Virginia Coach Mike London used the words “frustrating” and “disappointing” when he sat down at the podium for his postgame news conference Saturday, but he took an entirely different tone moments earlier when he met with the Cavaliers in the locker room following their 35-22 loss to Duke.
As safety Anthony Harris put it, the message was direct: “Guys can pack it up or guys can come out and fight.”
“We’ll find out tomorrow who’s all in,” running back Kevin Parks said.
Here are five more observations from the sort of collapse Cavaliers’ fans won’t soon forget.
1) Whether they want to admit it or not, Virginia’s season is in a freefall.
Here’s the sobering truth after Virginia’s fourth straight defeat: It won’t be favored in any other game this season, and there’s a distinct possibility the Cavaliers could end this season on a nine-game losing streak and a 2-10 record.
A bowl bid is basically out of the question — Virginia would need four wins in its last five games, which are against Georgia Tech, Clemson, North Carolina, Miami and Virginia Tech — and it appears its season-opening win over BYU will end up being a fluke in much the same way the Cavaliers’ win over Penn State was a year ago.
What’s more concerning is the different ways the Cavaliers (2-5, 0-3 ACC) have found to lose. They were run off the field in the second half against Ball State, a Mid-American Conference team. They lost on a last-second missed field goal at Maryland. And Saturday, Virginia coughed up the biggest lead it ever had under London.
Neither London nor the players made available to reporters after Saturday’s game would concede the season is over, but at this point the rest of this campaign is about next year. And that’s a sentiment Virginia fans are growing tired of in London’s fourth season.
“There’s no quit in this team,” senior captain Jake Snyder said. “We’ve got enough talent. We’ve got the schemes in place to win games, and we know that and we believe that and it just comes down to getting it done and executing.”
2) Duke dared David Watford to close out the game, and he couldn’t.
As one Virginia fan walked out of Scott Stadium Saturday, he shouted, “Hey Fairchild: Start packing your home.”
But while Virginia offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild certainly deserves some blame for failing to make adjustments as the second half wore on, it wasn’t all his fault. In fact, Parks offered a telling quote after the game when asked to diagnose what went wrong for Virginia’s offense after halftime.
“I felt like they knew we was gonna run the football, so they put men on the line. They blitzed a lot,” Parks said. “I think their key focus was to stop the run and make us throw. We didn’t make enough plays.”
Watford tied the career high he set one weekend earlier with 263 passing yards Saturday, but he took a step back after authoring the best performance of his college career at Maryland. He completed just three passes to wide receivers the entire game, and in several cases made poor reads and missed open options with overthrows.
“We have to make sure, and he has to make sure, when guys are open, you’ve got to hit them, whether it’s touch required or putting the ball where it needs to be,” London said. “He’s got to play better. I’m sure he understands that. He played well enough in the first half, but not good enough, not better, in the second half.”
Even when Virginia had things rolling in the first half, Watford wasn’t sharp with his decision-making. A play in the first quarter in which Watford committed intentional grounding still sticks out as I write this in an empty Scott Stadium. With pressure coming off the edge, Watford had freshman Keeon Johnson streaking down the sideline in man coverage, with a step on the Duke cornerback.
But instead of standing in the pocket and delivering the ball in the face of pressure, Watford rolled out and ended up heaving a desperation throw as he was dragged down to the turf. It was an incomplete pass that should’ve been a long gain, one of many Virginia suffered through Saturday.
“I felt like I made progress, but I didn’t play well,” Watford said.
3) Virginia’s defense has some serious issues with Brent Urban out.
The Cavaliers’ defense had been in steady decline since a strong showing at Pittsburgh last month, but life got a whole lot tougher with defensive tackle Brent Urban sporting crutches and a walking boot Saturday, relegated to the sideline with a foot injury suffered last week at Maryland.
Duke converted four fourth downs during the second half, and the thought here is that at least one or two of those inside runs don’t net enough yards with Urban in the game. On Saturday, Virginia used Snyder as a defensive tackle and rotated sophomore Michael Moore and freshman Max Valles at defensive end.
“I made up my mind that we would do everything we could to win this game. I felt like anything on the plus side, fourth and nine and less, we were going for it,” Duke Coach David Cutcliffe said. “Anything within fourth and two, we were going for it. I just made up my mind to do it and thankfully it paid off.”
Virginia’s defense wore down after a strong start as the Blue Devils ran the ball 28 times after halftime. It went from forcing punts on Duke’s first six drives of the game to allowing close to 400 yards over the final 35 minutes of the game. More disturbing is that the Cavaliers mustered just one sack and four tackles for loss, even with defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta dialing up blitzes.
London did not classify Urban’s injury as season-ending this week, but the manner in which he moved along the sideline Saturday suggests he won’t be back on the field anytime soon. That’s not a good sign for Virginia’s fortunes going forward.
“The second half, we didn’t have enough guys step up defensively to affect what they were doing offensively,” London said.
4) Virginia’s running backs are one thing that’s working right now.
Even though Virginia mustered just seven rushing yards after halftime, the lone bright spots Saturday were its tailbacks.
Parks finished with 138 total yards and three touchdowns, including that highlight-reel flip into the end zone that gave the Cavaliers a 22-0 lead. Freshman Taquan Mizzell, meanwhile, finally showed off the big-play ability coaches have raved about since training camp with a 36-yard run in the first half.
A week after settling for four field goals in six red-zone opportunities against Maryland, Virginia got touchdowns on all three of its red zone chances Saturday.
5) The Cavaliers could learn something from Duke Coach David Cutcliffe.
Virginia has now lost five of the past six years to Duke, and it’s not by chance it has coincided with Cutcliffe’s arrival in Durham, N.C. Long considered the bottom-feeder of the ACC, Duke is on the cusp of a second straight bowl bid after beating Virginia Saturday.
Cutcliffe offered an interesting take on how the Blue Devils got to this point after they put together a comeback few in Charlottesville saw coming.
“I think our guys believed that we belonged. Quite frankly, we were an irrelevant program in this league, and I think they realized that they earned relevance,” he said before returning to the topic later in his press conference.
“In our last 20 games, we have a winning record now over time. It may not sound like much to some people, but that is when you start believing you should win. Not ‘can.’ There is a big difference. When you start believing you should win, that’s when you start winning. This ‘can’ stuff is bull.”
Virginia is now 4-15 in its last 19 games against Football Bowl Subdivision competition, and there’s an argument to be made that it is the worst program in the ACC right now. Whether that’s the case when the season ends is up to the players and coaches.
“There’s enough negativity that’s around that we have to respond and block out distractions. We have to move on and move forward,” London said. “We want to win. They want to win. And we’re young enough not to know that when things happen and adversity occurs, you gotta respond and bounce back from those things, and we didn’t do a good job of that, particularly in the second half.”