Virginia went on the road for a tough matchup that they weren't supposed to win...and they lost. The 17th-ranked Horned Frogs took care of the suddenly-reeling Cavaliers by a score of 27-7. The Hoos went out to Fort Worth fired up after a poor performance last week at Georgia Tech, but couldn't overcome a sputtering offense and a few too many letups on defense against a solid but vulnerable Texas Christian squad.
Though the Hoos had opportunities to stay in the game from start to finish, the team couldn't make big plays when it counted, while giving up too many to its opponents, an all-too-common theme of the season. TCU struck first on a stunning 68 yard touchdown catch by Brandon Carter, marking the third straight week that the UVA defense conceded seven points on an opponent's first possession. Despite finding the end zone just once more until garbage time, capitalizing off a second quarter Kevin Parks fumble, TCU had more than enough points against a Virginia offense that showed glimpses of success, but never completely clicked. The Hoos were headed toward a shutout before Sims found E.J. Scott with just over 4 minutes to play.
Despite the long odds of stealing this one (UVA came in a 17.5 point underdog) and the lopsided score, the loss is still a tough one to swallow, as TCU didn't play a dominant game. They turned the ball over, they committed stupid penalties, and they struggled to move the ball too. The difference: TCU capitalized off Virginia's mistakes, while the Hoos just didn't have it in them today. Here's some more thoughts:
You Play to Win the Game?: Last season, the Hoos pulled a few unexpected upsets, notably at Miami and at Florida State. In those wins, the coaching staff pulled out all the stops, using fakes on special teams, halfbacks throwing passes, and gambles on fourth downs. Today, the team went on the road to the #17 team in the country, fell behind, and showed a vanilla offense, conservative play calls, and uninspired situational decisions.
To win a game he is not expected to, the coach must take risks; chances are, these bold plays will fail, and the team will lose, as expected. However, the risks could pay off, and the variability created gives the team a chance to win. Today, the offense did not call a single play that could be categorized as bold or unexpected. We settled for draws and short passes on third and long, targeted running backs on an inordinate amount of passes, and showed zero trick plays.
The most troubling aspect of the coaching was the lack of risks in situational decision-making. Before halftime, Virginia intercepted the ball on its own two-yard line with just under 3 minutes remaining, trailing 14-0. We went run, run, short pass, punt, seemingly content to let the click tick toward halftime. Ninety-eight yards is a hell of a long way to go to score a touchdown (or ~60 to be in field goal range), but it's the type of break that an underdog must try to get to win.
With 13 minutes to play, the Hoos had 4th and 3 on their own 29, trailing 20-0, and Mike London sent out the punting unit. This would be a good strategy if the goal was to keep the score from looking too embarassing, as a failure to convert would lead to likely TCU points. However, if the team was playing to win the game, its best chance would be to go for the first down and try to score one of the three touchdowns needed to win. A longshot? Sure. But the last shot at a win. Scoring margin doesn't matter, only wins and losses do. I don't think the game plan this week maximized our chances of winning this game.
What went right? (Mainly, the defense) Despite the final score and the likely panic around Wahoo Nation, there were some positives to take out of this one. After giving up that deep pass on TCU's first drive, the defense showed signs of life in two key areas. TCU did little on the ground, as Horned Frog running back Matthew Tucker, filling in for the injured Waymon James gained 52 yards on 15 carries. After getting shredded for 493 rushing yards against Georgia Tech, it's a step forward. And the pass rush finally appeared, putting some pressure on Casey Pachall after weeks of opposing quarterbacks standing like statues in the backfield. The defense gave up 27 points, but this loss doesn't lie on its shoulders.
There was also some reason for optimism about the UVA running game. After a surprising lack of productivity, the Hoos gained 164 yards on the ground against one of the best run defenses in college football, spearheaded by KP Parks's 84 yards on 12 carries.
Big Plays: I mentioned the discrepancy in teams' making "big plays" above, and it was never more clear than on consecutive drives in the first quarter. After TCU scored on that amazing 68 yard catch, Virginia had a chance to counter, as a deep pass from Rocco headed toward Darius Jennings that had "touchdown" written all over it. Boing! The ball bounced off Jennings's helmet, and 7 points were essentially taken off the board. Another opportunity was missed later in the game, when a ball thrown behind Jennings was jarred loose on a big hit from the TCU safety.
Virginia's two takeaways, on an interception by Maurice Canady and a fumble through the end zone, were great. However, the team coughed up the ball four times. The Hoos may have won against Penn State despite four turnovers, but I wouldn't count on this happening again any time soon.
Quarterback Watch: Nothing new here. Mike Rocco is a savvy quarterback that knows what to do with the football and has an extensive knowledge of the UVA offense. Phillip Sims is a talented athlete with a big arm that has a lot to learn about how to play the position. I honestly have no idea what gives us the best chance to win at this point; I don't think the coaching staff does either, and I don't blame them. My position is the same: Let's just avoid a rotation system, and I'll be happy. So far, so good. However, Phillip Sims is likely getting closer, and if Rocco continues to make the types of mistakes he made today, the benefits of sticking with him decrease.
What's next? After 4 games, the Hoos are 2-2, or about where we would have expected to be at this point in the season. Louisiana Tech visits Scott Stadium next weekend, with time and television coverage announced tomorrow. This kicks off a stretch of four games that fall in the "should-win" category (vs. La. Tech, @ Duke, vs. Maryland, vs. Wake Forest). Pessimism could very quickly turn to exuberance when the Hoos stop playing the TCU's of the world, and instead host...Maryland, for example. However, let's not sleep on the Bulldogs! Louisiana Tech is coming off an 8-5 season and put up 56 points in each of its first two games this year. We'll have plenty more here on today's loss, and lots more to talk about regarding next week's matchup.