There were several times during Virginia Coach Mike London’s postgame press conference following the Cavaliers’ 38-0 loss to Virginia Tech on Saturday when he either was asked about or addressed himself one of the key plays in setting the tone for the Cavaliers’ defeat.
“You know, it was fourth and one,” London said, “and I think that the opportunity to send a message to our guys up front that if you’re going to win championships, if you’re going to win games, you’ve got to be able to knock people off the ball and gain a yard, particularly on your favorite run play.”
Later, he also said: “You start out the game, as they had opportunities to throw the long pass and start with the interference call there. And then fourth and one, we’re going in and we don’t get the first down, you know, that’s points back there at that point.”
In reality, though, in the situation to which London was referring, Virginia needed two yards on fourth down, not one. In fact, the official stat sheet marked the play as a fourth and three, though that appeared to be a misprint.
In the grand scheme of things, whether it was fourth and one or fourth and two or fourth and three is irrelevant. The Cavaliers came up short no matter the distance and turned the ball over on downs at the Virginia Tech six-yard line early in the first quarter on the drive that followed a Hokies touchdown.
But if you’re into symbolism, it’s worth pointing out that London either was convinced or was trying to convince himself that his team was closer to its goal than it actually was.
The same could be said for the football teams at Virginia and Virginia Tech. The Cavaliers (8-4, 5-3 ACC) have made considerable progress since London took over in December 2009 – much more to this point than most people in and out of the program expected – and there was talk throughout much of the past week that perhaps this would be the year Virginia pulled even with Virginia Tech (11-1, 7-1) – which entered Saturday having won 11 of the past 12 Commonwealth Cups – on the gridiron.
As the final score would indicate, the Cavaliers still have a ways to go in that regard; they were not as close to Virginia Tech’s level of play as they might have thought they were.
1) Kris Burd. With his second reception Saturday, the fifth-year senior wide receiver became the sixth player in program history to record more than 2,000 career receiving yards. He finished the day with seven catches for 100 yards, which brings his career totals to 156 receptions (second-most in school history) and 2,087 (sixth-most in school history). Burd sits 55 receiving yards behind Germane Crowell (1994-97) for No. 5 on the program’s all-time receiving yards list and 66 yards behind Tyrone Davis (1991-94) for the No. 4 spot.
2) Senior contributions on senior day. In addition to Burd, several other seniors did their part Saturday, including a few who don’t usually share much of the spotlight. Fifth-year senior strong-side linebacker Aaron Taliaferro started his fifth game of the season in place of the injured Ausar Walcott and recorded a career-high nine tackles. Senior wide receiver Ray Keys recorded a career-long 24-yard reception in the third quarter. It was Keys’ third catch of the season.
3) Sentimental gestures. Redshirt junior Kyle McCartin is a fifth-string quarterback and a member of the special teams kickoff coverage unit. Typically, he wears jersey No. 7. But on Saturday, for the first time this season, McCartin wore No. 51, and that’s meaningful because it was the number that his younger brother, Connor, used to wear for the Cavaliers. Connor McCartin had to give up playing football earlier this season due to concussion issues, but has remained an active member of the team by helping Anthony Poindexter organize and coach the special teams. It was a nice tribute.
1) Turnovers. Virginia turned the ball over four times Saturday, which matched a season-high. The Cavaliers got away with turning the ball over four times at Indiana … because they were playing Indiana. They weren’t as fortunate when they turned the ball over four times against North Carolina State, and they weren’t as fortunate Saturday. Sophomore quarterback Michael Rocco fumbled after being sacked at the Virginia Tech 20-yard line late in the second quarter. Rocco was intercepted midway through the third quarter on a pass that went through Burd’s hands. Virginia trailed, 21-0, at that point. He was intercepted again in the fourth quarter. He was intercepted again early in the fourth quarter on a pass that was returned 22 yards to the Virginia 4-yard line. A few minutes later, the Cavaliers turned the ball over one final time when true freshman wideout Dominique Terrell fumbled after catching a bubble screen pass.
2) Offensive line. In Virginia’s final two regular season games, the Cavaliers averaged just less than 2 yards per carry on a combined 55 rushes. They also allowed Rocco to be sacked a combined seven times. Granted, Virginia was squaring off against two of the best defenses in the country. But still, there was an awful lot of praise handed out to the Cavaliers offensive line back when Virginia was chewing up rushing yards against Georgia Tech and Miami and Maryland and Duke, back when Virginia allowed just two sacks in a five-game stretch. When it came time to put its reputation on the line against the best defensive fronts the ACC has to offer, the Virginia offensive line struggled.
3) Mental mistakes. One of the primary reasons Virginia was able to tally a four-game winning streak was its ability to limit – if not altogether eliminate – the types of silly, mental errors that will doom a team against a quality opponent. But on Saturday, the Cavaliers recorded six penalties for 54 yards, including: a personal foul face mask on Chase Minnifield on Virginia Tech’s opening drive, a delay of game on Perry Jones when he tried to signal for his teammates to stay away from a bouncing punt, then picked up the ball and tried to gain yardage (a player from the receiving team who makes any sort of demonstrative signal on a punt return cannot then be the first player to try to advance the ball forward on that play), and a personal foul penalty on Oday Aboushi for shoving a Virginia Tech player to the ground after a play had ended (Terrell’s fourth-quarter fumble). Also, Jones muffed a punt return, but was able to recover it. The pass defense was not nearly sound enough. And then there was the decision to go for it on fourth and two (Or three. Or one.) from the seven-yard line in the first quarter of a home game. Even the coaches were making questionable decisions*. All of this and more resulted in the first home shutout suffered by Virginia since Sept. 8, 1984, a string of 172 games. Virginia won eight straight games when its rivalry series with Virginia Tech began in 1895. With Saturday’s victory, Virginia Tech now has won eight straight Commonwealth Cups, as well.
* To be fair, had the decision to go for it on fourth and short worked out, London would be praised for his boldness and for the confidence he showed in his players. That’s just the way it works.