Mind Games: How Virginia Football is Beating Itself

The Hoos are in the throes of a dismal, terrifying 4-game losing streak. This is definitely not what we expected after a rejuvenating 8-5 finish in 2011. Thus far, Mike London’s third year has been one of general futility, and much of this failure has been caused by mental errors: turnovers, questionable play calls, and coaching mistakes. Not good for a school that prides itself on its academic prestige and the intelligence of its students.

First and foremost is the Cavaliers’ miserable -12 turnover margin. At a -2.4 margin per game, this puts UVA at 123 out of 124 FBS teams. The Cavs have turned the ball over 15 times, including 10 interceptions, and have forced only 3 turnovers. It is impossible to win football games when you’re beating yourself in this way. (Unless you’re playing Sam Ficken and Penn State, which only happens once per season.)

Not all of these turnovers could have been avoided, but quite a few resulted from mental errors. Granted, the Hoos’ worst turnover performances, with 4 lost each game, have come against the two best defenses they’ve played, Penn State and TCU. However, the Wahoos turned the ball over 3 times against a porous Louisiana Tech defense.

10 of our 15 turnovers have come on interceptions. Michael Rocco seems to choose his targets more wisely than Phillip Sims, but Rocco's passes don't have enough speed to get through defenses. Sims, on the other hand, makes up for sometimes questionable targeting with better execution.

Another area where Sims has struggled cerebrally is in his knowledge of the playbook, both when he was behind Rocco and now as the starter. He’s a student at the University of Virginia, and has been practicing with the team for over two months now. The modus operandi of all college students is to cram in large amounts of information over a short period of time. At this point there’s no excuse for Sims to not know the playbook.

The blame for most of these mental mistakes lies squarely on the coaching staff. Throughout the season London, Lazor, and Reid have exhibited some galling tendencies to be painfully ineffective in playcalling and clock management. They also can’t seem to improve problem areas such as turnovers and second-half play.

All season the staff has called numerous plays that seem to make no sense. Multiple times the Hoos have run the ball on third and long. In the fourth quarter of the TCU game, down 20-0, UVA ran the ball several times. The Cavs were supposed to have a power rushing attack, but it’s been ineffective for the most part. And it’s certainly no time to run the ball in long-yardage situations or times when quick points are needed.

London also baffled Wahoo fans with poor clock management in the Duke game. He used only one of his three remaining timeouts at the end of the first half, forcing him to kick a field goal rather than try for a TD. Had they scored seven, the Hoos would have had significant positive momentum heading into halftime, and the second half could have been totally different.

Instead, Duke put up 28 points in the final two quarters, and the Hoos couldn’t score at all. Unfortunately this has been the story of the season. Virginia has been outscored 108-62 in the second halves of the first six games. The coaching staff has failed to light enough of a fire under the players at halftime to be able to finish games well.

Perhaps the biggest sign of the Hoos’ mental lack of discipline comes in the area of penalties. Virginia is 113th in the nation in penalty yards per game, with 76. This is simply unacceptable. Penalties have had a huge negative impact in almost every game this year, killing momentum or keeping opponents’ drives alive. Good teams have the focus to avoid game-changing penalties, something Virginia doesn’t seem to possess.

The only good thing about these problems is that they can be fixed. With the exception of the TCU game, Virginia has had equal or better talent compared to its opponents. But the coaches haven’t done enough to correct the mental breakdowns. We're only halfway through the season, but in order to salvage it the Hoos need to get rid of the mistakes. Avoiding mistakes is a matter of using the brain—an area where the University of Virginia is, after all, in the Top 25.

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