Am I wrong… to think Mike London should be gone?
That lame attempt at a humorous half-rhyme describes my feelings in the wake of Virginia football’s eleventh straight loss to rival Virginia Tech, a 24-20 stinkfest that featured some of the worst offensive football I’ve seen in around 20 years of watching the sport. Despite all that, Virginia hung with Virginia Tech until the end, getting a clutch touchdown pass from QB Greyson Lambert to tight end Zachary Swanson with 2:55 left in the fourth quarter, after Lambert couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn for most of the game. But of course, that was the precise time when the defense decided to take a series off, as Virginia Tech got a 50-yard completion from QB Michael Brewer to wideout Bucky Rogers that set up the winning touchdown. Virginia had a brief last-gasp drive with Matt Johns at the controls after Lambert was injured, but ultimately the Hokies emerged victorious with an eleventh straight Commonwealth Cup title, and made a bowl game for the 22nd straight season, ending Virginia’s season.
Virginia had a lot of problems in this game, and I’m going to go through a few of them now.
Run blocking. Virginia has two talented running backs in Kevin Parks, who has gained over 700 yards in each of his four years as a Cavalier, and Taquan Mizzell, who was a five-star recruit coming out of high school. But too often it seemed like they were running into a brick wall, with the offensive line failing to open holes for them to gain significant yardage. In fact, Tech was too frequently able to push Parks back, losing yardage and crippling any chances Virginia had of scoring. This made the Cavs’ offense one-dimensional, and the Hokies’ defense capitalized.
Seizing up in enemy territory. My friend Aaron predicted this one spot on. Lost in Virginia’s offensive ineptitude was the fact that they had several drives that started or went into Tech territory. Virginia wasn’t able to capitalize on these opportunities, and that contributed to their loss. One particularly maddening sequence in the second quarter happened just after Mizzell hauled in a 54-yard pass at the Hokie 6-yard line. Virginia was unable to punch the ball in for a TD, even losing two yards on third down, and had to settle for a field goal.
Virginia also missed a big opportunity to put a lot of pressure on Tech in the third quarter, when they faced 3rd and 1 on the Tech 16 while still clinging to a 13-10 lead. Lambert and Parks failed to gain even one yard on consecutive runs, which would’ve set UVA up for a touchdown that would’ve given them a 20-10 lead and might’ve won them the game. Hell, even a field goal and 16-10 would’ve helped.
Pass accuracy. After a solid performance against Miami the previous week, in which he completed 68% of his passes in a 30-13 win, Lambert was mostly awful in the rivalry game. He completed less than half his passes, and many of the incompletions were wildly off base. That said, he did a few solid plays (the aforementioned TD to Swanson and 54-yard play to Mizzell), and got cheated out of a few (a 72-yard play that was called back, see below), but he had major accuracy issues for a good part of this game, which limited the Cavaliers’ ability to advance downfield quickly.
Lack of creative playcalling. Sure, the Hoos had the occasional trick play up their sleeve (that they botched), but for the most part, Virginia’s playcalling on offense was pretty bland, especially in the running game. Every play seemed to be a draw up the middle. Few sweeps, not a lot of misdirection or even running to different sides of the field. I think our passing playcalling was a bit better, but Tech’s defense seemed to sniff a lot of it out, so I don’t know that that was true either.
Dumb, dumb penalties. This was probably the most infuriating part of Virginia’s play. And it was most apparent in the fourth quarter, when the game was on the line. Lambert had a brilliant pass to wideout Darius Jennings that went 72 yards to the Tech 10. But it was all wiped out because Conner Davis went too far downfield, and was flagged as an ineligible receiver. Say what you want about the call (I question the logic of this rule, and teams get away with it all the time), but any offensive lineman that’s been playing college football for four years should know not to do that. Cornerback Divante Walker also had an inexplicable kick-catch interference penalty where he launched himself into Tech’s return man before the ball was even close to him, enabling the Hokies to start the drive in Cavalier territory.
And last but not least, defensive end Mike Moore committed maybe the dumbest penalty all night, when he ran into Brewer at least 3 seconds after he released a pass, resulting in a 15-yard penalty and first down on a pass that would’ve been incomplete. That was inexcusable. It’d have been one thing if his momentum had carried him forward into Brewer not long after he released the pass, but this was clearly not the case. How could he have thought there wouldn’t be a flag there?! Luckily, his bonehead play was partially overshadowed by linebacker Henry Coley’s pass interference flag that gave the Hokies a fresh set of downs and enabled them to score the winning TD.
There were some bright spots in this game, don’t get me wrong. Virginia’s defense largely played well, with defensive tackle David Dean intercepting a Brewer pass and diving into the end zone to give Virginia the halftime lead. But at least three of the above problems (and maybe even all of them) can be traced directly back to coaching. Virginia played an undisciplined, sloppy game on offense, and that needs to stop. The coaching staff is still struggling with player development, as Mizzell hasn’t really developed into the kind of player we’d expected coming out of high school. The same could probably be said of Lambert. Several bad sideline decisions plagued this team, just like last year. I wrote that London should be shown the door if he failed to make a bowl game this year, and I stand by that opinion. Sadly, athletic director Craig Littlepage has announced London will be back in 2015, which saps my enthusiasm for next season. While Virginia has surprised us before (see 2011 and 2007), I don’t think that’s in the works next year, and I dread watching another frustrating and inconsistent team.