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Why Virginia football needs to be more aggressive on fourth down

Inconsistency and poor execution cost UVA on fourth downs against NC State

NCAA Football: Virginia at Maryland Reggie Hildred-USA TODAY Sports

There’s never just one reason a team loses a football game.

Against NC State on Friday night, the Virginia Cavaliers could blame three personal fouls in the final 36 seconds which ranged from “not a great choice, but forgivable” (Anthony Colandrea’s pose after completing an 18-yard two-point conversion to Malachi Fields to tie the game) to “what on Earth are you thinking?” (Ty Furnish’s headbutt after Virginia’s TD cut the lead to two, the reason Colandrea’s 2-point conversion needed to go 18 yards).

They could blame a poor special-teams effort, which most notably featured a back-breaking 35-yard kickoff return allowed with 36 seconds remaining in a tie game which sliced Virginia’s win probability in half from 40% to 19%, according to Game on Paper. Now, that return probably never happens if not for Colandrea’s personal foul on the preceding play forcing UVA to kick off from the 20 instead of the 35 — see how the mistakes compound?

But that can’t explain away miscues like Ethan Davies’s difficulties fielding punts, which began when Caden Noonkester legged one about 20 yards over Davies’s head on his first punt and persisted throughout the whole game.

They could blame the Charlottesville weather for thinning out the home crowd at Scott Stadium for the second consecutive game. They could blame big-picture issues — poor recruiting, lack of talent, bad play calling. They could blame the referees. This isn’t a particularly productive exercise.

As we all know, there are quite a few things wrong with this football team, as you’d expect from any team on a seven-game losing streak spanning multiple seasons and which hasn’t won a game in over 300 days. There are certainly more issues than anyone can fit into a single blog post.

To me, two drives stood out as microcosms of the problems plaguing this Virginia regime: confusing play-calling, disorganization, and poor decision-making. Both actually ended with Virginia scoring points, and by no means were the worst drives of the game. One actually featured a great play by Malik Washington to set up a prime scoring opportunity.

I think that’s a good reflection of where Virginia is at right now. Things aren’t all bad. Anthony Colandrea looks like a bona fide future stud at QB. John Rudzinski has put together a decent defense, all things considered (including very poor injury luck), and found good production from unexpected places. But on balance, the negatives outshine the positives on the scoreboard at the end of every game.

So what’s going wrong?

Q3 8:30: Virginia 1st and goal from the NC State 4

Let’s set the stage. Virginia trails by seven points, but just somehow turned what looked like a busted play into a massive 59-yard gain: Anthony Colandrea threw a sidearm WR screen to Malik Washington, who proceeded to do the rest.

1st and goal: Kobe Pace 2-yard run to NC State 2

This honestly wasn’t an awful play, though I’d argue it was a little bit telegraphed by lining up Dakota Twitty (who has one target and zero receptions this season) out wide and then motioning him in-line. Everyone on the field for NC State is expecting run, the right side of the offensive line gets no push, and Pace runs right into his two tight ends Grant Misch and Sackett Wood Jr. Don’t get me wrong, this play wasn’t good, but there’s nothing wrong with just trying to punch the ball in after an explosive play.

2nd and goal: Anthony Colandrea run, loss of 1 to NC State 3

This play gets worse the more times you watch it. When I saw it live, I wasn’t sure why Colandrea hadn’t just thrown the ball away. On replay, you notice that this play is an RPO with three options: give to Kobe Pace, throw to Sackett Wood in the flat, or just keep it and run. The handoff is never there, due to a) the number of guys in the box for NC State and b) the aforementioned run game issues. It looks like NC State sniffs out the play design at the last second, as Shyheim Battle covers Wood in the flat. And after Caden Fordham takes away Colandrea rolling out, the play is DOA. Losing only one yard was about the best possible option here.

3rd and goal: Anthony Colandrea throwaway out of the back of the end zone

This is another play that’s pretty much DOA: I don’t really understand the passing concept (Malik Washington on a crosser right behind Malachi Fields’s stop route is a very difficult concept to fit in), some of the routes look lazy, and it wouldn’t be a UVA passing play if Colandrea wasn’t forced at least partially off his spot despite an only three-man rush. The freshman QB makes a good decision to just throw the ball away — nobody was springing open, and he didn’t have anywhere to run.

4th and goal: Will Bettridge 21-yard FG

This is the first of two questionable 4th down decisions, as Virginia’s choice to kick cost them 7.6 points of win probability according to A.I. Sports’s college football fourth down calculator. These numbers aren’t gospel, but they generally give a good idea of the decision calculus involved.

As shown in the above image, the best reason to go for it here is that the difference between being down by 7 and down by 4 isn’t that large. You still need to score a touchdown to take the lead either way — the model sees a made FG as taking Virginia’s chances of winning from 16% to just 24%, as compared to 40% if the Cavaliers successfully score a touchdown. At those odds, even with just a 35% chance of successfully converting the Cavaliers should’ve gone for it on fourth down.

To be honest, though, this decision was reasonable. Most coaches probably would have done what Tony Elliott did and taken the points, even if it’s leaving a few percentage points of win probability on the table. This choice falls within the margin of error for the nerds, and passes the eye test — especially following three unsuccessful plays — for the coaching staff.

Q3 4:35: Virginia 1st and 10 from the NC State 28

Virginia followed up their previous field goal drive by forcing a three-and-out, and immediately hit on an explosive back-shoulder throw by Anthony Colandrea to Malachi Fields to put them in scoring range. What happened next?

1st and 10: Mike Hollins run for no gain

There’s not much notable about this play — NC State run blitzes, and Hollins honestly does well to make it back to the line of scrimmage — so I’ll just use this section to complain about Virginia’s commitment to the run game more generally.

Against NC State, here’s how run and pass plays worked out for the Cavaliers:

  • Yards per play: 3.6 rushing, 8.7 passing
  • Success rate: 26% rushing, 50% passing
  • EPA (expected points added): -15.8 rushing, +12.3 passing

And despite all that, AND a positive game script for passing the ball (trailing basically the entire game), the Cavaliers still ran 38 times and threw just 32. This team’s offensive strength is its QB and top 2 WRs. They need to play like it.

2nd and 10: Colandrea out route to Malik Washington for 9 yards

3rd and 1: Kobe Pace rush for half a yard

Sequences like this — good passing plays, followed by bad run plays — happened way too often this game. The worst example came in the first quarter, when Colandrea improvised a nice 16-yard completion to Malik Washington, then the Cavaliers ran the ball into the line with Mike Hollins four times in a row and turned it over on downs.

4th and 1 (but really 4th and half a yard): Will Bettridge 36 yard field goal

Yeah, this one was pretty inexcusable.

As bad as the numbers look — and, by the way, they’re probably an underestimate of how bad this decision was because the model doesn’t know that Virginia really only had about half a yard to go — the context is even worse.

The Virginia coaching staff was irate that Pace wasn’t given a first down on his third down carry. The offense initially stayed on the field (presumably because they thought it was a first down), but then Tony Elliott decided to kick a field goal instead — a decision which came so late that Virginia had to call a timeout to line up correctly for the field goal.

The play itself was ugly, too. Will Bettridge, who’s been shaky to start the season, barely knocked in what should have been an easy field goal from 36 yards off the left goalpost.

Virginia needs to be more consistent going forward

No matter whether you agree or disagree that Virginia should’ve gone for it on 4th and goal three yards from the end zone or on 4th and 1 from the 19, the team’s fourth-down decision making has been at the very least maddeningly inconsistent.

For example, if you’re going to be conservative in plus territory, why are you going for it on 4th and 1 in the first quarter on your own half of the field? That decision — which resulted in a Mike Hollins carry for no gain, turnover on downs, and NC State short-field touchdown — makes no sense in the context of Virginia’s later-game decisions.

It’s reasonable to conclude that on fourth downs, the Cavaliers have no consistent philosophy. They don’t know who they want to be. And that’s a problem which extends to a lot more than just a few fourth-down play calls.