CHARLOTTESVILLE — On the heels of another disappointing defeat, Virginia defensive end Eli Harold was reminded Monday of the discontent that afflicted the Cavaliers during the midseason swoon that ultimately doomed their 2012 campaign.
Practices were “dead” and players “didn’t have any passion,” he said. So 48 hours after Virginia suffered its third loss in four games, 48-27 to Ball State, in front of the second-smallest Scott Stadium crowd of the Mike London era (38,228), Harold has stayed away from the pessimism filtering through Twitter and message boards.
Still, the images from Saturday — the “horrible energy” and the half-empty crowd that turned on the home team — have been hard to move past.
“It causes a cancer in your mind and it causes you to think negatively about yourself and your team,” Harold said Monday.
Virginia (2-3, 0-1 ACC) heads into its final ACC football game against rival Maryland hoping to avoid the tailspin it encountered a year ago, when a 2-0 start became an afterthought once the Cavaliers lost six games in a row, including a 27-20 defeat to the Terrapins in Charlottesville last October.
The recent struggles have brought new questions from Virginia fans about London’s long-term job security as the program’s head coach, largely because of the self-inflicted mistakes that ultimately caused the team to lose a home game against a non-Bowl Championship Series foe for the third straight season.
The Cavaliers committed 13 penalties Saturday — seven extended Ball State drives and two others negated Virginia touchdowns — and turned the ball over four times. The Cavaliers lead the ACC with 14 turnovers and are on pace to have a worse turnover margin than last year, when they finished ranked 114th in the country in that category.
“There is a process to a lot of these things,” said London, who hired new coordinators on offense, defense and special teams this offseason. “I believe in the coaches. I believe in the players. I believe in the young players that are playing. . . . We want to show improvement week-to-week, and that’s my job.”
For a second straight week, London indicated the issues on the field could lead to personnel changes. After using first-year players at wide receiver and right tackle against Ball State, London said freshman cornerback Tim Harris and freshman linebacker Max Valles will have expanded roles against the Terrapins.
The Cavaliers may also get junior Conner Davis back from a hamstring injury, and London said senior Luke Bowanko could move from left guard to center to make room for Davis in the lineup.
“Coach London is doing a very good job of holding himself together and he believes in his staff. We all believe in his staff,” Harold said. “The game plan is there. We just have to execute. If you don’t go out and execute, you’re obviously gonna lose the game.”
Perhaps more troubling was that many of the problems this past week were caused by Virginia’s best players.
Harold, the team’s leader in sacks, committed three personal fouls, and the secondary, which anchored a pass defense that entered last weekend as one of the country’s five most efficient, was dissected by Ball State quarterback Keith Wenning and his receivers. On offense, senior left tackle Morgan Moses struggled to contain the Cardinals’ pass rush and leading rusher Kevin Parks had a costly third-quarter fumble.
“You can’t let this stuff linger or it’ll actually have a negative effect,” said running back Khalek Shepherd (Gwynn Park) . “The best way to get over it is fix it.”
London has been encouraged by what he’s seen in practice the past two weeks, although that made it all the more troubling that Virginia mustered just 199 yards and three points on offense at Pittsburgh one game and then allowed Ball State to rack up 506 total yards the next.
Harold said strength and conditioning coach Evan Marcus delivered an inspirational speech Sunday. Even with the teeth of the ACC schedule still left, he held out hope “the result on Saturday will be what we want.”
“We still think we have a chance in this thing,” wide receiver Kyle Dockins said. “We still got a lot of football left.”