Chris Graham: Is Mike London throwing in the towel?

When you’re asked about your team’s ongoing five-game losing streak, and your response is to start talking about how the program is having success in the classroom and in other areas of life, well, you’re pretty much Ted Roof on your way out the door at Duke, right?

“My goal is to make sure I coach and teach, be a role model, be a mentor, understand these guys’obligations in the classroom and in the community. We want to play well on the field, and we will play well on the field. I’ll continue to build goodwill because this University deserves it,” London answered a reporter’s query following Virginia’s 27-20 loss to Maryland on Saturday.

The loss was the fifth in a row for Virginia after a 2-0 start – and the Cavs’ seventh loss in their last nine after going 8-3 to start the 2011 season.

UVa. finished 2011 with a 38-0 home loss to Virginia Tech and a 43-24 loss in the Chick-fil-A Bowl against Auburn. After a season-opening win over FCS Richmond and a one-point win over Penn State in Week 2, the season went downhill fast. The defense has given up just shy of 40 points a game in the losing streak, and the offense, while putting up gawdy numbers in the box-score categories, has been inefficient in the most important area, putting points on the scoreboard.

London has gone back-and-forth on who to play at quarterback, starting the season with last year’s number-one guy, Michael Rocco, before replacing him at the end of the first three losses in the current streak with backup and former #1 national recruit Phillip Sims. Sims was the starter for last week’s 42-17 loss at Duke and this week’s Maryland loss before being lifted for ineffectiveness in favor of Rocco, who led the Cavs on a fourth-quarter touchdown drive.

That latest move is sure to rankle the locker room, as was evidenced in postgame comments from Sims.

“I don’t think anyone wants to be benched. It’s disappointing. They just said that Rocco is in and there isn’t much talking about it in a situation like that,” said Sims, who was a pedestrian 13-for-28 passing for 139 yards with a touchdown pass and an interception.

Rocco, for his part, was 5-for-7 for 79 yards on the TD drive that he led that got Virginia back into the game, but missed a wide-open-and-streaking Khalek Shepherd on a first-down pass near midfield on Virginia’s final drive on a play that could have tied the game.

That pressure might not have been there had the Cavs taken care of basic, fundamental business on the game’s first play. Maryland kick returner Stefon Diggs took the opening kickoff five yards deep in the end zone and appeared ready to take a knee for the touchback. He decided at the last instant to run the ball out of the end zone, and streaked past a UVa. coverage team that had let up thinking that Diggs had downed the ball for a 105-yard touchdown return and a 7-0 lead 13 seconds into the game.

“We should never let up and run through the end zone when the ball is kicked,” London said. “We knew that Diggs was a special player, a dynamic player. Your job is to run down on the kickoffs and cover the kickoffs. Regardless of what you think someone is doing, that’s what we’re supposed to do and obviously we didn’t do it.”

A missed chip-shot field goal left another three points on the field. And then after a successful third-quarter field goal cut what had been an early 17-0 deficit to 17-13, a dead-ball personal foul on Zack Swanson pushed the ensuing kickoff back 15 yards, setting up Maryland on its next drive with starting field position on the plus side of the 50 that the Terps turned into a touchdown and important breathing room.

Those issues – not playing to the whistle on kickoffs, not executing chip-shot field goals, cheap penalties after plays – come down to coaching. Uncertainty at who is going to be playing quarterback from one series to the next comes down to coaching.  Time-management issues of the sort that derailed the comeback effort two weeks ago against Louisiana Tech and then again this week against Maryland – when London left a timeout on the ledger as Maryland ran clock that he only later used to force the Terps to take an extra snap in victory formation – that comes down to coaching.

Critics of the London hire when it was announced in 2010 wondered aloud if it made sense to give the keys to a program that was once at the top tier of the ACC to a guy who had just two years of head-coaching experience at an FCS school under his belt. Despite an uptick in recruiting from what his predecessor, Al Groh, was able to bring in terms of talent to Charlottesville, London’s inability to manage game and personnel situations has left the UVa. program in the same place that it was at the end of the Groh era.

Barring a stunning reversal of fortunes down the stretch, Virginia is on its way to its fifth losing season in the last seven years, including its second in three years with London at the helm.

To London’s credit, he did seem to learn one thing from Groh before his former mentor was shown the door. Groh famously defended his program’s lack of success on the field with diatribes about how his program had helped build the character of scores of young men, a refrain that London is picking up in his own defense as the quagmire that is UVa. football and is now of his making continues to unfold.

“We’re going through some adversity here on the football field. That’s what happens. The worst thing we could do now is start pointing fingers and blaming and things like that,” London said last night.

“I will continue to work as hard as I can to make sure that this team and the players have an opportunity to be successful players once they finish playing, and get them coached up the way they need to be coached up. That’s making sure the coaches are accountable. We hope you get a chance to look at all aspects of what’s going on with this program, off the field, on the field and in the classroom.

“I understand that we live in a culture of wins and losses and things like that. It’s not from a lack of effort or a lack of trying. I understand that. I am more resolved and resolute to help these young men experience success on the field, as they are in other areas of their life.”

         
 

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