In poker, there's a term for it - "tilt". Essentially, it means that a player has had something bad happen to them at the table, and it impacts their mentality. Typically, it comes in the form of a big loss in a well played hand. Players that are tilting start playing emotionally. They try to recapture their prior loss by getting overly aggressive, and more often than not lose even more. They stop thinking clearly.
In Virginia's 27-21 win over Georgia Tech Saturday night, there was a moment when it was painfully obvious that the Hoos were tilting. After a Yellow Jacket offense put up 104 yards (yes, it was 104 passing yards on that drive) through the air on their penultimate possession on the game to make it a one score game, Georgia Tech lined up to attempt an onside kick.
We knew the onside kick was coming because there were less than two minutes to go in the game, and the Yellow Jackets had no timeouts. So Virginia knew an onside kick was coming, and the kickoff coverage team appeared to know it was coming by the way they were pointing out responsibilities, etc. Just before Georgia Tech kicker Harrison Butker put the ball in play, you can see the Virginia players in the middle of the field pointing at Butker. It's clear that they are there in case Butker kicks a slow roller straight ahead. Instead, Butker kicked a normal onside kick to his right.
To say that the Virginia players were slow to react would be generous. To make matters worse, at least one player looked like they were under the impression that the ball had to travel 10 yards before anyone could touch it. (The kicking team is the only team that has to wait until the ball goes 10 yards to touch it.) All of this culminated in Georgia Tech getting one last drive, on which they came up short.
While the technical aspects of the failure on this onside kick are interesting, what is really fascinating is the appearance that Virginia's kickoff unit has gone on tilt. All the prior failures of that unit seem to have piled up to the point that the players are simply thinking too hard and being slow to react because of it.
We have seen this before. When Dave Leitao was wrapping up running the men's basketball program into the ground, the fruits of his "yell and yank" coaching style were on display in all their glory. Leitao was a firm believer that ripping into a player for a mistake would make them better, and that on court errors should be hastily rewarded with bench time. At the end of his tenure, his teams looked slow and indecisive. Players hesitated to take shots. Leitao's coaching style was messing with their heads just enough to make them take an extra pause, and that pause was all opponents needed to rip the team apart.
What we all saw in the waning minutes of the game Saturday was an indicator that all of embarrassing special teams failures over the last few seasons have culminated in a kickoff return unit with a checklist of 15 or so items that they have running through their head prior to a kickoff, and that checklist is slowing them down.
The problem with tilting is that even if you know you are doing it, it's really hard to make yourself stop. At one point or another, everyone has gotten so caught up in their thoughts that they cannot think straight. It is not hard to imagine a Virginia coaching staff so hung up on fixing things that have gone wrong in the past few games, that they have wound up with a unwieldy mess of directives that the players are struggling to process.
The good news is that Virginia found a winning formula against the Yellow Jackets. They outplayed Georgia Tech for most of the game, and hopefully the confidence gained allows the team to focus on everything that worked, and build on it for the following week.