An avoidable collapse
In many senses, the Virginia coaching staff’s collective brain fart at the conclusion of the Cavaliers’ 17-14 loss to Virginia Tech precipitated an unjust ending to a hard-fought game and season. Aping time-management strategy from the “Andy Reid School of How to Make Reading a Clock Seem More Difficult than Deciphering Hieroglyphics,” head coach Mike “Mr. Freeze” London’s ill-advised attempt to “ice” Cody Journell with not one but two timeouts before a game-ending 29-yard field goal attempt overshadowed a valiant Virginia defensive effort. Even more heinously, the failure to preserve time for a final Virginia drive robbed the team of a chance for its first Commonwealth Cup since “The Cat in the Hat” topped the box office — no, really — and giftwrapped a bowl bid for a hated rival whose helmet features a turkey that resembles a villain in a straight-to-DVD Disney movie.
Yet as woefully egregious as such a development seemed Saturday afternoon, it tied a fitting ribbon on an arduous 2012 for the Cavaliers. The entire game, in fact, epitomized what has rendered this season so agonizingly frustrating: The loss, as well as Virginia’s failure to capitalize on a comically weak ACC Coastal field, was utterly avoidable.
We’ll start with the game-ending gaffe that has reduced Cavaliers fans to seething, blithering messes. London’s refusal to start dispensing Virginia’s timeouts when the Hokies faced a third and seven with just more than a minute remaining was more inexcusably inane than the standard Metta World Peace quote.
Whether London consciously saved two timeouts to ice Journell with four seconds left after burning his first to ice the kicker on a 42-yard miss with 3:43 remaining or simply miscalculated how much time he could preserve, the fact remains that a relatively straightforward situation bamboozled a highly intelligent and experienced coaching staff. All coaches, even the Urban Meyers of the world, commit gaffes. But after a game in which the offense wasted two first-half timeouts out of sheer confusion London’s colossal freeze-up served as the final embarrassing, avoidable communication mishap in a season defined by them.
Of course, Virginia could have avoided the late-game nightmare altogether had Tech cornerback Antone Exum not intercepted junior quarterback Michael Rocco’s wobbly underthrow to set the Hokies up at the 24 with 3:21 remaining. Exum’s shameless mugging of junior receiver Tim Smith on the play notwithstanding, Rocco missed a throw that any starting Division 1 quarterback should manage easily — and missed it badly. In fact, Rocco and the offense as a whole could have rewritten the narratives of this game and this season simply by properly executing easy opportunities. Plays such as Perry Jones’ nine-yard scamper on the second offensive play of the third quarter in which he tripped over his own feet with abundant green space ahead of him best encapsulate the Virginia offense’s maddening campaign. Even in the rare moments when the offense appeared to gel, the players could not get out of their own way.
The inconsistency at quarterback and underachieving of the running game certainly handcuffed the Virginia offense this year. But with just a few fewer horrid underthrows, drops, missed blocks, careless penalties and other self-inflicted wounds, the Cavaliers could have won their first Commonwealth Cup in nine years. What’s more, if they had avoided those gaffes throughout the season, we could have been anticipating a bowl appearance instead of mourning a wasted season.
Even the defense, despite vastly outperforming the offense and slowing Hokie quarterback Logan Thomas in the first half, struggled once again to grasp the simple concept of tackling. Granted, Virginia tackled much more efficiently Saturday than it did earlier this season, forcing nine Virginia Tech punts, tormenting the Hokies’ offensive line and even scoring its first defensive touchdown in a year with Brent Urban’s fumble recovery and return.
The defense’s late surge and obvious budding potential only make the flimsy arm tackles and mistimed hits on Thomas in the second half all the more exasperating. The irony of Virginia’s defensive performance this season was hard to ignore as the 6-foot-6-inch, 260-pound Thomas racked up 58 bruising second-half rushing yards — and senior linebacker Steve Greer tallied a career-high 19 tackles to prevent the Virginia Tech quarterback from rumbling his way for even more. Even as they have exceeded expectations, especially on run defense, the Cavaliers struggled with the expectation they should have fulfilled with ease: Consistently bringing down the dude with the ball.
So for all the chatter about the deep-rooted, damning issues this program faces going forward, Virginia finished with a measly four wins this season because of a startling glut of silly, easily remediable mistakes. And yet, though this conclusion should anger fans and ignite the previously non-existent heat on London to deliver more consistent success, it should also give fans hope for the future and help them appreciate the fine line between success and failure in this sport.
In 2011, Virginia won five games by one possession or less — games that easily could have broken the other way — and enjoyed an eight-win season and a bowl berth because of it. This season’s edition dropped four games by a touchdown or less in which the team could — and likely should — have prevailed. As a result, London will hear increasing murmurs about his job security just a year after reportedly turning down an offer to coach at Penn State.
The 2012 Cavaliers do not measure up to the prior season’s bowl squad, and they hardly deserve a pat on the back for winning four games. They reaped what they sowed this season with their stunning lack of focus on simple aspects of the game. But Virginia proved that it possesses the foundations for a successful long-term program going forward merely by competing so well in so many games despite its best efforts at self-sabotage.
The talent is there, and the effort and camaraderie deserve our full praise. Simply put, London must cut down on mistakes to achieve the kind of season that accurately reflects the quality of this team and to give the upstanding program and community the ending they deserve.