By pulling off a 4 game winning streak, the Hoos had earned a great and unexpected opportunity to meet their hated rival Hokies at home with a trip to the ACC Championship Game on the line. The ACC title chance, Commonwealth cup, annual bragging rights, and a 9th win all sat right in front of the team's eyes, asking to be grasped. But the bright lights seemed to be too much for the team tonight, as they succumbed 38-0 to rival Virginia Polytechnic in an exasperatingly frustrating fashion.
Toughness Matters: Winning a football game starts inside the players' heads. The team has to believe they are going to win...and I am sure that our guys did. But they also have to turn that belief into an animal-like desire to get that task done. I don't think we had that tonight. The Hokies, on the other hand, were raring to go from the start. They warmed up in front of the students before the game, egging on more and more boos and chants, and it seemed to only fuel their intensity. They beat us at the line of scrimmage, ran through tackles, and hit our ball-carriers hard. On the other hand, we looked as flat as humanly possible in a rivalry game of great significance and never recovered from the initial shock of an early deficit. When we start beating Tech regularly, this attitude has to be the first thing to change.
What Else Went Wrong: What didn't? Coming into the game, I was confident in a win as long as we held onto the ball and limited big plays. Neither happened: We had 4 turnovers on 2 Rocco interceptions and 2 damaging fumbles. VT had a few deep passes and consistently picked up long gains on the ground, especially on stretch plays outside. In the first half, Virginia had chances to bring the game back under control and failed. On 4th and a long yard from the 6, Kevin Parks came up short of a first down; London's decision and the play's execution cost us early points. Four of our six first half drives ended inside VT territory. Put some points on the board here, and it's a different game!
Special teams continues to be a huge liability. While we did finally abandon from the rugby punt, which opponents have adjusted to, the Hokies had a long punt return in the third quarter. Another fumbled punt caused a moment of horror before we managed a recovery; Khalik Shepherd dropped and picked up a kick return also. Finally, Robert Randolph continued his recent slump, missing a 38 yard field goal. An all-around sloppy game when we could not afford it.
Fan Support: These few weeks have dispelled the myth that UVA fans won't be there to support their winning team. After beating Florida State, everyone was pumped beyond belief about this matchup, and fans showed it again today. The student sections were more full an hour and a half before the game than they have been just before kickoff at midseason. Energy and enthusiasm were infectious in the buildup to the game, and I am sure the excitement would have carried over if the game was a good one. That said, when we were behind 7-0 and 14-0, I was disappointed in the noise level on defense; yes, we were losing, but it's our job to stay engaged and bring us back.
Other Notes (mostly me venting):
-Last week, when Florida State lined up for a game-winning field goal, I composed the following thought over and over in my head, "Please, let this ball stay away from the goal posts, and I will never again be upset about anything else ever." I lied. Also, hopefully I didn't sellout our chances for all future games for that field goal miss.
-Yes, I am biased...but Hokie fans are really obnoxious. The mix of a bizarre superiority complex that comes from recent football success, combined from the chip on their shoulders that comes from attending an unambiguously inferior institution leads to some miserable interactions.
-Great signs out there tonight - some favorites: "Hokies, learn your ABCs" (with ABC logo), the plethora of "Eat Mor Hokies"-related signs, "Virginia belongs to the Hoos" written on a state map, and the classic and simple, though erroneous, "WE ARE GOING TO WIN" declaration.
-The Hokies are one of three major conference schools that have yet to win a national championship in any sport. Can you name the other two?
-My first and last UVA games as a student were 2 most packed ones in that span and had the most pregame buildup, the first being our opening matchup against USC. We lost them by a combined 90-7. Ouch.
What It Means: UVA has now lost 8 in a row to the Hokies, with our last win coming in Charlottesville in 2003. This streak stinks, it can't be good for recruiting, and not breaking it tonight hurts. It certainly makes the end to season a sour one. However, it also marks the end of what any Hoo would would call a successful 8-4 regular season, one in which the team was picked to finish 5th in the Coastal and will place 2nd. Notably, there is apparently something beyond the end of the regular season, which we will finally get to learn about. Bowl parings will be announced next weekend; Virginia will likely head to either the Sun Bowl in El Paso, Music City Bowl in Nashville, or Belk Bowl in Charlotte. Our seniors have earned this opportunity, and the month or so of extra practice time will benefit the young players. We will have more coverage in the coming days of this disappointing game, maybe by then from a less emotional perspective, and plenty of thoughts about the continuation of this football season, wherever it may be.