How did UVA football actually get worse? Count the ways

virginia footballUVA football fans were sold a program that wouldn’t do all of the kinds of things that had pockmarked the past 10 seasons.

The Cavs, first and foremost, wouldn’t beat themselves anymore, blowing late leads the past couple of years against the likes of Notre Dame, North Carolina, Virginia Tech (twice), lining up wrong on key plays, getting plays in late, coaches not having even a basic understanding of how to manage the clock and call timeouts.

That was all out the window. The new coach, Bronco Mendenhall, and his staff had whipped the guys in shape, so that would take care of the inability to finish out games thing. And Mendenhall talks analytics and probabilities in terms of how his staff makes decisions on play calls, and about how important it is to prepare for every possible situation on the field, to a point where he was musing publicly about how important it was to practice running out of the tunnel pregame.

Nothing is left to chance, from fitness to preparation and decision-making. That’s how his BYU teams won 99 games in 11 seasons in Provo, an average of nine a year.

It’s not to say that if you do all the little things right, you automatically win every game, but by doing all the little things right, you put yourself in position to win every game, and odds are that the more games you’re in, the more games you win.

This was music to the ears for a fan base that has endured eight losing seasons in the past decade, three of the last four under Al Groh, five of the six under Mike London, the last four.

The fans remember London hoarding timeouts at the end of a loss at Virginia Tech to use to ice a kicker on a chip-shot field goal rather than using them to give his offense one last chance in the final two minutes. And not being ready for an onside kick late in a loss at home to UNC that Tar Heels assistants said after the game had been in their hip pocket from watching game tape.

A corner jumped a route on a double move with 12 seconds to go to lose the Notre Dame game. The Cavs blew two touchdown leads in the fourth quarter in London’s last game, yet another loss to Virginia Tech.

He could never decide on a starting quarterback, couldn’t stop arguing with officials.

But that was in the rear view. Virginia had righted the ship by luring Mendenhall and his staff east. The nonsense was over, done with.

The first time UVA touched the ball in the Mendenhall era, it was on a kickoff return. Connor Wingo-Reeves, a fullback who was on the field in kick return as a blocker, fielded the pooch kick around the 20 yard line, and steamed up the field, oblivious to the percentages, which would suggest that the up man in a kick-return unit rarely does anything positive in this kind of situation, and of course he fumbled the ball, and Richmond recovered.

That one led to a UR field goal. The next series saw Virginia drive inside the Richmond 10, before an odd play call that had tailback Taquan Mizzell, all 5’10”, 195 pounds of him, running up the A gap, getting hit, hard, fumbling, Richmond again recovering.

Mizzell would fumble in a similar situation in the third quarter, being used on a third-and-short up the gut.

There’s three fumbles lost. A fourth fumble that didn’t show up in the box score was another flub on kick return involving an up man who for some reason tried to run back and field another short kick that the Cavs were able to fall on.

Mental errors, all four.

More of the same: Richmond’s offense ate the UVA D up all day long with a simple middle screen that took advantage of the aggressiveness of the Virginia front seven. In essence, a middle screen works by allowing the defense unfettered access to the quarterback through the A gap, with the O line focused on getting up the field to run interference on the second level ahead of the receiver.

The Spiders ran this middle screen at least five times, and gained big yards on each of the plays.

First time, it’s a sin on the part of coaches for failing to prepare the defenders. Second time, it’s on both coaches and players, who need to be able to read and react.

Third, fourth and fifth times: the firing squad is circular in nature.

Richmond ran for 187 yards on 41 attempts, the most success coming up that A gap, the heart of the defense. Virginia ran for 38 yards on 21 attempts, and even accounting for the 25 yards lost on sacks, which in the college game are counted against the rush offense, you’re talking 63 yards on 18 attempts.

UR controlled both sides of the line of scrimmage, it’s not hard to surmise.

Observers in the press box were already hard at work assigning blame on that one as the fourth quarter rolled on. That’s on London, seemed to be the sentiment, because of his failures to recruit, which, OK, that’s fair.

London left the cupboard bare. Again, fair. Except that it’s also fair to say that London had in essence the same cast of characters at his disposal last fall, and he was able to squeeze four wins out of them, and should have won at least two more, the Notre Dame and Virginia Tech games.

This one’s on London? Mendenhall had the same number of practices in the spring and fall camp as every other coach in America. He’s selling his ability to develop players, and looking at his recruiting for next year’s class, his staff had better be good at player development, turning two- and three-stars into three- and four-stars, because let’s face it, he ain’t getting a lot of the blue-chippers to commit.

The early returns on player development have to be a big question. This team looks like a shell of the unit that went 4-8 last year, and think about what I’m saying when I put those words to paper.

This team is nowhere near as good as a team that rightfully got its coach run out of town on a rail.

It just got blown out by an FCS team. Mendenhall had to leave his starting quarterback in the game in the fourth quarter against backups to put up two meaningless late touchdowns to make the score look good, which, how does that factor into his professed devotion to analytics?

What was the more likely outcome of leaving Benkert in the game in a blowout loss? That the first-team offense would build some more continuity heading into the road opener at Oregon next week, or that Benkert would tear an ACL or get concussed scrambling around trying to put points on the board in a game whose outcome had long since been decided?

Even the decision in the final two minutes to go for two after the score that brought Virginia to 37-20 makes no sense from an analytics perspective. Kick the extra point, and you’re down 16, and though the likelihood that you’re going to recover an onside kick, score a touchdown, go for two, get it, recover another onside kick, score a touchdown, go for two, get it, and tie the game, is about 0.0000001 percent, that’s still greater than the 0 percent chance if you fail to get the two, and you’re still down three scores inside of two minutes.

Yes, he wanted to practice his two-point play; we all get that. A throwaway play at the end of a blowout loss at home to an FCS team who came in better prepared, with a better game plan, and with more confidence that it was going to leave the stadium with the W.

That’s not what UVA football fans, nearly 50,000 of whom allowed themselves to be lured to Scott Stadium on a breathtaking late-summer afternoon, had thought they were buying.

The Mendenhall era was presented to the fan base as a sharp departure from the regimes of London and Groh, which were defined by lack of attention to detail across the board.

Mendenhall was supposed to be an upgrade, and he’s certainly being paid as if an upgrade is the expectation.

One game in, and it hurts to say this, but as much a disaster as the Mike London years were, Mike London doesn’t lose this game.

That’s about as blistering a critique as can be offered.

So, yeah, it will get better from here, but only because it has to. Mendenhall inherited the nadir of a program and has actually somehow lost ground from that lowest point.

The only good news to come out of today is that it didn’t immediately seem like anybody was lost to injury.

Well, that, and basketball practice is four weeks away.

Column by Chris Graham


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