Maddening mistakes doom Virginia
The game started out inconspicuously for Virginia — just like any other Saturday. The offense went three-and-out and the defense forced an early stop against Ball State — standard operating procedure for the 2013 season.
On the next drive, David Watford overthrew Darius Jennings in the end zone and Taquan Mizzell went out for a pass and past the first-down marker with no one between the freshman and the promised land on the subsequent play. The drive stalled at the Cardinals’ 22-yard line and in true Cavalier fashion, the offense settled for a 39-yard field goal.
“I was kind of anxious,” Watford said. “I had to maneuver in the pocket a lot more than I expected to, but I just have to settle down back there sometimes. I was just nervous.”
Ball State’s ensuing possession however, provided a break from the norm. After the defense gave up a 27-yard screen pass, cornerback Demetrious Nicholson was burned for 28 more yards. That play was compounded by a nine-yard personal foul on defensive tackle David Dean for illegal hands to the face, setting the Cardinals up on Virginia’s eight-yard line.
While the Cavaliers have been penalized this season, they rarely commit careless personal fouls like Dean’s. However, the senior was not alone. Defensive end Eli Harold played particularly sophomorically, committing a 15-yard personal foul to set the Cardinals up on Virginia’s four-yard line after he had brought down Ball State quarterback Keith Wenning for an apparent sack.
Harold also recorded a 15-yard facemask penalty midway through the third quarter and completed the hat trick shortly thereafter, garnering a 15-yard flag for unsportsmanlike conduct on 3rd-and-13. Harold declined interview requests after the game.
Virginia has been flagged 35 times this season for 278 yards. The team earned 13 of those penalties Saturday, setting them back 93 yards on the field, but far further in actuality. Of Ball State’s 29 first downs, seven came off of penalties. The Cavaliers had previously allowed only one first down due to penalties in each of their first four games.
“I can count probably three or four 3rd-down penalties that extended the drive and that’s something that hurts you,” coach Mike London said. “I don’t know how many led to scores… but you’ve got to have poise in those situations. We just didn’t play very smart today … Those things are egregious and you can’t put up with that.”
The Cavalier defense’s play was unacceptable. However, the Cavalier offense also used untimely penalties and turnovers to effectively shoot itself in the foot. The offense hit on a surprising number of long passes compared to previous weeks, but few ended up on the stat sheet due to penalties.
True freshman receiver Keeon Johnson — making his collegiate debut — was robbed of a 38-yard touchdown catch when a holding penalty negated the score. The penalty ultimately didn’t prove costly, as senior Tim Smith grabbed a 46-yard pass in double coverage a few plays later to set up a touchdown. But for the Cavalier offense, producing multiple 30-yard passes in a single game has proven an elusive feat. It can ill-afford to give up points for any reason, especially preventable penalties.
Yet what did the offense proceed to do? You guessed it — forfeit even more points to boneheaded mistakes.
The floodgates opened in the third quarter. Tied at 17, Parks rushed for 32 yards, but fumbled and gave the ball back to Ball State. Although the replay showed that the ball came out after Parks was down, the referees declined to reverse the call, and the Cardinals scored six plays later.
“I have to do a better job taking care of the ball,” Parks said. “I have to hold on to the ball and not give the ref that call to change the game like that.”
Two Virginia offensive drives later, miscommunication between Watford and redshirt freshman wide receiver Kyle Dockins resulted in a Ball State interception on Virginia’s 32-yard line, leading to another Cardinal touchdown just two plays later for a 31-24 lead. In a cruel continuation of events for the Cavaliers, Jake McGee was then stripped on the first play of their ensuing possession. It took Ball State six plays and Harold’s unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, but the Cardinals eventually converted a 45-yard field goal.
Trailing 34-24 early in the fourth quarter, Watford unleashed an absolute bomb to Smith, which the senior managed to haul in for a 79-yard touchdown, the longest of either player’s career. But the Cavaliers aren’t allowed to have nice things. The play was negated when true freshman right tackle Eric Smith — making his first career start — was deemed an ineligible receiver downfield.
“It was a tough one to have it called back,” Watford said. “We really needed that at that point to get us back in the game. We had a young guy in… He’ll learn and he’ll be one of our best offensive linemen. I can let that go.”
When the game was 48-27 with five minutes remaining — essentially out of reach — redshirt freshman Greyson Lambert came in to lead the offense. Though it made little difference, Lambert completed a 31-yard pass to E.J. Scott, only to have that one called back as well for an illegal formation — just how the day seemed to go for the offense.
Saturday’s affair at Scott Stadium was like a scene out of “Freaky Friday,” minus a certain Miss Lindsay Lohan. The Cavalier offense racked up 459 yards, while the defense was shredded like soggy toilet paper by the Cardinals for 506 yards. And though much of this role reversal can be attributed to both Virginia and Ball State’s execution, a significant share is also due to turnovers and unnecessary, preventable penalties.
It was frustrating to watch, so I can’t imagine how frustrating it was to be on the field. An offense that has struggled to move the ball all year finally starts making plays, only to prove its own worst enemy. The good news: the mistakes are correctable.
Virginia forced its first three-and-out on the next drive, after entering the game ranked No. 1 nationally, forcing an average of 8.5 three-and-outs per game. But that effort would go to waste when safety Anthony Harris attempted to field a short punt and muffed it. Ball State recovered and assumed the victory formation, in what was a poignant and fitting ending to the afternoon.