November 26, 2020

Independent analysis and commentary on UVA athletics

Blunders Continue To Hamper ‘Hoos In Loss to Demon Deacons

Wake Forest 40, Virginia 23:

I am a UVa and Dallas Cowboys fan, so I think you can forgive me for looking ahead to basketball a little bit after the first several weeks of the season. But my mind wandered to some of Tony Bennett’s sayings as I was reviewing the Cavaliers’ latest gridiron letdown Saturday against the Demon Deacons in Winston-Salem.

Don’t get too high or too low, and you’re never as good as your best performance or as bad as your worst performance.

I do not think Virginia is as bad as its 1-3 record indicates. However, it is clear at this point that the team is further away from the nine-win campaign of a year ago than a lot of us thought. And being within 10 points of Clemson seems to have been an aberration, or a case of the Tigers taking us lightly and looking ahead to Miami. Those of us who read too much into that relatively close game (by Clemson standards) were maybe a little too high on the ‘Hoos. And on the other hand, the segment of the fan base predicting just one more win this season and warning about the end of the Bronco Mendenhall era — I think those people need to chill out a bit. It doesn’t appear right now that this team is going to finish with a record many of us would call successful, but there’s still plenty of games left, plenty of time to watch this team develop, and plenty of time to set up for more success in 2021.

Once again, the defeat Saturday came down to just a handful of plays, maybe two to three really big ones that turned the tide. But in 2020, UVa does not have a Bryce Perkins, a Joe Reed, a Hasise Dubois, a Bryce Hall, a Jordan Mack, heck even a solid veteran defensive lineman like Eli Hanback to bail it out of some tough situations. As Bennett also likes to say sometimes — especially last season when the hardwood ‘Hoos were walking the tightrope and losing some close games before winning a lot down the stretch — the margin for error between winning and losing can be very small. And for the UVa football team this year, it is razor thin.

The Cavaliers had opportunities to win that game Saturday, but they did not capitalize on them. The team never seemed like it was in a groove or settled. I never felt like Virginia had a better than 50 percent chance to win, even once it tied the score. In fact, it often felt like the chance to win was just teetering on the edge of a cliff, almost certain to meet a demise. And then the big plays, the big mistakes happened late, knockout punches that were punishment for the Wahoos being unable to seize the moment and go win the game.

Once again, the team got off to a slow start. Before you were finished half of your first drink or half of your first game time snack, UVa was down 14-0. Immediately, the team was playing from behind with its backup quarterback, not an ideal position to be in. But from that point forward, Wake Forest (2-2, 1-2 ACC) only outscored Virginia 26-23, which means if the Cavaliers could have just been more competitive in the first few minutes, they may have had a chance to win it at the end. Until Virginia can score first on an opponent and figure this slow start problem out, beating anyone left on the schedule not named Abilene Christian and maybe Louisville (surprisingly) is going to be hard to do. Fellow ACC bottom-feeders Syracuse and Georgia Tech aren’t on the schedule. Florida State looked to be as sure of a win as FSU can ever be, but then the Seminoles went out and beat North Carolina, so who knows now.

Virginia’s issues begin with slow starts. But they don’t end there.

On UVa’s first scoring drive, Lindell Stone missed a wide open Terrell Jana in the end zone. Instead of 14-7, the ‘Hoos had to settle for a field goal and 14-3. The former Woodberry Forest teammates had some good connections throughout the game, but that wasn’t one of them.

At the end of the first half, poor clock management and a penalty kept UVa from having a shot at taking the lead.

On first down, Wayne Taulapapa carried the ball for a sizeable 9-yard gain to the UVa 38-yard line. That’s fine. I know sometimes the team in that situation likes to run the ball, assess the gain, and then decide whether it wants to pursue scoring at the end of the half. But Mendenhall still had two timeouts at that point, and he needed to use one of them right away. Clearly, it looked like UVa was at least going to have a chance to get points. From its own 38, it needed only about 25 yards to try a field goal. Taulapapa was whistled down with 39 seconds left, but then the clock ticked away. Next, Stone completed a nice pass to TE Tony Poljan to the Wake Forest 43, and then finally, Mendenhall called timeout. But at that point, only 19 seconds remained.

Then Stone scrambled for 7 yards to the 34, but Virginia was penalized for an illegal formation. At that point, the Cavaliers were backed up to the 46 with only six seconds left. Out of field goal range, out of time. Calling the timeout after the Taulapapa run would’ve allowed for another play or two to be run to get back into field goal range. Or without the penalty, they were already in field goal range. Failure to do either one correctly resulted in no points. Virginia did a good job of scoring at the end of the first half against Clemson and N.C. State, but not at Wake.

Virginia shot itself in the foot again at the beginning of the second half.

On third-and-1, Keytaon Thompson rushed for 5 yards into Wake territory. I thought, all right, we are rolling now — not so fast my friend. Center Olu Oluwatimi was called for holding. The down-and-distance became third-and-11, and UVa was unable to convert. Conservatively, let’s say that on the last drive of the first half and the first drive of the second half, the ‘Hoos cost themselves two field goals, so six points. That would’ve made the score 26-20. Had that happened, Wake would’ve been behind and maybe would have had to change its mindset and game plan a bit. Even a TD and an extra point by the Demon Deacons would’ve made it just 27-26. Then if UVa hits a field goal, it leads again. But I digress.

The defense stopped the Deacons two drives in a row, so Virginia had multiple chances to capture the lead and could not. On UVa’s third drive of the second half, Brian Delaney missed a 36-yard field goal that could’ve put it up 23-20. He had made 17 straight attempts. When it rains, it pours.

Early in the fourth, it was 23-20, but Virginia was driving into the red zone, threatening to take the lead again, when another bone-headed penalty hurt the offense. On first-and-10, Thompson ran the ball to the Wake 18, but TE Grant Misch was assessed a personal foul after the play. Instead of second-and-6, it became first-and-21. UVa did not pick up another first down, though Delaney did tie the contest.

And then this week’s back-breakers came.

The defense, which had held up pretty well in the second half to that point, let RB Kenneth Walker III bide his time in the backfield and pick his lane. Once he got around CB Nick Grant, it was over. Seventy-five yards. To the house. The Demon Deacons used that hesitation move on RPOs and handoffs successfully over and over. They rushed for 179 yards, and Sam Hartman passed for another 309, on only 16 completions. That’s almost 20 yards per reception. Hartman was an equal opportunity burner. Safety Joey Blount (back from an injury, though he left this game, too), safety Brenton Nelson, and Grant were all taken advantage of at different times.

Then Wake attempted the pooch kick, and UVa was unable to cover it. Perris Jones has to just fall on the ball there, and it looked like he tried to pick it up. But I thought that was a really well-executed kick by Wake’s Jack Crane, and a great call by Demon Deacons coach Dave Clawson. He called it at the perfect time, right after Wake had reclaimed momentum, and it was a low-risk play. Worst-case scenario, Virginia probably has the ball at about the 30-yard line. And he knew that the Cavaliers were struggling on offense anyway, so giving up a few potential yards on the kickoff was not a big deal.

As you can see, it was just a litany of issues that killed Virginia, whether it was giving up a long run, a long pass, committing a turnover, a special teams miscue, a blown opportunity on offense, a dumb penalty — something bad was always right around the corner. This prevalence of bad things occurring does not remind me of 2018-19 UVa football. It reminds me of the dark years before the past two seasons.

It is not too surprising that the offense is struggling since it is missing Perkins and playmakers in Dubois and Reed. Plus, the starting QB has not played in more than 1.5 games. But the defense being bad is surprising. There’s plenty of experience back on that side of the ball. I guess it wasn’t unreasonable to expect a drop-off with key players missing on each level (Hanback, Mack, Hall), but I thought the development of guys like Blount, Nelson, Zane Zandier, Charles Snowden, Noah Taylor, Briggs, and Mandy Alonso would be such that the drop-off would not be steep. So far, it looks like I am incorrect, though I must acknowledge the defense was pretty ragged by the end of 2019 due to attrition. Out of 77 FBS teams that have played in 2020, UVa ranks No. 56 in passing defense.

But despite the issues in the first 45 minutes of the game, Virginia was in it until the fourth quarter. I am hopeful that this team can still win a few more games, because it only takes a couple of big plays — or better yet, the avoidance of a couple of bad plays — to turn losses into victories. But right now, the Cavaliers just can’t afford many of those errors if they want to have a chance to win on the final drive of the game. They just aren’t good enough.

Observations And Notes

  • Stone was OK. He completed 24 of 42 passes for 193 yards, but no TDs and two picks, only one of which mattered. The guy is a gamer, and he’s done better than probably a lot of fans thought he would. But he’s not going to carry the team on his back. A friend messaged me before Saturday’s game noticing Stone’s — ahem — I’ll just say dad bod. And I was like, well, he actually is a dad. Stone is not exactly going to be a surprise star QB at this point in his life. If he continues to play, Virginia will have to be that much better around him, because he won’t be able to overcome some of the mistakes Brennan Armstrong maybe could.
  • Speaking of Armstrong, if he comes back this week, that won’t magically solve all of our problems. He was a part of the reason for the slow start against Duke and the losses to Clemson and N.C. State. When he comes back, with his running ability and stronger arm, he is better than Stone, but we will still have a first-time starter under center that was having his own struggles.

  • If Armstrong can’t play against Miami — and even if he can — I’d like to see true freshman Ira Armstead more. He attempted three passes, completed one for 9 yards, and ran for 46 yards, including a TD. I thought he showed a little more speed and shiftiness than Thompson, who was good in his own right. With this being a year that does not count against eligibility, I’d like to see the coaches sprinkle in both just to give the opponent another thing to think about. Even though the three-quarterback system was odd Saturday, something about it worked, at least for a while. It would also give the coaches a chance to develop and assess Armstead, who will be a future competitor for the starting job. Let’s see what he has.
  • Taulapapa and Shane Simpson once again had solid outings. Taulapapa had 10 carries for 69 yards and a TD, and Simpson recorded five carries for 24 yards. UVa rushed for 218 yards, the first time it had at least 200 yards on the ground against an ACC team since North Carolina in 2018.

  • DT Jowon Briggs was awesome and finished with two sacks. That’s three on the year for the sophomore after he tallied just one in 2019. It’s great to see him develop, and it is much needed after the loss of Hanback and the opt out of Aaron Faumui.
  • The mishandled kick return notwithstanding, UVa did have some good ones during the game. Tavares Kelly Jr. had one go for 33 yards and another for 32. It was good to see some improvement in that area.
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