Good job, good effort, bad times

As crestfallen superstars LeBron James and Dwyane Wade of the Miami Heat harrumphed into the tunnel after an Eastern Conference Finals loss to the Boston Celtics in 2012, a young fan giddily screamed, “Good job! Good effort!” at them. That the juxtaposition of these idols’ dejection and the fan’s unabashed, kindly support so startled us crystallized one of the core ironies of sports’ current role in American society: For all the moralizing rhetoric out there about the indomitable power of teamwork and persistence and a “can do” attitude, they aren’t enough to outweigh the torturous disappointment of coming up short.

As the sun set on an idyllic Charlottesville Saturday afternoon, the Virginia players exited the field in equal misery after Saturday’s 27-20 Homecomings loss to rival Maryland that all but sent their bowl chances, like their new indoor practice facility, up in smoke. The squad had ample reason to feel proud of its exploits after resiliently storming back from a 17-0 deficit in front of a spotty, often exasperated Scott Stadium crowd of 45,556.

Good job. Good effort.

“I understand that we live in a culture of wins and losses and things like that,” coach Mike London said. “It’s not from a lack of effort or a lack of trying.”

Indeed, of the litany of issues conspiring to turn this 2012 Virginia football season into the football equivalent of Shaq’s acting career, effort is not one of them. If anything, London’s teams have always played to the final whistle and beyond, and — as evidenced by another seven penalties for 70 yards and two more personal fouls against the Terrapins mainly arising from overzealousness — this group fits that bill perfectly.

“It’s disappointing because I feel that we have worked to get us to a point where we should be winning,” senior linebacker LaRoy Reynolds said. “I think we worked really hard this offseason, extremely hard.”

Unfortunately for Reynolds and the rest of his teammates, Virginia plays at a level in the FBS in which the proper application of effort and diligence distinguishes the champions from the also-rans and enables them to establish an identity. The Maryland loss showed that the Cavaliers and their coaches, particularly on offense, are struggling to form such an identity. They’re running around like chickens with their heads cut off, even if they are running hard.

Admittedly, the game’s first 10 minutes suggested that Virginia did, in fact, embrace an identity: that of a really, really terrible football team. Following Maryland receiver Stefon Diggs’ untouched 100-yard game-opening kickoff return were two punchless Virginia drives followed by two Terrapin scoring drives marred by Virginia tackling so inept it wouldn’t fly in the intramural fraternity flag football league. Before anyone could say “ACC cellar-dweller,” the Cavaliers faced a 17-0 deficit.

“It’s tough when you put yourself in a hole like that,” senior linebacker Steve Greer said. “But you have to be mentally tough and bounce back.”

And even though the Cavaliers did, for the most part, bounce back after their abjectly disastrous start, the nature of their response indicated why a team that was a bedrock of consistency in 2011 has become erratic, nervy, undisciplined and every other adjective normally reserved for Norv Turner-coached teams.

To their credit, Jim Reid and his defense mostly accomplished his game plan of stifling the run and alleviating as much pressure as possible from the young secondary after that torrid opening, allowing -2 rushing yards all game. But while the maligned defense is gelling as a front seven-driven, pass-rushing force, the Virginia offense — purportedly the squad’s strongest unit — is somehow struggling to score consistently despite outgaining its opponents in each of its past three games.

In his second start, sophomore quarterback Phillip Sims largely alternated between holding onto the ball for Roethlisberger-esque lengths of time and throwing quick passes designed to ensure completions that were often either poorly thrown or batted down at the line.

“I just didn’t do a good job of getting the ball to my team,” Sims said. “I need to get the ball into their hands, and I wasn’t doing it.”

Perhaps more alarmingly, offensive coordinator Bill Lazor is clearly limiting the playbook when Sims plays — unwilling to commit wholeheartedly to a vertical attack or to the shorter, West Coast-style passing game that he prefers with Rocco. On Sims’ final drive, Lazor called a toss and a tight end screen on first and second downs before having to send the receivers deep on Sims’ eventual third down fumble — hardly indicative of a coordinator who understands yet how best to utilize his newest offensive weapon.

Even the running game, though effective Saturday, has yet to establish a clear identity. The Cavaliers did rack up 168 yards on 42 carries against what was the conference’s second-best run defense, and sophomore running back Kevin Parks’ career-high 129 yards may vault him once and for all above senior Perry Jones as the team’s feature back. But the quality and nature of the rushing attack wavered Saturday as it has all season, even if the work rate never did. At various points during the game, London and Lazor relied on downhill power running through power formations, sweeps in spread formations and no running game at all, often abruptly switching from one to the other in response to ineffective plays.

All in all, the offense’s inability to discover its niche has resulted in a side that occasionally thrives, but more often looks lost. The 19 turnovers, admittedly, haven’t helped.

Obviously, comparing the talent level of Virginia’s roster in college football to the Miami Heat’s in the NBA equates to comparing a Lean Cuisine meatloaf dinner to a steak from Michael’s Bistro. But the self-defeating nature of Saturday’s loss, like all of the team’s last three losses, reinforces that lack of identity, not effort, has torpedoed Virginia’s 2012 chances.

“Not enough good things happened to us today at the end to pull this thing out,” London said. “Great effort by these guys, but great effort doesn’t end the result with the ‘W.’”

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