The blame game
In the aftermath of Virginia’s zany 44-38 loss against 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? 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.
“It wasn’t just that play,” London said. “…You look at that play, or other plays, and there are other plays that occurred during the game that had we executed better than we did, we may not even be talking about this ending as it is right now.”
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 for this one.
Most of the hoopla will revolve around the already-infamous illegal substitution on fourth down that snuffed out Virginia’s hopes of winning with less than two minutes remaining. Although many observers will likely blame London and sophomore running back Khalek Shepherd for the untimely mishap, London claims that the referees failed to allot the Cavaliers an opportunity to substitute their personnel after Louisiana Tech swapped its punt team for the offense.
“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. Sixteen 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.
“The second guy always gets caught,” London said. “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.”
Once the screaming heads finish harping on poor officiating and Virginia’s lack of discipline, 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, and Saturday failed to break the mold: 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 wide receiver Dominique Terrell — one of a number of Virginia receivers struggling with drops — and into the arms 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, 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 without a defense, but he has proven himself as both an enthralling talent and a galvanizing leader.
“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.”
Finally, fans will have plenty of bones to pick with the coaching staff. The shoddy discipline and lack of communication that enabled the Shepherd debacle are troubling, but London and Lazor’s vacillation on the issue of the quarterback position has rightly incurred the brunt of the scorn. Though London was right not to make any rash decisions after the game, the coaches’ now habitual practice of pulling Rocco after his performance dips undermines the quarterback’s confidence and certainly contributed to his second and third quarter implosion Saturday. London and Lazor’s loyalty in Rocco is admirable, but the coaches need to stop avoiding a difficult but inevitable decision. They need to give Sims his shot.
But having hashed out the sundry factors that combined to doom Virginia Saturday, fans, players and coaches alike should beware of permitting the blame game to shape their attitude toward this team.
As Chuck Klosterman alluded 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 consume us and prevent us from rationally responding to disappointment. 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 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, they’re more like heroes for fighting back on a day when they had every excuse to give up.
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?