In the moment, Virginia’s 24-21 win Saturday over No. 12 Georgia Tech was big. It was important as a confidence boost for a team that needed one. It was important for a fan base that needed a new dose of optimism. It was important for a coach that, for perhaps the first time this season, did not have to answer a single question in his postgame press conference regarding the Cavaliers’ quarterback situation.
But viewed from a wide-angle lens, Saturday’s victory doesn’t mean a whole lot … yet. Last season, Virginia defeated then-No. 22 Miami, 24-19, in Charlottesville to earn its fourth win of the season. The Cavaliers lost their remaining four games and finished the season 4-8.
The challenge, then, for Coach Mike London and his staff will be to get the players to replicate the preparation and execution they carried out against Georgia Tech the rest of the way. The Cavaliers won’t have two weeks to get ready for any more of their opponents. They’ll need to demonstrate a higher degree of focus in shorter spans.
Can Virginia do it? Can the Cavaliers reach the coveted six-win mark and become bowl eligible? The prospects certainly seem brighter now than they did, say, 24 hours ago.
“Hopefully that’s kind of the tipping point of: ‘Let’s do it again. Let’s prepare again. Let’s execute again,’” London said.
1) The scout team. Here’s what defensive coordinator Jim Reid said at the start of a telephone interview late Saturday night: “The scout team probably won us that game.” Reid said the scout team – conducted at quarterback by the team’s holder, Jacob Hodges – ran “80-plus” plays on Thursday, which typically is a day when the Cavaliers begin to decelerate the intensity of practices in advance of game day. Hodges, who quarterbacked a wishbone offense exclusively during his junior year of high school, was able to replicate the timing and footwork of Georgia Tech’s triple-option pitches and dives. And Reid said redshirt freshman quarterback Michael Strauss prepared the defense for Georgia Tech’s play-action passing game. “What it did was it allowed us to see our assignments and to do them in a consistent manner,” Reid said. “We got a lot of reps at it.”
2) The defense. Virginia held Georgia Tech to a season-low 296 total yards. The Yellow Jackets had been averaging more than 500 yards of total offense per game entering Saturday. Georgia Tech had led the nation in third-down conversion percentage (62.2 percent), but the Cavaliers allowed the Yellow Jackets to convert on 6 of 14 (42.9 percent) third downs Saturday. Reid prefers that his defense hold opponents to 35 percent or less on third down conversion opportunities, but in this case, I’m guessing he’ll make an exception. Same for Virginia allowing 272 rushing yards. Usually, that’s not a good night. Against Georgia Tech, that’s a good night.
3) Hot offensive start. Virginia has outscored opponents, 47-7, in the first quarters of games this season. For the third game in a row, Virginia scored touchdowns on two of its first three possessions. Sophomore quarterback Michael Rocco completed 6 of 8 passes for 95 yards. Junior tailback Perry Jones rushed for 39 yards on five carries. Everything was going smoothly for the Virginia offense. Entering the game, Georgia Tech had outscored its opponents, 87-17, in the first quarters of games this season. The Cavaliers led, 14-0, at the start of the second half Saturday.
1) Cold offensive end. The Cavaliers have been outscored, 126-113, in the final three quarters of games this season. Virginia has scored 11 points combined in the second halves of the past three games, though it should be noted the Cavaliers did score seven points in the overtime period against Idaho two weeks ago. On Saturday, Virginia gained 135 total yards in the second half after recording 272 in the first. The Cavaliers began the second half with Rocco at quarterback, then went to true freshman quarterback David Watford and then went back to Rocco for the final two possessions of the game.
2) Fourth-down defense. I acknowledge in advance that this is being a bit picky. Georgia Tech’s run game is very good. But still … when you have three opportunities to stop a team on fourth down on a single drive, you should be able to get one of those stops. During the Yellow Jackets’ 19-play, 85-yard drive to start the second half – one that began with what would have been an 85-yard touchdown run were it not for a block in the back penalty on Georgia Tech – Virginia failed to get the job done twice on fourth and one and once on fourth and five. And that fourth and five would have been a fourth and 10 were it not for an offsides penalty on senior defensive tackle Nick Jenkins. Georgia Tech cut Virginia’s lead to three when it scored a touchdown to cap that possession.
3) Field goal unit. Again, we’re being picky here, but senior placekicker Robert Randolph missed a 32-yard field goal wide right on the first play of the second quarter. To be fair to Randolph, the ball was tipped at the line of scrimmage, so perhaps it was a protection issue. Randolph did make a 36-yard field goal later in the second quarter, but had the Cavaliers not come out on top, more attention would have been paid to the points that got away.