A call to sanity
As almost anyone who regularly follows sports pundits or really digs the history of quantum physics surely knows, Albert Einstein famously defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Although the people responsible for those untenable “Resident Evil” movies have somehow never heard the cliché, most of the rest of us can recite it by heart.
The Virginia football team played its collective heart out during Thursday night’s nationally-televised home finale against North Carolina. Nevertheless, the Cavaliers, as they have done too many times to participate in a bowl this winter, faltered in excruciatingly frustrating fashion. A 37-13 defeat to the rival Tar Heels dealt Virginia the latest body blow in a season that could fairly be characterized as one lingering, nauseating punch to the gut.
“It hurts, honestly,” senior linebacker LaRoy Reynolds said. “You put in so much work, so much effort, all the guys collectively.”
Thursday’s night game, appropriately, evolved into the ideal report card for the state of Virginia football. Sure, we can bleat about all the bad breaks and barely missed opportunities and the unstoppable “momentum” that carried North Carolina after the Tar Heels stuffed Kevin Parks on a potential game-tying touchdown attempt on fourth down from the one late in the third quarter and promptly marched 97 yards on 12 plays to build a 27-13 advantage.
But championship-caliber teams, even when the odds stack against them, make their own luck. If North Carolina’s fourth-quarter dominance and overall superiority demonstrated anything, it’s that Virginia is nearly as far away from becoming a championship-worthy team as Charles Barkley is from shooting under-par on a golf course. The Tar Heels won because they outran, outmuscled and out-thought an inferior opponent. Fundamental changes need to transpire for the Cavaliers to again emerge as a dangerous ACC contender — and avoid repeating the same mistakes from this season in the future.
That the current quarterback situation more or less amounts to what it was at the onset of the season — namely, an unresolved, scattered mess — qualifies as one of the many problems that needs attending. After Virginia’s two blissfully and inexplicably effective forays into the dual-quarterback system against NC State and Duke, Thursday served as a reminder of why the preponderance of evidence suggests that having two quarterbacks amounts to having none.
Although junior Michael Rocco and sophomore Phillip Sims sporadically succeeded against North Carolina’s largely underwhelming defense, their nervy performance illustrated the inherent flaw in the two-quarterback plan: It arose in the first place not because both quarterbacks could complement each other but because neither played consistently well enough to earn the starting job unequivocally.
“We’d like to have had a better game,” coach Mike London said of his signal-callers. “There were some drops there, some underneath routes that we didn’t convert.”
With Virginia alarmingly entering into the same unsettled scenario next season, one of the quarterbacks will have to emerge in the coming months as the unquestioned starter. Otherwise, London will have to conclude what many already fear: Though both possess sterling attitudes, neither may be the answer at the quarterback position.
Of course, neither Rocco nor Sims would have to shoulder the burden of the offense if the unit truly operated as it should, with the passing game deriving from a relentless, consistent running game.
Glorified by hacks like me as a dynamic duo at this season’s outset, senior running back Perry Jones and Parks have tantalized fans this season without ever consistently electrifying them. For example, even though the two combined for 103 yards and several impressive runs Thursday night, they averaged less than four yards per carry.
I freely admit to lacking offensive coordinator Bill Lazor’s offensive expertise, but I do know that Virginia’s offense has looked the most formidable this year when the running game is creating opportunities for Rocco and Sims to exploit looser coverage. That the offense in practice has either strayed from or inaccurately applied that formula this season necessitates that Parks, with the help of sophomores Clifton Richardson and Khalek Shepherd, become the unit’s focal point and stabilizing factor.
The defense, too, faces tough decisions and adjustments on the horizon. Somewhat surprisingly after Duke Johnson tore through them like the standard U.Va. late-night studier tearing through a Littlejohn’s sub, the Cavaliers limited incendiary North Carolina tailback Giovani Bernard, who entered as the nation’s third-leading all-purpose gainer, to just 57 yards rushing — validating themselves as a decent run-stopping unit.
But the manner in which North Carolina did thrive against Virginia’s defense raises all sorts of alarm bells. First, many Cavaliers’ “tackles” again resembled awkward, weak attempts at hugs and led to huge Tar Heel gains. Defensive coordinator Jim Reid will need to enhance his players’ grasp of fundamental tackling ability, just as the players will have to acknowledge an embarrassing reality: Their general inability to master defense’s most critical skill in games has severely harmed their team.
As the ease with which North Carolina lacerated the Virginia secondary with a steady diet of bubble screens and short routes illustrates, the back four are responsible for a disturbing proportion of that weak tackling. In racking up an absurd 16 catches for 178 yards, 6-foot-4 freshman Tar Heel wide receiver Quinshad Davis in particular tormented Cavalier sophomore conerbacks Demetrious Nicholson and Drequan Hoskey.
“I thought that their receivers, physically, got on our corners there a little bit, and gave their receiver an opportunity to catch the ball, get seven or eight yards, and they were consistent with that,” London said.
For the 45,760 who endured a chilly night at Scott Stadium Thursday, Virginia’s effort and diligence weren’t enough to prevent them from feeling a little bit colder at the end. They’ve done it bravely and nobly, but the Cavaliers have beaten their heads against the same wall all year by trying to win without correcting many of their most pressing issues.
That wall, unfortunately, remains standing. It’s the barrier between Virginia and bowl eligibility, and it’s not going anywhere for at least another year.