Tony Elliott, after an embarrassing series of 15-yard penalties in a 38-17 loss at Duke last October, made it clear that he was “just not going to play guys” if the lack of discipline that led to dumb penalty after dumb penalty was going to continue.
Fast forward a year, and the three 15-yard penalties – unsportsmanlike conducts on a TD pass and the game-tying two-point conversion with 36 seconds left, and a leaping penalty on a potential game-winning field-goal try – that sealed the 24-21 loss to NC State on Friday night.
Elliott, asked to address the embarrassing ending to last week’s loss, which sent Virginia to an 0-4 start, in the context of what he’d had to say after the similar display a year ago, shrugged it off.
“I think it’s different circumstances,” Elliot told reporters in his weekly press conference on Tuesday.
It’s worth asking here – is it, really, “different circumstances”?
Going back to last year, Elliott went on and on after the Duke loss about the program’s “core values,” “culture” – in the process throwing an awful lot of shade at his predecessor, Bronco Mendenhall.
“If a guy pushes you after the whistle, trust that the referee is going to make the call. You don’t turn around and push the guy in the face,” Elliott had said after the loss at Duke. “Those were the kind of things that had me upset in the game, because we’re trying to win a football game. Next thing I know, I’m having to coach things that we’ve already stopped in practice, that we don’t do in practice, then they’re showing up in the game.
“It’s like teaching an old dog new tricks,” Elliott said back then. “They are going to resist at times because they’ve had success doing it one way. But this is a new regime, this is a new direction going forward.”
Credit to Elliott and his staff here, there has been a noticeable improvement in the penalties statline in the aftermath of the Duke loss.
Through that point last season, UVA had been averaging an ACC-worst 72.4 yards per game in penalties; in their last five games in 2022, the Cavaliers cut that down to 52.0 yards per game.
And then through four weeks in the 2023 season, Virginia is averaging 51.3 penalty yards per game, which ranks seventh in the ACC.
So, room to get better, but also improvement.
That framework having been laid down, though, three 15-yarders in the final minute directly leading to a walk-off field-goal loss, it almost feels like a giant step backwards.
Elliott, on Tuesday, said the “only one” of the three that would be comparable to the penalties in the Duke game that got him riled up was the one on offensive lineman Ty Furnish, on the 4-yard TD pass from Anthony Colandrea to Malik Washington that made the score 21-19 with 36 seconds left.
“That was something that guys, in the trenches, it was chippy all night, and the referees were coming over on both sides and saying, cut it out, and rightfully so. There was an underlying situation there that made it a little bit chippy,” Elliott said.
Colandrea, then, was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct on the ensuing 17-yard two-point try, which was improbably successful, with the QB connecting with Malachi Fields in the end zone for the tying score.
Exactly why the flag was thrown isn’t entirely clear. TV replays showed that Colandrea’s helmet was coming off from the hit he took on the play, so it’s probably more that he didn’t put it back on as he celebrated the score on the field.
“Colandrea, I don’t know what to tell him, other than your helmet is partially coming off, you just made a big throw, you put it back on,” Elliott said. “But I think it’s one of those deals where it’s coming off, he takes it off the rest of the way, it’s an unbelievable play, he’s excited in the moment. The ref sees what he sees, he throws the flag. I can’t be mad at the official. He has to do his job. I don’t know what I tell the kid, because emotion, we all got emotion in that moment.”
That penalty set the kickoff back to the 20, and NC State took advantage with a return that started the Pack drive in plus territory.
After getting to the UVA 30, State set up for a potential game-winning 48-yard field-goal try from Brayden Narveson.
The kick was blocked, but linebacker James Jackson was assessed with a penalty for leaping – basically, getting a running start from behind the line of scrimmage, then jumping to attempt to block the kick.
Narveson nailed a 33-yarder on the try after the penalty to win the game for the Pack.
“The one on James, you know, we just got to be smarter right there. There is a guy that’s being desperate wanting to make a play. If you’re going to jump, you got to already be in the line of scrimmage. You can’t take a running start,” Elliott said.
The coach wants us to believe that this run of penalties is “different” than the ones that he felt marred the loss at Duke last year, but, no, not really.
One was a guy jawing in the trenches, the second was a kid celebrating, the third was the special-teams coach not telling his guys basic rules.
“Each one will be addressed a little bit differently, but still unacceptable,” Elliott conceded. “What I always tell the guys is don’t put it in the hands of the ref to make the call. Live above reproach. The one that is most frustrating is the one between Ty, because that became a more personal situation there. He’s very remorseful and got caught up in the heat of the game with emotions. That’s part of football. But you got to be able to stay within the lines. You can’t let somebody else force you to get out of character. The other two, those are different than the ones per se up at Duke.”
Lack of discipline is lack of discipline.