A tale of two teams
Loss to Duke features best and worst of Virginia football squad
It was the best of teams, it was the worst of teams. We had everything before us, we had nothing before us.
I’m not sure if Charles Dickens was trying to warn Virginia football fans about the trying times they would face in his — slightly paraphrased — opening line of “A Tale of Two Cities,” but the immortal words seem to fit the situation quite well.
Cavalier fans had to endure another trial Saturday, and only a few survived the entire thing. By the time Duke added a final field goal to complete a 35-straight point onslaught and hand the Cavaliers a stunning loss — their fourth straight defeat — the stands were largely empty. The final seconds ticked off the clock as the Blue Devils won 35-22 — their fifth victory in their last six games against the Cavaliers.
The loss was made all the more disappointing by Virginia’s inconsistency.
For the majority of the first half, I saw that best of teams. I witnessed a Virginia offense that looked like it had finally found the power-running identity it had been searching for, peppered with a bit of downfield passing and daring play-calling — namely a fake punt and a successful two-point conversion.
I saw a defense that had been banged up and exposed in recent losses to Ball State and Maryland come out and shut down a Blue Devil offense averaging 35.8 points per game, forcing punts on Duke’s first six possessions. Despite playing without defensive stalwarts Demetrious Nicholson and Brent Urban, the unit stepped up and made plays in the absence of two of its leaders.
After a frustrating three-game losing streak — all three of which were absolutely winnable games — it seemed as if it all was finally coming together for the Cavaliers.
The offense was moving the ball up and down the field, which it couldn’t do against Pitt. It scored touchdowns on all three trips to the red zone, which it couldn’t do in its heartbreaking loss at Maryland, where it instead kicked three field goals from inside the 20. The offense limited its turnovers and the defense made stops, which both units failed to do at home against Ball State.
But as Lee Corso loves to yell on ESPN’s College Gameday, “Not so fast!” Even with Virginia leading 22-0 with less than six minutes left in the first half, that feeling was still there — that feeling that gnaws at your insides telling you that no lead, no matter how large, is safe. And when Anthony Boone scrambled from a collapsing pocket and tossed a shovel pass that went for 25 yards, that feeling began to turn to full-on panic.
Duke’s offense began to cook, while Virginia’s disappeared even faster than its fan base. It was only a matter of time.
During the second half, Virginia was the worst of teams. It was as if the Cavaliers went into the locker room and made no adjustments, while Duke figured out how to stop the Virginia rushing attack and force David Watford to win the game. That strategy paid off, as the Cavaliers posted only 83 second-half yards, including a mere seven in the third quarter.
Watford’s performance mirrored his team’s. He looked good early in the game, very similar to his career day against Maryland last weekend. He was running instinctively and completed a few long passes. But his accuracy still leaves much to be desired, and that was apparent in the second half when he panicked and overthrew multiple open receivers.
Boone and fellow signal-caller Brandon Connette abused the Cavalier defense in the second half, particularly victimizing cornerbacks DreQuan Hoskey and true freshman Tim Harris. The Blue Devils converted all four fourth downs they attempted, including a fourth-and-nine and a fourth-and-one that went for the 47-yard go-ahead touchdown.
Yet the biggest kicker of Duke’s fourth-quarter, go-ahead drive was not Virginia’s inability to stop the Blue Devils. It was the Cavaliers’ impeccable ability to shoot themselves in the foot, in the form of Anthony Harris dropping an easy interception. Somehow, the Cavaliers always find a way to lose.
With Virginia trailing 25-22, the Cavaliers lined up to kick a 39-yard field goal to tie the game. But once again, at a critical juncture of the game, the team found a way to lose. An offsides penalty negated the made field goal, and Alec Vozenilek’s subsequent attempt from 44-yards went wide left. Again, it was Virginia’s own, unforced mistakes that proved the team’s undoing.
The most exasperating part of the four-game losing streak is that it’s almost impossible to diagnose a single root cause. Against Pittsburgh it was the anemic offense. Against Ball State it was turnovers and defense. Against Maryland it was settling for field goals instead of touchdowns in the redzone. And against Duke, it was everything.
I know Mike London won’t be fired this season, if not for his stellar incoming recruiting class, then because it would cost more than $10 million to buy him and his coaching staff out. And I’m not convinced firing London is the right answer, although a purge of the program’s staff might provide fans temporary catharsis.
But it’s difficult to sit in increasingly tense postgame press conferences and listen to coaches and players answering questions about this losing streak, their words becoming progressively more meaningless with each loss. They are still trying to be the best of teams, but seem incapable of becoming anything other than the worst of teams.