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The Hoos have now lost 5 in a row, and all preseason expectations are out the window. How did we get here?
Virginia's 2012 season is officially in a tailspin. After losing four in a row, including a drubbing at the hands of mighty Duke last week, the Cavaliers added to their woes Saturday, with a 27-20 loss to rival Maryland. The Terrapins, the ACC's 2011 laughingstock, seized the momentum from the opening kick, with a Stefon Diggs 100 yard kick return touchdown. UVa did their best to rally late with Michael Rocco under center, but the damage was done.
Maryland jumped out to a 17-0 first-quarter lead, following the aforementioned Diggs touchdown with a 20 yard touchdown pass from Perry Hills to running back Justus Pickett, and a Brad Craddock 33 yard field goal. The Terps' second score came on the heels of Phillip Sims interception, where the Virginia signal caller forced a pass to Jake McGee across the middle, snatched away by Maryland freshman defensive back Anthony Nixon. Virginia's offense failed to do much in the first half, with the only points of the half coming on a Ian Frye chip-shot field goal. Frye stepped in to kick after Drew Jarrett's field goal attempt was blocked at the line of scrimmage.
The Cavaliers' defense did play better after a horrible first quarter. Virginia allowed almost nothing in the 2nd quarter, with the Terps punting on every drive. Maryland threatened early in the second half, but their field goal attempt hit the left upright, and the Cavaliers stayed within 2 scores. Sims led Virginia to a touchdown drive late in the 3rd quarter, hooking up with E.J. Scott on a 20 yard touchdown strike. Sims finished with a very underwhelming 13-28 performance, with one score and two turnovers (stripped on a sack in the 4th quarter). Maryland turned the ball right back over to UVa on a fumbled snap by Perry HIlls, giving the Hoos an opportunity to tie the game with a short field. Virginia settled for an Ian Frye field goal, cutting Maryland's lead to 4. On the attempt, fullback Zach Swanson was assessed a costly personal foul penalty, which allowed Maryland to start their next drive in Virginia territory after another long Stefon Diggs return.
Perry Hills scampered in for the Terrapins' final score, giving them a 24-13 lead early in the final quarter. After a stalled Virginia drive ending in a Sims fumble and an ensuing Maryland field goal, Michael Rocco was inserted into the game with the Cavaliers down two touchdowns. The junior quarterback promptly lead Virginia down in a hurry-up offense, throwing a nice 24 yard touchdown to Jake McGee. Virginia got the stop they needed on Maryland's next drive, and took over near the 50 yard line after Khalek Shepard's punt return. That is where the rally died. Rocco missed high on a throw to a wide open Shepard, who almost assuredley would have scored the game-tying touchdown had the pass been caught. After that, Virginia had a couple incomplete passes and a delay of game penalty, followed by the last gasp 4th and 15 attempt, that fell innocently to the turf, essentially ending the game.
Obviously not the result the Cavaliers were looking for. Not even close. Kevin Parks was probably the MVP of the game for the Cavaliers, with 129 yards on 17 carries. Parks clearly seems to be Virginia's best rushing option at this point. On defense LaRoy Reynolds led the Hoos with 12 tackles, holding Maryland to -2 rushing yards on the day. Maryland was also held to 2 for 13 on third-down attempts on the day.
- One problem with the offensive production may simply be predictability. For as much credit as Bill Lazor gets for his successes with the offense since arriving on Grounds, he deserves a share of the blame for the offensive struggles this season as well. Too many times, the Cavaliers will "go back to the well" too often. If Kevin Parks runs off tackle for a 12 yard gain, UVa will run the same play (or a close variation of it) on the very next play. Sometimes even three in a row. Smart coaches catch on to these tendencies. Another observation is that the personnel changes Virginia's offense makes between plays can tip off the type of play its going to be. Regardless of down and distance, if you see one particular group of wide receivers (Gamble, Severin, Mathis, Gooch) come into the game, its a running play almost every single time. On the other hand, if McGee, Shepard, Jennings and Scott come in, the Cavaliers are going to air it out on that play. Clifton Richardson gets the ball a lot if he's in. If I can see this, I'm guessing coaches who pour over hours of tape can see it too. Just something to consider going forward.
- Speaking of coaches, Mike London is going to have some tough decisions to make after this season. At some point, it doesn't matter what your relationship is with the University, or how good of a recruiter you are. The job is to make the team better, and if certain coaches aren't pulling their weight, Coach London needs to cut the chord and find guys who can get the job done. It can't be easy to do, but the longer position groups struggle, the hotter the head coach's seat gets. And for the record, Mike London's seat is ice cold right now.
- Eli Harold had himself a day. He was a terror, particularly in the second half against freshman Maryland tackle Mike Madaras. The first year from Virginia Beach had what was easily the best game of his young career, and he has certainly put himself in a position to play more snaps. After the game, Harold told Jay James that "you don't have to be a senior to be a leader," and that he plans to help Virginia turn this season around. Number 7 has a great future in Orange and Blue.
- Obviously, the quarterback conversation is back. Not exactly a good sign. Phillip Sims still seams to be learning the offense on the fly, but his receivers gave him almost no help today. Darius Jennings was nowhere to be found until late in the game, and his nagging injury could have had something to do with that. On many plays, it seemed Sims was holding onto the ball too long, but from where I was sitting, a lot of times that was because nobody was open. Sims or Rocco or whoever the quarterback is need to make plays, but the plays have to be there to be made as well. I expect Mike London to go with Sims against Wake Forest on Saturday.
- Ian Frye needs to be the starting kicker going forward, and I'm sure he will be
- E.J. Scott led the Hoos in receiving today, and he has made a fantastic leap forward this year.
- Maryland has improved quite a bit from last year. Their defense is really solid, and the fact that they are 4-2 with an unheralded true freshman quarterback is pretty impressive. Stefon Diggs is an incredible athlete out there. I would never ever ever kick to him ever, he's that explosive. He will be tough to deal with going forward for the ACC. Randy Edsall deserved a lot of blame for last season, but he deserves a great deal of credit for how the Terps have started 2012.
- Wake Forest comes to Charlottesville next saturday (ACC Network, 12:30). The Deamon Deacons were on a bye this week after a close loss at Maryland last week. Any opponent will present the Cavaliers with a challenge, and its really important for team moral, fan support and recruiting that the Hoos get something going in these final five games. A bowl game is beyond a pipe dream at this point, but the Cavaliers can start to build on some momentum to carry into 2013 in the final weeks of 2012.