The Blame Game
In the aftermath of Virginia’s zany 44-38 defeat to Louisiana Tech, Coach Mike London was the spitting image of a man trying as hard as humanly possible to avoid the use of a four-letter word. And who could blame him, or the players and fans who likely lacked such restraint, for expressing frustration at the Bulldogs’ controversial victory—and in particular at a late, possibly erroneous substitution infraction call that secured the result? Nothing, after all, enrages fans, players and coaches more than squandering a winnable game through self-inflicted miscues—except, of course, when they lose a winnable game thanks to dubious officiating. The Cavaliers managed both of those distinctions Saturday, accomplishing the rare double in such agonizing fashion that it’s a wonder we’re not the Cleveland Cavaliers.
“We gained a lot of yards and scored a lot of points, but the key is self-inflicted wounds,” offensive coordinator Bill Lazor said. “…the disappointing thing is that we hurt ourselves, and not taking credit away from Louisiana Tech because I thought they played hard, but the penalties and turnovers really hurt today.”
Indeed, there are plenty of culprits for Virginia’s loss. So many, in fact, that the blame game that inevitably follows every defeat is already in full swing.
Most of the hoopla will revolve around the already-infamous illegal substitution. After bringing their punt team out on the field to kick the ball back to a simmering, Philip Sims-led Virginia offense, coach Sonny Dykes and the Bulldogs audibled and sent offensive personnel on the field. When London ushered a cornerback on the field, however, sophomore running back Khalek Shepherd remained deep to receive the kick; and once the back judge noticed twelve men on the field, he flagged Virginia for an illegal substitution. Cue the Cavaliers’ third straight loss, a very disgruntled head coach, and 42,027 furious fans.
“From a technical standpoint,” London said through gritted teeth, “they put their punt team on and we put our return team on…due to that, however, you have to be allowed the opportunity to substitute your correct personnel into the game.”
Nevertheless, though the last one will inevitably hog the headlines, the penalties not involving questionable interpretations of the substitution rule played just as pivotal a role in the final outcome. Sure, the officiating crew occasionally sunk to NFL replacement ref levels of ineptitude as they failed to assert any semblance of control over a relentlessly chippy affair. But 16 penalties and four personal fouls indicate that the Cavaliers let the antics of the opposition dictate their behavior, which almost always translates to an added number in the loss column.
“You talk about playing smart. The second guy always gets caught. There was a lot of chippiness going on out there, a lot of talk and just stuff that we don’t need to get involved with,” London said.
“We needed to cut some of those penalties out. That’s going to be one of the things we try to eliminate going forward,” senior running back Perry Jones said.
Once the screaming heads finish harping on poor officiating and Virginia’s lack of discipline, however, they’ll almost certainly direct their wrath toward embattled junior quarterback Michael Rocco. Inconsistency from Rocco has become as synonymous with Virginia’s 2012 campaign as queso with a Qdoba burrito, but Saturday especially showcased the two extremes: the quarterback simultaneously had his best game of the season and potentially lost his starting position. Rocco was an impressive 13-for-16 for 265 yards and two touchdowns in just a quarter and a half when his perfect 17th pass bounced off the hands of sophomore Dominique Terrell—one of a number of Virginia receivers struggling with drops— and into those of Bulldog Quinn Giles.
From that moment on, Rocco floundered against a Louisiana Tech defense with more debilitating issues than SIS on the first add day of the semester.
“We had a lot of yards, a lot of penalties and a couple turnovers,” Rocco said. “We prepared the way we wanted to, but things happen that you regret.”
The stellar play of sophomore quarterback and now heir apparent Philip Sims hardly helped matters for Rocco. Brandishing his cannon-like arm strength on a number of breathtaking deep passes, including an immaculate 23-yard rainbow touchdown to freshman Adrian Gamble, the much ballyhooed Alabama transfer led two long touchdown drives to nearly erase a 20 point fourth quarter deficit. Sims still holds on to the ball too long and pulled his fourth quarter heroics against a Louisiana Tech squad vying to usurp the Saints as this year’s “Louisiana team that wins games while only playing on one side of the ball,” but he has proven himself as both an enthralling talent and a selfless, humble teammate.
“I think he did a good job throwing the ball accurately downfield,” Lazor said. “It looked from the sideline like he had good poise in the pocket, and we’ll keep working on it.”
“I try to help my team when called on,” Sims said. “I go in every play to get better, and that has to be your goal.”
Finally, fans will have plenty of bones to pick with the coaching staff. The shoddy discipline and lack of communication which enabled the Shepherd debacle are worrying, but London and Lazor’s vacillation and indecision on the quarterback position has incurred the brunt of the scorn. Admittedly, London was right not to make any rash decisions after the game.
“I haven’t seen the tape. I can’t make any decisions about that right now,” the clearly agitated coach said.
Still, the coaches’ now habitual practice of pulling Rocco after things start going poorly undermines the quarterback’s confidence and certainly contributed to his second and third quarter implosion. London and Lazor’s loyalty in Rocco is admirable and understandable given his flashes of adequacy, but the coaches need to stop avoiding a difficult but inevitable decision. They need to give Sims his shot.
Playing the blame game is always a cathartic experience, a type of coping mechanism that both dulls the acute pain of such a deflating loss and allows you to hone in your frustration on a specific target. But having hashed out the sundry factors which combined to doom Virginia Saturday, fans, players and coaches alike should beware of permitting the blame game to shape their attitude towards this team.
It’s not just that we should focus on the positive—although the offense does deserve kudos for racking up 625 yards, as does the defense for battling valiantly against the Louisiana Tech offensive juggernaut.
All too often in this impatient, volatile sports climate, we crave a villain to assign responsibility for our suffering. Chuck Klosterman alluded to this earlier this week in a piece on Grantland about Chris Johnson and fantasy football: when we invest so much time, money, and emotional capital into a failing team or player, bitterness and resentment can poison us with a sense of entitlement. This attitude accounted for the droves of fans that started filing out of Scott Stadium during that humiliating 34-0 Tech run: some didn’t care enough to stay, but I’d like to think others cared so much that they refused to bear another second.
The Cavaliers—and to a certain extent, the officials as well—owe it to the people who love and support this game to toil as strenuously as possible to rectify their flaws. But they are not villains for losing a game. If anything, as the fans now know who weathered the entire game in all its misery, they’re more like heroes for mastering one of life’s hardest tests: persisting in the face of disaster and doubt.
In the end, London captured my point more eloquently than I could ever hope to.
“I’m not going to give up on this team. I’m not going to allow them to give up on themselves…to the fans: hang with us. Don’t leave. Hang with us. We’ll be fine. We’ll be all right. We need your support. I’ll coach the guys harder; I’ll coach the guys better. We’ll be representatives of this University.”
And, really, who can blame him for that?