Yes, the Virginia Cavaliers lost the ACC Championship Game by 45 points. Yes, that’s the worst UVA loss since—ironically—Clemson in November 2013. But there’s still plenty to feel positive about from the Hoos’ first appearance in the conference title game.
Here are the takeaways from our perspective:
Choose your rubric wisely.
If you think the measuring stick for Virginia football at this point should be, “stays competitive with Clemson (when Clemson is playing for style points),” then I’m afraid you’ve confused Virginia with one of the six or seven programs for which that is even remotely possible. Clemson has two more five-stars on its defensive line than Virginia has on its roster. Since 2016, Clemson has as many national championships as Virginia has bowl appearances.
Clemson has been, year in and year out, one of the two or three best programs in the country since before many of UVA’s players had a driver’s license. The level of investment Clemson has sunk in its program—assistant coaching salaries, recruiting budgets, not to mention facilities—is almost unrivaled. Clemson was always going to run away with this matchup.
So what is the appropriate measuring stick for UVA at this point? The broadcast made this point: the gap Virginia had to close wasn’t the gap between Virginia and Clemson, but the gap between Virginia and everyone else. And tonight’s results show Virginia has done exactly that. The last team to put up 300-plus yards on Clemson? 2018 Alabama. North Carolina is the only other team to accrue more than 17 points on Clemson’s defense.
Yes: Virginia got murdered. But they got somewhat less murdered than the teams Virginia should be expected to compete with.
What might have been?
It actually could have been a lot closer. If Bryce Perkins’ pass on the first drive sails just a few inches higher, Virginia scores first. If that muffed punt falls to the turf and to a Virginia defender instead of a Clemson Tiger, UVA recaptures a little momentum. Enough to win the game? Almost certainly not. Enough to stay within 30? Maybe.
Picture a world where Bryce Hall and Brenton Nelson could play tonight, allowing Nick Howell and Kelly Poppinga to be a little more creative on defense. Or a world where the Hoos do a better job wrapping up to take down Tee Higgins or Justyn Ross at the spot where they caught the ball, instead of allowing long touchdown runs after the catch. Other than a few players—which we’ll get to in a second—Virginia didn't play as well as we’ve seen them play in 2019.
Perkins and Dubois were outstanding
The receiving corps has been the backbone, guts, and about everything else of this offense for the past several weeks. Hasise Dubois showed out tonight, recording a career-high 10 receptions, including several contested grabs through multiple defenders. (And Billy Kemp was nothing to sneeze at, either.)
But Bryce Perkins was—yet again—the heart and soul of this squad. Despite obviously playing hurt from middle of the third quarter on, Perkins powered an offensive performance that appeared to catch Clemson by surprise at several points. The two interceptions were less than ideal; both were bad throws. But respecting Perkins’ play-making meant Clemson had to make some matchup choices that UVA was able to identify and exploit.
So was the offensive line
The two best defenses Virginia has faced in 2019 were Notre Dame and Clemson. The Irish defense just destroyed UVA’s offensive line, especially in the second half. Fast-forward a few weeks, to a defense that is almost certainly better than the one UVA faced in South Bend, and the Hoos’ offensive line held its own. No, they weren't asked to pave running lanes, and yes, Perkins still took hits. But a star-studded Clemson defense wasn't having its way with Virginia’s blockers in pass rush the way Notre Dame’s did.
The offensive line you saw tonight returns every single starter next year. Alex Gellerstedt will be back from injury, and four-star Ja’Quay Hubbard will be a year older. It is a unit that has been maligned at times this season, and the run blocking still needs to take a big step forward. But compare the Cavalier offensive line tonight to even four or five weeks ago, and the progress has to be encouraging.
By Sunday afternoon, Virginia will know if it is making first-ever Orange Bowl appearance. For the ten days after that, the coaches will have the chance to close out the early signing period for the 2020 recruiting class by selling UVA’s on-field success and continued improvement. Then a bowl game, the traditional 2020 signing period in February, possible graduate transfers, and the off-season process.
What will the next set of goals be for this staff, given that this year they accomplished the goals set when they arrived? How do they plan to get there? Tonight’s game puts down a clear marker of where Virginia football is; the questions for the coaching staff, the players, and the fanbase now are, “Where do we want to be, and what do we need to do to get there?”