Scott German: Special teams lay an egg in Chick-fil-A Bowl

Turnovers and string of special-teams miscues put Virginia in the HOV lane to disaster in the 2011 Chick-fil-A Bowl against an Auburn University team that knew exactly how to convert those mistakes into quick points. The end result was a 43-24 drubbing at the hands of the defending national champions Saturday night in the Atlanta Georgia Dome.

Virginia was able to leave Atlanta with some confidence as the Cavaliers put up impressive numbers on offense, including 435 yards against an Auburn defense that at times this season had been thin. Sophomore quarterback Michael Rocco finished off a successful year with 312 yards passing and two touchdowns . Virginia’s running game, which had been virtually shutdown in its previous two games (Florida State University, Virginia Tech), ground out 125 yards against the Tigers.

However, plain and simple the story line of the game was Virginia’s special teams, which was far from special and in fact pretty ugly. The list of mistakes was long and unfortunately most resulted in points by an Auburn team that is looking to use this bowl as the catalyst toward an Southeastern Conference title in 2012.

Two blocked punts, one which resulted into a Tiger score, the other a safety, an Auburn onside kick recovered by the Tigers and the icing – a 62-yard punt return – all but ended any Cavalier hopes of a victory. That’s nearly an entire season of mistakes all wrapped up in one game. Special-teams play, because of a lack of weekly practice time, is much like wine in that it should improve with age. Not the case with this season’s unit, which started sour and concluded that way.

Still, despite the mistakes, Virginia found itself trailing by only 11 points, having scored on a very impressive long drive midway through the third quarter. After a strong defensive stand by the Wahoos, there was reason for optimism, with the ‘Hoos even finding themselves with possession of the ball in the shadows of their own end zone at the four. But special-teams play would once again rear its ugly head. The Cavalier offensive line, which had protected Rocco well all season, allowed Auburns massive D line (averaging 335 pounds) to penetrate the Virginia backfield and bury Rocco at the one-foot line, forcing a punt.

Cavalier punter Jimmy Howell was backed up at the very last inch of the end zone just about 10 yards away from a furious Tiger punt rush team. Auburn’s massive linemen Angel Blackson went untouched through the line and blocked the punt into the stands, which resulted in a safety. making it a 37-24 game. On the ensuing punt, Auburn returner Quan Bray slashed and dashed his way through a porous Virginia defense to the 15 yard line. One minute later the Tigers booted a field goal for a 40-24 lead and all but turned out the Georgia Dome’s lights for Virginia as the Cavaliers never threatened again.

So now the 2012 Virginia football season is officially on the clock. Virginia coach Mike London perhaps may be facing his first critical decision in the McCue Center as what to do with special-teams coach Anthony Poindexter. Poindexter, a longtime fan favorite as both a player and coach, is clearly not getting the job done with his unit. The entire season was almost a comedy of errors in the arena of special-teams play. While some of the poor play ultimately did not cost the Cavaliers a win against lesser-quality opponents, it was completely on display Saturday evening what a lackluster effort by special teams would result in.

If Virginia someday hopes to matchup with the big boys of college football the entire team must step up and contribute positively. Special teams must be just that – special.

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