This time last season, Virginia Coach Mike London was in the midst of a four-game winning streak that ultimately put the Cavaliers in a bowl and put London’s rebuilding project ahead of schedule. A year later, with his team in the midst of a six-game losing streak that has some questioning the direction of the program, London couldn’t help but spend Virginia’s bye week pondering the differences between the two campaigns.
It led him to reflect on the schemes and players the Cavaliers have used this season, and the reasons why Virginia hasn’t had the end-of-game luck it did in 2011. But more importantly, he refused to throw in the towel.
“We desperately want to win a game,” London said. “We want to play and win a game. That’s priority for us, and the who and the what and all those things are important for us to answer. But we’re going to try to put the people and places and things in place to help us win the game. This past week was primarily the focus on that.”
On offense, that means trying to figure out a game plan that will allow quarterbacks Phillip Sims and Michael Rocco to succeed. After using only one quarterback – Sims -- for the first time all season in a 16-10 loss to Wake Forest, London seemed to open the door for Rocco to receive late-season playing time by indicating the coaches are “trying to find the right kind of combination to help this team win.”
In regards to Sims, who has started the last three games for Virginia, London would like to see the Alabama transfer release the ball earlier in order to make offensive coordinator Bill Lazor’s timing-based passing attack more efficient. Sims has completed just 51.4 percent of his passes and thrown four interceptions and just two touchdowns since becoming the starter.
But London and company realize the issues go beyond who’s lining up under center.
“The open week was geared towards trying to make sure that all the surrounding pieces are the pieces that can help take their game to another level or get us points on the board or convert third downs or whatever it might be,” London said of his quarterbacks. “That’s what we’ve been doing and trying to craft a game plan that fits their strengths but also not detouring what the surrounding cast has been able to do and can do.”
On defense, Virginia showed signs of improvements against Wake Forest after allowing an average of 39.2 points per game and a bevy of big plays in its previous five losses. But the Cavaliers are still struggling to create turnovers and their own offense’s propensity for giveaways has only compounded that problem. Virginia currently has the worst turnover margin (-16) in the country.
Linebacker Steve Greer and defensive end Jake Snyder indicated the defense went back to the basics since Virginia is also the second-most penalized team in the ACC.
“I think it comes down to being smart football players,” Greer said. “When you have a lot of penalties and assignment errors, it just comes down to mental breakdowns.”
On special teams, London hinted that more veterans and starters would be involved over the final month of the season. But he also made it a point to tell his players the differences between this year and last year, when the Cavaliers went on that four-game winning streak nobody expected, aren’t that substantial.
“Being 8-5 last year, it was a good season for us and reality of those four games, winning on the last play of the game, you always think about those moments and those opportunities that were extended going to a Bowl game,” London said. “Then you are frustrated by the fact that a couple games — same situation, last play, last opportunity, last two minutes -- it goes the other way and you are where you are record-wise.”