like this point has a permanent place in Three Down. The Cavaliers struggled to stop the run on Saturday in many instances due to poor tackling. Defensive Coordinator Jim Reid acknowledged as much afterward. North Carolina recorded 222 rushing yards on the day, which allowed the Tar Heels to set up play-action passes that tortured Virginia’s secondary. Were the Cavaliers’ defensive backs caught out of position or undisciplined or merely showing their collective youth on the plays in which North Carolina burned them through the air? That’s a debate for another day. But as Mike London noted, the Tar Heels aren’t the last team Virginia will face this season that will try to run play-action passes against the Cavaliers, so they’d better figure out a solution soon.

3) Return game. True freshman wideout Dominique Terrell has the speed, athleticism and skill to one day be a fine punt returner. But that day has not been any of the past three Saturdays and may not come for at least a few more Saturdays this fall. He returned two punts for no gain. On both of those occasions, Terrell would have been better off signaling for a fair catch. Instead, he was crushed nearly immediately by North Carolina’s punt coverage unit. On several other occasions, Terrell would have been served the Cavaliers by calling for a fair catch and then catching the ball, rather than simply alerting his teammates to stay away from it as it bounced deeper into Virginia territory. Easier said than done, I’m sure. And no doubt Terrell will improve with more experience.

Virginia did not fare much better on kick returns. True freshman Darius Jennings returned one for 15 yards. Redshirt freshman Khalek Shepherd returned one for 11 yards. Redshirt freshman E.J. Scott did make a 29-yard return, and that might have been the extent of the special teams highlights on the day. The Cavaliers’ average starting field goal position Saturday: their own 24-yard line. Not awful, but not ideal either.

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