Seven games into the season, the Hoos are 2-5, picking up their only win against an FBS team when the opposing kicker missed four field goals. After the graduation of some of last season's core players, Wahoo fans did not enter the year with sky-high expectations; however, even the most pessimistic observer would have to be severely disappointed with the state of Virginia football. Even Vegas continues to be surprised - UVA is an NCAA-worst 0-6-1 against the spread, confirming the team's status as the most underperforming squad in all of college football week in and week out.
Clearly, the team's performance is unacceptable. The question is, what factors are at work here? The roster is young and isn't exactly composed of world-beaters, but normal game execution and personnel aren't the main culprits. An inexperienced offensive line, dropped passes, adventures at quarterback, and a secondary this is beyond inconsistent are all factors that are hurting us. But these are not problems that can be solved easily. And even with these youth and personnel issues, there is no excuse for a 2-5 record with losses to Duke and Maryland. Rather, our focus should be on whether the coaching staff is using the personnel that it has efficiently.
The answer to that is a resounding no. Outputs in the last three games paint an easy-to-see picture of this. UVA outgained its last three opponents, Louisiana Tech, Duke, and Maryland, tallying 1,472 combined yards to opponents' 1,014. Still, Virginia finished the stretch 0-3, outscored by a combined 113 to 75. This gap in production is an illustration of inefficient performances. Here are the "behind the scenes" factors the coaching staff must address and how they could get started.
Special Teams: Under UVA legend Anthony Poindexter's tutelage, the special teams unit has severely underperformed annually. The Hoos have bungled big plays, such as the deflating opening kickoff returned for a touchdown and missed field goal against Maryland.
Even beyond the big disasters, the Hoos are continuously hurting for field position. An easy fix is to make adjustments based on this year's rule change on touchbacks, which now move out to the 25 yard line. Half of Ian Frye's 30 kickoffs have resulted in touchbacks, while just 15.6% of our opponents' kickoffs have done so. This is not because Frye has such a big leg; it's because opponents purposely attempt to kick the ball higher and shallower to trap us inside the 25, while we kick 'em deep. The Hoos must adapt this strategy and also should start accepting all touchbacks possible when returning kicks. At the end of the year, Pondexter should be reassigned within the program to a position he could succeed in.
Play Calling: I don't want to harp on this, since it's so easy to pick at every call that doesn't result in a positive outcome. But what is clear is that the offense is extremely predictable. After halftime against Maryland, nine of UVA's next ten 1st down plays were runs. Perry Jones often runs stretch plays, KP Parks looks best off tackle, and Clifton Richardson takes it up the gut. Knowing down, distance, and personnel, the defense could predict our play nearly every time. Then, once it becomes 3rd and long, they could expect a pass. Well-timed play-action passes, draws, and screen plays would do wonders for keeping our opponents off-balance.
"Crucial" Play Calling: Play calls on the goal line and/or on 3rd and 4th and short deserve their own mention. Trailing 24-13 with 11 minutes to play, UVA faced 3rd and 1 on its 41. The coaches called a failed pass to the flat, then punted. KP Parks finished with an average of 7.6 yards per carry; he was a better option than a tough pass that isn't a natural one for Sims. Run plays in these situations are good...but it's important to start adding some misdirection. Taking the ball up the gut is predictable and has failed too often this season. Once again, counter plays, sneaks, and even the occasional play-action would keep opponents from getting too comfortable.
Penalties and Focus: Some penalties, like holding and interference calls, are inevitable in the course of game action. Mental errors that lead to personal fouls, blocks in the back, or procedural penalties stem from a lack of discipline and are not acceptable. Virginia's average of 68 penalty yards per game puts the team 100th out of 124 in the nation.
Empirically, we may be #1 at poorly-timed penalties. An illegal substation call against Louisiana Tech eliminated a chance to win the game on offense. After Virginia cut Maryland's lead to four, a personal foul on Zachary Swanson on the extra point handed Maryland great field position and a momentum-killing score. The coaches need to get serious about these; Swanson should not have been back on the field after such a crucial blunder. It's their job to make sure that lack of discipline doesn't cost us games, and they have failed in that duty thus far.
Clock Management: This is my personal pet peeve. There are a few very simple rules to clock management:
1. During the game, especially the second half, cherish timeouts. It may not be seem obvious in the middle of the third quarter, but those timeouts may prove vital later in the game. Using consecutive timeouts before a single play against the Terps is a perfect example of not doing this.
2. When trailing late in the game, use timeouts on defense. Each timeout should save the full play clock of 40 seconds. On offense, we have the opportunity to control the clock, so timeouts only save 20 seconds or so. This is pretty basic stuff, but we don't get it. Mike London pocketed our final timeout on Saturday and took possession of the ball with 2 minutes remaining instead of 2:40. (We then took a delay of game penalty instead of spending that saved timeout).
3. A second is a second is a second. If it's clear that we will want the clock stopped, use timeouts early. Saving them to use at the ~2 minute mark rather than that ~4 minute mark is asinine; the most important thing is to extract the full 40 seconds of "value" from each timeout.
Remember last week's pre-halftime clock blunder? Kids playing Madden would be mocked for making similar mistakes. There's no way of knowing whether this is an area that Coach London is focusing on for improvement, but there is certainly much room for that here. It may be time to consider hiring a personal clock management coach, like the New York Jets did years ago for Herman Edwards. It just has to be fixed.
The 2012 Virginia Cavaliers aren't a great team. But they shouldn't be a bad one either, and it's the little things that are holding them back. Mike London is a model human being and a perfect face for the Virginia football program. He has poured his heart and soul into repairing recruiting relationships and done a terrific job. However, he is a poor tactical decision-maker, which puts a ceiling on the success of his players (and a floor that is so low it may not even exist). The program must make sure that he is surrounded with coaches that offset his weaknesses. And London must understand that Wahoo fans will not tolerate continued struggles much longer before his seat starts warming up.