MESSIER: Opponent irrelevant as inconsistency dooms football
Going into the bye-week after winning their second-straight game, a 34-20 victory against a solid Duke team, the Cavaliers were confident they had made great strides after an otherwise rocky start to the season.
“The execution appears to be improving,” Mendenhall said after defeating the Blue Devils. “The culture as we all know was the emphasis to begin with and the execution, at some point, would catch up, and it’s starting.”
However, perhaps one of Mendenhall’s most important points after the Duke game remained the same after Saturday’s matchup against Pittsburgh.
“We’re not done,” Mendenhall said.
Virginia has long-been a team plagued by inconsistency, and Saturday’s game against Pittsburgh showcased, or exposed, some of the team’s most glaring shortfalls.
One of the biggest inconsistencies that the Cavaliers face is on special teams, where the team ranks 125th nationally in kickoff return defense. On the other hand, Pittsburgh’s star punt returner, sophomore wide receiver Quadree Henderson, ranked first in the FBS in kickoff return yards, and emerged from Saturday’s game still holding that title.
Although the Cavaliers were well aware of Henderson’s abilities, they allowed him to tally 112 yards in just two returns — one of which was a 93-yard touchdown where the Wilmington, Del. native burned Virginia’s coverage all the way down the field.
Even when the Cavaliers adjusted their strategy to kick away from Henderson, their coverage still had lapses. The Panthers’ other returner, sophomore wide receiver Rafael Araujo-Lopes, returned a punt for 69 yards to set Pittsburgh up for a touchdown.
“Difference today was special teams in my opinion,” Mendenhall said. “Pitt’s returner is very, very good. We knew that going into the game and the returns that they ran were the same returns that we prepared for.”
Although the Cavaliers were prepared in anticipation of the dangerous Panther returns, their immaturity showed in their lack to combat against them during game time.
However, Mendenhall took the blame for the team’s shortfalls.
“I’ve got to coach my team more cleanly and at a higher level to make the critical plays in all phases,” Mendenhall said.
The offense experienced its fair share of difficulties as well. After a first half shootout, where Virginia scored 21 points in the first quarter alone, the second half was stagnant for the offense. The Cavaliers entered the half trailing 35-28, but didn’t score again until junior kicker Sam Hayward made a field goal with 2:04 left in the game.
Prior to the second half, the offense was effective with an aggressive passing game. However, after junior quarterback Kurt Benkert threw a pick-six in the final seconds of the first half, the offense looked completely different. The offensive line let up, allowing Benkert to be sacked four times in the second half.
The dramatic transformation in the offense from one half to the next is also in part because of the team’s inability to remain consistent. Offensive coordinator Robert Anae’s air-raid offense ranks 27th nationally in passing offense — although you wouldn’t know by watching the game’s final 30 minutes. While the Cavaliers have big-time potential, which they displayed in the first half, they still haven’t figured out how to match potential with consistency.
“We have a big-play ability but we are just not putting together the routine plays back to back, and I think that is something we really need to work on going into the next week,” Benkert said. “We have to be mentally prepared and worry about the next play and doing exactly what you’re supposed to do. We have to have sustained focus.”
Granted, Virginia is a young team, and a full turn-around cannot be expected to occur over the course of just one season. But the Cavaliers must bring improved consistency to the gridiron if they hope to pick up wins in the remainder of the season. Virginia’s last six conference opponents are all above .500, and pose a daunting challenge for the streaky Cavaliers.
Anae believes without some of Virginia’s mistakes under pressure, the Cavaliers have the chance to win big games as the season goes on.
“We are certainly capable of winning in this conference this year,” Anae said. “Right now, we are not capable of being consistent when the game is on the line. We haven’t shown that we can be consistent in a tough stretch.”