Old habits finish off rough football season

There you have it, folks. Ballgame over.

Virginia traveled to Louisville with their backs against the wall — needing a perfect 3-0 finish to gain bowl eligibility. The Cavaliers (3-7, 2-4 ACC) put up a noble fight against the Cardinals (6-4, 5-2 ACC), but in the end Virginia’s demons came back to haunt them in a 38-31 defeat.

Old habits and special teams gaffes resulted in the fourth consecutive losing season for the Cavaliers in coach Mike London’s five-plus year tenure.

The two teams were tied at 24 apiece when Louisville began a drive with 10:14 remaining in the fourth. The Cardinals moved the ball freely throughout the game, racking up 425 total yards, but Virginia’s defense forced a rare three-and-out. With coach Bobby Petrino’s team set to punt, the Cavaliers were in a position to score the go-ahead points.

The opportunity never came. Freshman Olamide Zaccheaus made a rare mistake by neglecting to call a fair catch in traffic and muffed the punt, while Louisville regained possession on Virginia’s two-yard line. Two plays later sophomore L.J. Scott punched it into the end zone for a 31-24 advantage.

The Cardinals quickly built upon that lead, marching 96 yards on eight plays for a touchdown after forcing a Cavalier punt. Down two touchdowns with 2:57 to go, the sun was quickly setting on Virginia’s season.

After a 16-yard touchdown pass and still needing another touchdown to force overtime, the Cavaliers lined up for the onside kick that would define their season. To recover it was to keep the campaign alive. To fail was to put the final nail in the coffin.

Senior Ian Frye struck the ball perfectly. The pigskin bounced into a heap of humanity, took a few deflections and ended up in the arms of a Virginia player. However, there was laundry on the field — a flag against the kicking team for illegal formation. One Cavalier failed to line up on the 30-yard line, so Virginia backed up five yards and retried the onside kick. This time Louisville came up with the ball.

Three kneels later, Virginia’s season came crashing to an end.

Defeat at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium ensured several things for the Cavaliers: a fourth consecutive losing season, another season without a winning ACC record and another year without a postseason bowl.

But did it ensure the much-maligned tenure of London would last for only two more games? Last season on the eve of Virginia’s annual clash with Virginia Tech, athletic director Craig Littlepage expressed his confidence in his head coach when he decided to bring back London for the 2015 season.

“It was important to see improvement in our football program this season,” Littlepage said in a release at the time. “I’ve seen signs of progress in many areas … we are better at teaching the game and in the overall development of the student-athletes.”

Can this faith in a coach with a career record at Virginia of 26-45, including a mark of 13-33 in the ACC, still be defended?

The 2015 season certainly has not been one of improvement. At best, the Cavaliers can finish the season at 5-7, which is how they finished in 2014. This year will be characterized as one of stagnation or regression.

If London and his coaching staff were indeed better at teaching the game last year, then they have taken a step back in that regard as well. The familiar symptoms of a sick football team remain: lack of discipline, inability to play a complete football game, failure to close out teams, etc.

The Cavaliers have become adept at defeating themselves. The issue Saturday was special teams gaffes. Last season it was a penalty for too many men on the field, which enabled North Carolina to ice the game. In 2013 it was blowing a 22-0 halftime advantage in a 35-22 loss to Duke. In 2012 it was an illegal substitution penalty, which handed the game to Louisiana Tech.

I could go on.

This adds up to four years of frustration for Virginia’s senior class, which entered on the heels of an 8-5 season and a trip to the Chick-fil-A Bowl in the Cavaliers’ lone winning season in London’s tenure. However, promise quickly turned to pain, and London’s seniors become the first graduating class to miss a bowl since 1984, when Virginia made their first ever postseason appearance.

Virginia football reaches a crossroads at the end of this season. They will either part ways with their head coach or they will allow him to finish out his contract, which expires in 2016. But to retain London for 2016 is to invite another plague of pre-snap penalties, poor decisions and blown ballgames to call Scott Stadium home.

Matt Wurzburger is a Senior Associate Editor for the Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at m.wurzburger@cavalierdaily.com. Follow him on Twitter @wurzburgerm

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