Virginia Coach Mike London can’t hide his disappointment these days. His program had momentum entering this season, and he hoped to lead the Cavaliers to the postseason for a second consecutive season. Six straight losses, including 16-10 Saturday to Wake Forest, have turned that into a pipe dream.
It isn’t mathematically impossible for Virginia to become bowl-eligible, but that would mean winning out against a schedule that includes road trips to North Carolina State and Virginia Tech as well as home games against North Carolina and Miami.
In fact, there’s a distinct chance Virginia could go winless in conference play and finish with a 2-10 record. That, though, won’t be London’s focus during this week’s bye.
“It’s not going to be about schemes of who we’re getting ready to play, but taking care of ourselves and eliminating some of the things that we do that continue to keep costing us,” London said of the bye week.
So where did this season fall off the tracks, and how can the Cavaliers avoid finishing 0-fer in ACC play? Here’s a look at three season-long issues that need to be fixed if Virginia hopes to win a game the rest of the season, let alone become a winning program in the near future.
Offensive identity: For four consecutive games, the Cavalier have outgained the opposition and have no wins to show for it. Offensive coordinator Bill Lazor has shouldered much of the blame in this regard, and he deserves some of it.
The Cavaliers actually rank third in the ACC in offensive plays of 20 or more yards this season and are middle-of-the-pack in most statistical categories. But through eight games, there’s very little Virginia can actually rely on when it needs crucial yards. The run game has been inconsistent, especially in short-yardage situations, and the pass game is prone to turnovers.
From this beat writer’s perspective, the problems start with the absence of any sort of continuity. The Wake Forest loss was the first game all season in which London stuck with one quarterback – redshirt sophomore Phillip Sims – and the Cavaliers are currently using a four-man rotation at their two guard positions and running back, on top of utilizing at least five receivers every game.
When each position group is considered on its own accord, using all those options makes sense. But when taken together, it equates to a whole lot of moving parts in an offense that wasn’t elite to begin with. It begins at quarterback, where the constant flux has been a detriment because of the adjustments that need to be made in order to play to each signal caller’s strengths.
Special teams: Ten of Wake Forest’s 16 points Saturday were directly attributable to Virginia’s poor special teams play. The Demon Deacons got an early touchdown courtesy of a 60-yard punt return in the first quarter. Then, once Virginia tied the score at seven with a touchdown just before halftime, a personal foul penalty on the ensuing kickoff by Cavaliers senior Kyle McCartin set up Wake Forest for a late field goal to grab momentum heading into the locker room.
If it were the first time special teams had cost the Cavaliers this year, it would merely be a blip. But Saturday’s debacle came in the immediate aftermath of London switching place kickers (redshirt freshman Ian Frye is handling field goals instead of Drew Jarrett) and publicly defending safeties coach Anthony Poindexter, who leads Virginia’s special teams this season.
The Cavaliers are playing many of their underclassmen on special teams right now, and perhaps there needs to be more of an emphasis on involving starters going forward. Once the season ends, it may also be time for London to add a coach with more special teams expertise.
The gaffes: Considering how young most of the talent is at Virginia this year, another 8-5 season probably wasn’t realistic. But these Cavaliers should not be a two-win football team, and they are largely because of self-inflicted issues. The most notable: Virginia has the worst turnover margin in the country (minus-16) and remains the second-most penalized team in the ACC.
It hasn’t helped that only Buffalo has created fewer turnovers than Virginia’s defense this year, but the litany of mental mistakes have been a point of contention ever since this losing skid began. London has said repeatedly the culprits would lose playing time if the errors persisted, and reiterated that stance in the aftermath of this latest defeat.
So far, Virginia’s sloppy play hasn’t resulted in any major personnel changes. With a below .500 record seemingly inevitable, it might be time for some.