Recap so far
In the first three games for Virginia this season, it seems like there has been a strong first drive or strong beginning portion of the game. Against Tennessee, the defense certainly held up for a few consecutive drives and capitalizing on Tennessee's mistakes on offense before they broke it open in the second half. Against JMU, a strong first drive ends with a difficult call and a sloppy sequence of possessions following. Even then, UVA made a valiant comeback before again falling flat to end the game in disappointing fashion. Yet again versus Maryland, Virginia comes out all cylinders seemingly firing before letting Maryland come all the way back and then some to finish the game with a deflating 42-14 loss.
What goes wrong?
Naturally, fans who may watch the game and observe a lot of potential on the team such as Colandrea's future, Washington and Fields receiving, the running back room making some explosive and dynamic plays, or defensively Cam Butler and Jonas Sander to name a few, may question how we go from looking explosive to flat out defeated within a matter of drives or quarters.
It comes down to a couple of possibilities. Some of them tie in together.
Lack of Adjustment
From a spectator's perspective, it feels like Virginia comes out with a very calculated game plan and sticks to it rain or shine. Admittedly, against Tennessee, there was only so much that could be done. Against the other two opponents, it seemed to be more apparent. Take the Maryland game for example. Virginia came out with what were presumably two scripted drives that worked perfectly into the strengths of the team, catching Maryland off guard. Maryland plays fast comparably speaking on both sides of the ball and was able to gain composure and use their quarterback Tulia's speed among others, to put Virginia in positions where they could not keep pace (quick tempo, getting guys out in space, quick throws to overcome pass rush, etc). Even with that, Virginia held Maryland to 21 points into the fourth quarter even driving to the end zone for what could've been a game tying touchdown to make it 21-21. But this is where this issues were found. After the first two touchdowns, Virginia did not respond at all. Even as they drove downfield the few times they did after, possessions would fall flat and result in some form of turning the ball over. When able to, the offense can execute with threats at RB and WR with either quarterback at the helm, yet it often felt like play calling went conservative and remained consistent with options that would not work with a less experiences O-line especially.
Lack of Discipline
As I noted, Virginia was only down one touchdown in the 4th quarter. After the interception in the end zone, everything fell apart. Granted, in matchups where teams overpower the opponent such as against Tennessee this is bound to happen sometimes as we saw. However, this disappearance of execution was present in the JMU and Maryland game. The JMU game stopped abruptly due to a rain out, and for whatever reason, the team came back a little shaky. One could say that should be expected in that situation, but JMU came ready to win. Did the team potentially lose focus and let the game slip away? In the fourth quarter against Maryland, plays that were being executed earlier in the game seemed to vanish. I wouldn't suggest the team doesn't care, clearly there are guys who have invested in this program, love their teammates, and have bonded over a very difficult situation over the past year. However, I could suggest that a lack of discipline in cleanly finishing games both player wise and coaching wise is possible as this was the same issue that plagued the team in the few competitive games they had last season as well. I'll make a note that this could be an endurance issue in some fans eyes as players tire at the end of the game. Whatever it may be, ending games out strong following good starts is a must for this team to win any remaining games.
This ties into the first section as well, but a complaint some have made from observance is the team lacks aggression and intimidation at times. From a coaching perspective, the defense as relatively held it's own most of the time, but let themselves get picked apart in crucial moments. Third down runs have been a weak point in the defensive front in key plays. Offensively, there are points in the game where the play calling is conservative often leading to third and long situations over and over again. Tony Elliot seems to have a passion for creating a professional and well rounded culture built on respect and accountability. Certainly he has tried to do so, but there can be room for more aggression in the overall team culture in terms of being a force to be reckoned with, playing hard, and believing confidently in the team. This starts from the top with the coach.
At long last, Virginia has made investment on the facility side of things which was impossible to ignore in the landscape of collegiate athletic facilities in today's age. This has definitely been a roadblock in football's recruiting efforts at Virginia. However, with a new operations center coming this spring, an indoor and outdoor practice space, and the amenities as Scott Stadium including the new video board for next year, this should not be as big of an issue. Recruiting wise, Virginia has historically gone for three star recruits occasionally landing higher rated prospects. This makes them compete with high level Group of Five teams such as JMU and other lower tier Power Five teams such as Maryland among others in the region. Some would attribute this being the reason Virginia is sometimes simply outmatched and outplayed on the field. However, in games where Virginia is playing teams with the same level of recruiting regionally and talent wise, this should not be as big of a reason. Yes Maryland has more resources with the Big10 and JMU's history of success may drive players to go there, but Virginia is going to have to learn to sell itself better.
Where does that leave everything?
I see a lot of great potential for Virginia standard on this team in the future. There have been playmakers that have gone through and are within this program in recent years. However, some things need to change. The coaching staff needs to better examine the strengths and weaknesses of the team to capitalize more and put their guys in positions where they can be confident and execute. Building that confidence, builds the discipline to finish games and ability to adjust into different schemes that the team can feel prepared for. At this rate, ending the season with some promising plays, drives, and maybe even a surprise win for two sets this team up the best it can all things considered. Going into future classes with the new facility and giving Elliot time to get a group of guys he sees fit in there is the best that can be hoped for. It is difficult to feel optimistic, but it is important to analyze the positive things that this team shows and hope the athletic administration, coaching staff and players can recognize and tackle head on some of the tangible issues in the program. Tonight against NC State facing the former Virginia quarterback will be another telling story in where this team thrives and falters and how to move beyond it.