Chris Graham: ‘Special’ teams, yeah, sure

No, since you ask, Virginia’s special teams weren’t exactly all that special Saturday night.

Consider: Auburn recovered an onside kick that led to a touchdown that fueled a game-changing 14-point second-quarter swing. The Tigers also blocked two Virginia punts, setting up a touchdown and a third-quarter safety that snuffed out a brief UVa. rally. The second of the blocked punts, the one that iced it, came after a UVa. punt returner lost an Auburn kick in the Georgia Dome ceiling, allowing the Tigers to pin Virginia at its own 6.

Virginia also gave up field position on a 62-yard return on the ensuing free kick that led to an Auburn field goal and at least three points on a botched fake-field-goal attempt that the Tigers followed up with a quick-strike TD drive.

That is by conservative estimates a 22-point swing all told. The final margin in the Chick-fil-A Bowl – 19 points.

“That’s one part of the game, and it’s my responsibility to make sure we play all facets of the game well. We didn’t execute like we needed to,” understated Virginia coach Mike London after his team’s 43-24 beatdown, which clearly didn’t have to be after a look at the statistics.

The two teams were basically even steven in total offense (Auburn: 454 yards, Virginia: 435 yards) and first downs (Virginia 25, Auburn 22). Quarterback Michael Rocco had a career night, completing 26 of his 41 pass attempts for 312 yards and two touchdowns. The UVa. offense moved the ball consistently. The defense had trouble figuring out the two-QB rotation that Auburn coach Gene Chizik went to after losing starting QB Clinton Moseley, but even so the game is basically even aside from the huge discrepancy in special teams.

Ah, special teams, the province of former UVa. great Anthony Poindexter. As much as Dex was a standout on the Scott Stadium turf as a player, his special teams have stood out for all the wrong reasons since assuming control of that third of the game under London last year. The Indiana road opener, for one, which was almost marred by a fumbled second-half punt that fueled a Hoosiers’ comeback before Rocco rallied the Cavs late to a 34-31 win. The Southern Miss game turned on a fourth-and-15 fake punt deep in Eagles’ territory. And then there was the 21-20 nailbiter win over Idaho that saw the Vandals get back into the game on a blocked punt and stay in the game on two missed field goals, one a gimme that was blocked at the line.

And then you have the Chick-fil-A Debacle. Virginia wins straight up 31-17, 27-17 or 27-24 at worst, but for its deficiencies in special teams.

On the one hand you have teams like Frank Beamer’s squads at Virginia Tech and Bobby Bowden’s early groups at Florida State hanging their hats on what they can do to change games on punts, kickoffs and field goals. And on the other, you have Virginia practically giving away a third of the game with the lack of attention to detail in preparation and execution in the special-teams arena.

If London is going to improve upon the turnaround that he made in year two of his rebuilding project in Charlottesville, it’s obvious where the focus needs to be.

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