Next step in UVA rebuilding process: Learning how to win
UVA had a commanding 24-3 lead at the half Saturday night against Pitt. Scott Stadium was buzzing. A blowout win over an ACC rival was in the making. The Cavs had the ball to start the second half. Build on the strong second quarter showing with a successful first drive, put some more points on the board, and the game was over.
Or get flagged for holding on the first play from scrimmage, negating an 11-yard run by Kevin Parks, go ultraconservative from there to set up the punt, allow said punt to be partially blocked to give Pitt a short field, that the Panthers then turn into a quick touchdown, and the game is back on.
That certainly wasn’t the plan in the locker room at the half for Mike London and his staff, but it’s how things played out in a 24-19 win that wasn’t decided until a Pitt onside kick with 1:27 to go flailed out of bounds short of having traveled the necessary 10 yards.
“We need to play 60 minutes of football – offense, defense, and special teams. We can’t shoot ourselves in the foot,” said senior linebacker Henry Coley, who had six tackles and a sack in the win.
There was some shooting in the foot going on in the second half, but it was as much the halftime adjustments, as they are called, that almost did the Cavs in. After the offense seemed to be hitting on all cylinders while piling up 234 total yards, including 150 in a dominating second quarter that provided the three-touchdown working margin, UVA stumble-bummed through an anemic second half to just 112 total yards.
Starting quarterback Matt Johns threw just seven passes in the second half, completing three for 28 yards and an interception. Johns was also sacked once and was able to convert another dropback in which he was flushed out of the pocket into a first down with a nice scramble, but by and large, the chains didn’t move for the ‘Hoos in the second half.
Virginia had five first downs in the second half, after picking up 13 in the first half, and the Cavs ran just three plays in Pitt territory in the entirety of the second half.
“It was frustrating, but we converted some big third-down plays to keep their offense off the field,” said Johns, who was a pedestrian 9-for-16 passing for 93 yards and a touchdown in the win. “You have to take your hats off to Pitt. They put us in bad field position the whole second half. The first half we had great field position, and we moved the ball well.”
The point about field position is not actually borne out by the postgame statbook. Virginia’s average starting field position in the first half was the UVA 23 yard line; the second-half average starting field position was the Virginia 27.
It wasn’t field positon; it was an approach reminiscent of the good ol’ days of Virginia football, when George Welsh-era teams with big early leads turned conservative, trying to deflate the football and milk the clock, and saw a string of notable defeats get snatched from the jaws of victory in the process.
The good news for Virginia fans is that the good guys got the W Saturday night, but the lesson to be learned by all, players and particularly coaches, is that there is an art to winning games, and this administration under London hasn’t had a lot of experience having to protect big leads against opponents like a Pitt who can turn a sliver of an opening into opportunity to get back into the game.
“My hat goes off to Pittsburgh. This was a very tough and physical game, and we knew it was going to be that,” London said. “They have a great running back in James Conner, their defense was in the top 10 coming into this game, and I feel really good about some of the effort and some of the things we did. We were resilient. We made plays in the end when we had to do so. Again, with the effort, your hat goes off to players that make those types of plays.”
– Column by Chris Graham
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