Auburn gained 17 yards combined in its first two offensive possessions Saturday night in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. With the way Virginia’s defense had played to that point, defensive coordinator Jim Reid said he thought the Cavaliers “were going to shut ‘em out.”
That, as many of you know by now, didn’t happen. Even though Virginia’s offense performed efficiently for most of the night, the Cavaliers defense and special teams could not reciprocate. And so the final score read: Auburn 43, Virginia 24.
While it may be difficult for some fans to acknowledge in the immediate aftermath of bowl games, all but one of these contests are glorified exhibitions. Unless you’re playing for the national championship, bowl games boil down to a chance to be recognized for teams’ performances during the regular season.
And Virginia’s showing from the beginning of September to the end of November, by and large, was pretty impressive. The Cavaliers broke all sorts of “haven’t done since” streaks, earned an 8-4 mark one year after going 4-8 and competed for a spot in the ACC title game on the final day of their regular season.
So yeah, on this night, Auburn clearly was the superior team. Virginia made costly and silly mistakes it had not often made this year. But how many Cavaliers followers don’t feel better about their football program’s standing today than they did at this point 12 months ago?
“It’s been a fantastic year for us, and we’ll get a chance to reflect on a lot of things,” Coach Mike London said. “But right now this one stings a little bit, because obviously when you get in a game you want to win a game. They played better than we did. They made more plays than we did. So my hat goes off to them, and we just regroup, get ready and remember this experience. Because this is something we want to do, play in the postseason and have a chance to play teams like that.”
1) Kris Burd. With his performance Saturday night – six receptions for 103 yards and two touchdowns – the fifth-year senior wideout moved into fourth place on the program’s all-time receiving yards list. Burd finished his career with 162 receptions (No. 2 on the program’s all-time receptions list) and 2,190 receiving yards. But Burd’s night was bittersweet. Early in the fourth quarter, Burd injured his right collarbone. While he said afterward he did not yet know the severity of the injury, he was wearing a sling on his right arm.
2) Matt Conrath. Circumstances necessitated Conrath, a fifth-year senior, move from defensive tackle – where he played the entire regular season – to defensive end opposite Cam Johnson against Auburn. First of all, Virginia was short on defensive ends. Billy Schautz was out with a broken leg, and Brent Urban was out with an injured hand/wrist. Also, Virginia coaches felt Conrath would be more effective on the edge against the Tigers than Jake Snyder, who started 12 games at defensive end this season. Conrath finished with just two tackles, but one of them was Virginia’s lone sack of the night.
3) Perry Jones in the first half. There weren’t a whole lot of sparks for the Cavaliers on Saturday, but Jones certainly was one of them. He tallied seven receptions for 90 yards and five rushes for 22 yards in the first half alone. But Jones largely was shut down in the second half, when he did not record a reception and was limited to three rushes for 10 yards. Virginia finished with 435 total yards and recorded more first downs (25) than Auburn (22), but the Cavaliers just couldn’t translate that production into points.
1) Special teams. I suppose we’ll go chronologically. First, there was the blocked punt in the first quarter – only the second one Virginia had allowed all season. Special teams coordinator Anthony Poindexter said he over-reacted to Auburn’s first blocked punt and ordered the unit to change from punting regular style to punting rugby style. That decision ended up back-firing, but we’ll get to that in a moment.
In the second quarter, Auburn attempted a surprise onside kick and converted. While Poindexter said the Cavaliers had practiced for such a thing in recent weeks, Auburn “hadn’t shown it all year.”
Later in the second quarter, Virginia faked what would have been a 32-yard field goal and planned to attempt a pass from holder Jacob Hodges to reserve fullback Terence Fells-Danzer. The key word there is “planned.” Poindexter said Fells-Danzer tripped over another player’s leg while running an underneath route and fell down. That left Hodges to scramble three yards. He needed six for the first down.
And then came Auburn’s second blocked punt, which occurred late in the third quarter. This time, Virginia attempted to punt the ball rugby style out of its own end zone. The result was a safety and two more points for Auburn.
“The second one was on my because I got nervous after we got the first one blocked,” Poindexter said. “You really can’t do what we tried to do down there. … That was kind of an overreaction to getting the first one blocked.”
And then Auburn returned Virginia’s ensuing punt 62 yards to the Virginia 15-yard line.
Yeah, it was that kind of night for the Cavaliers’ special teams.
2) Giving up big plays. The Virginia defense made considerable strides this season, and one of the key reasons was because it shored up on the breakdowns – over-pursuit, missed tackles, etc. – that were leading to allowing big plays. On Saturday, the Cavaliers reverted to their old form. Auburn tallied offensive plays that gained 22, 25, 28, 50 and 60 yards … and that was just in the second quarter. The Cavaliers allowed a season-high 454 total yards on the night. Auburn gained 273 of those yards on the ground.
3) Injuries. Senior cornerback Chase Minnifield missed the final game of his collegiate career with a knee injury he suffered during practice before the Cavaliers departed Charlottesville and arrived in Atlanta, Poindexter said. That hurt Virginia’s defensive efforts. What hurt even worse was the loss of redshirt junior linebacker Steve Greer, who suffered a partially torn ACL in his right knee two weeks ago. Greer was Virginia’s leading tackler this season. With Greer sidelined, redshirt freshman Henry Coley stepped in at middle linebacker. He finished with four tackles, one of which was for a loss. But overall, he wasn’t too pleased with his performance.
“Getting a hold of their offense, they really came out with it seemed like just different kind of stuff, misdirections and whatnot, that I didn’t pay attention to on film as much,” Coley said. “I put myself in bad spaces.”