Virginia's slide continued in Charlottesville today when the Hoos wasted a strong defensive effort, falling to Wake Forest 16-10. UVA had chances to win, but continued miscues, particularly on special teams, proved too much to overcome. The loss is Virginia's 6th in a row, as the team fell to 2-6 (0-4 ACC), and the Demon Deacons improved to 4-3 (2-3).
An impressive 13 play, 72 yard touchdown drive with :20 to play in the second quarter brought the score to 10-10 (though the halftime score was 13-10, after Wake Forest drove for a field goal in those 20 seconds). However, Phillip Sims and the offense failed to put any more points on the board. Virginia had the ball with a chance to win late in the fourth quarter, but its drive stalled after a run for a loss and a sack forced the team to punt. It appeared that the offense would have one last chance to win the game, but Wake Forest's punt bounced off Khalek Shepherd's helmet and was recovered by the Demon Decons, who kneeled to end the game.
The matchup followed a similar storyline as the rest of the team's losing streak. In each of the last 4 games, the Hoos have outgained its opponent; today, UVA gained 301 yards and held Wake Forest to 213. Still, Mike London's squad has done a poor job of converting that to points, while allowing easy scores to opposing offenses.
Here are some unit-by-unit thoughts on another disappointing home loss:
It's special teams again: Usually, 2-6 teams have other issues more pressing to examine than special teams miscues. This is not the case for Virginia, as poor coverage, questionable strategy, and constant blunders are costing the team points and games. Here's today's damage: Wake Forest started the game with a 60 yard punt return and found the end zone one play later. Ian Frye missed a 44 yard field goal. A squib kick with 20 seconds left before halftime was returned into Virginia territory after a personal foul was tacked on (the Deacons were in field goal range one play later). An illegal block penalty on a Wake Forest punt gave the Demon Deacon offense the ball back and an eventual field goal. And Shepherd's muffed punt erased a chance for the Wahoo offense to win the game.
When all was said and done, special teams had major culpability in 13 of Wake Forest's 16 points, while leaving 3 UVA points and a chance for more on the field. Coach Anthony Poindexter can't be out there kicking field goals and catching punts, but special teams as a whole is heavily coach-dependent. Our schemes, personnel, and emphases are in major need of improvement; it may be time to let this Wahoo legend focus on position coaching (and recruiting).
Defense shines: Especially when one considers the positions it was put in by offense and special teams blunders, the defense put together their best all-around performance this season. The Demon Deacons employed a wildcat option offense that the UVA defense has shown vulnerability to all year long. Wake Forest is not exactly heralded for their offense, and they were shut down today. Quarterback Tanner Price finished just 7 of 19 for 102 yards, while carrying 12 times for 24 yards, and the remainder of the running game gained 81 yards on 29 carries. Wake Forest converted just 1 of 15 third downs.
LaRoy Reynolds and Steve Greer continue to provide excellent leadership and play their hearts out each week. Wake Forest probably could have done a better job of exploiting UVA's weaknesses in the secondary, but lack the personnel on offense and were stymied by a resurgent pass rush.
Turnover margin: Lost in the discussion of quarterback controversies and special teams shortcomings has been a giant turnover deficit. Today, Virginia lost 2 fumbles and threw one (very costly) interception, while registering no takeaways. A fumble recovery against Maryland is UVA's only takeaway in the last 4 games, and the team has a staggering -16 ratio on the season. A major aspect of this is the team's 1 interception in 8 games, tied for last in the NCAA. While it's easy to point to big mistakes on offense, it's nearly impossible to pin down where or how the defense has lacked the ability to force big mistakes; however, the two are essentially equivalent. While some of this is just bad luck, the defensive backs have to find a way to make big plays.
The running game disappears: The Virginia rushing attack, the biggest factor in 2011's 8-4 season, had been missing in action until it showed signs of life against Duke and Maryland, picking up 186 and 168 yards, respectively. The output against Wake Forest, 48 yards on 32 carries, will not cut it. The offensive line cannot allow running backs to get blown up in the backfield, and running backs have to keep their feet driving forward, not dance side-to-side.
Sims report: Phillip Sims's day will be defined by one throw, an interception where Sims threw up a prayer to Darius Jennings rather than accept a sack, on 2nd and 1 from Wake's 34 with 13 minutes to play. The offense appeared to gain some momentum in the fourth quarter, but major mistakes ended both drives in the period. Besides that pass, Sims had a solid game, finishing 22 for 39 with 253 yards and a touchdown. However, he must learn that a single bad decision could erase any positives from the performance. The lack of a consistant rushing attack puts more pressure on Sims and the receivers, and it is not pressure that the group is ready to handle.
Don't bet on 'em: UVA came in as 3.5 point favorites and is now 0-8 against the spread. They are the only team in the NCAA to be winless against the spread. This stat means UVA has underperformed Vegas's expectations each week of the season.
A look ahead: Virginia (and its fans) have a much-needed bye week. After that, four games remain, and none are as winnable as the past four games - @ NC State, vs. Miami, vs. UNC (Thursday night), @ Virginia Tech. The pipe dream of a bowl game requires a 4-0 finish, which will be....difficult. However, before resigning oneself to an 0-4 finish, remember that in the weekly crapshoot that is the ACC, the "any given Saturday" cliche is especially prescient. The Hoos have the chance to rest up and reevaluate things during their bye week and hopefully come back ready to play hard down the home stretch.