More than 20 minutes after watching his team’s second half collapse, Virginia coach Mike London emerged from the locker room and faced the music. Or, was it a firing squad?
Curious minds wanted to know how the Cavaliers blew a 22-point lead and lost to Duke for the fifth time in six years. It was a monumental landslide that saw the visiting Blue Devils reel off 35 unanswered points as Virginia’s season continued to spiral out of control.
Saturday’s 35-22 derailment was UVa’s fourth consecutive loss and figured to be the last time this season the Cavaliers would be favored to win (2.5-point favorites). Standing at 2-5 overall, 0-3 in the ACC, how’s this for a finish: Georgia Tech, Clemson, at North Carolina, at Miami, Virginia Tech. Folks, we could be staring at 2-10, something that hasn’t happened here since the 1-10 finish of Dick Bestwick’s career in 1981.
All this leaves Virginia’s poohbahs in quite a dilemma. They don’t want to fire London and probably couldn’t afford it even if they wanted to because of a hefty buyout of his and staff contracts numbering somewhere in the $10-$11 million range.
They’ve publicly supported him and declared his job is safe. But even administrators must be frustrated with the recent downturn that could surpass last year’s six-game losing tailspin. And, there are other reasons as well, like protecting a prized committed recruiting class, and giving time for all the new systems brought in by new coordinators to kick in.
Yet, there were no valid excuses for Saturday’s implosion.
For the first 26 minutes, the Cavaliers were nearly flawless on both sides of the ball. In fact, the offense was so unpredictable and so efficient during three impressing scoring drives, that Wahoo fans were about to take back all those nasty things they’ve said about coordinator Steve Fairchild for the past month (well, not really).
Inexplicably, the sky began to fall in the second half and Virginia’s 22-7 lead began to vanish into the dark of the Scott Stadium night. What happened? Was it Duke adjustments, UVa incompetence, a voodoo curse, just what caused things to go haywire?
If you’re looking for an explanation, the answer is as simple as well water: Duke stopped the run … Virginia didn’t.
“[Duke] knew we were going to run the football, so they put men up in the line, blitzed a lot,” said UVa running back Kevin Parks (15 rushes, 50 yards, 2 TDs). “Their key focus was to stop our run and make us throw.”
Ahh, there’s the rub.
The Blue Devils made Virginia a one-dimensional football team, forcing rookie quarterback David Watford, who has struggled with accuracy at times, to beat them with his arm. He couldn’t deliver.
Duke used more sets with three down linemen, especially on third downs, and brought the blitz. It was nothing UVa hadn’t seen on film. It’s just that the Cavaliers couldn’t execute against the strategy.
“We just failed to execute,” said Virginia senior offensive lineman Luke Bowanko. “They shut down a lot of the things we like to do because we weren’t blocking guys and that put Coach (Fairchild) in a difficult situation where we had to start throwing the ball. It’s tough to get away from your identity because we’re not getting any rushing yards. That’s on the guys on the field, not the coaches.”
Still, Wahoo fans were taking Fairchild’s and London’s names in vain as the offense floundered the entire second half. Virginia produced just 52 yards of offense in the second half up until an inconsequential late drive. Meanwhile, Duke stormed back with 287 yards offense in the second half while the Cavaliers couldn’t hardly make a first down (2-for-7 on third down conversions).
Duke, known for its stout second-half defensive play this season, held true to its reputation. The Devils have shut out three of seven opponents in the second half this season, including the Cavaliers, which crossed midfield only twice the final two quarters.
Yes, Virginia’s defense surrendered six plays of 20+ yards on the day, mostly through the air, but who could blame them? They could hardly catch their wind on the sidelines while UVa’s offense kept repeating three-and-outs.
With each mounting Duke success, the Cavaliers’ confidence swayed in a “here we go again” manner. If losing is contagious, London is in full epidemic-prevention mode today.
“Basically, Coach said after the game that guys can pack it up or guys can come out and fight,” said cornerback Anthony Harris. “We’re going to have our meeting [Sunday] as usual and so the guys who show up are the guys who are going to play.”
Not sure if that means London read his team the riot act, but he must have made it clear that there’s no room for giving up or half efforts.
Watford, whose numbers (20-for-38, 263 yards, 1 TD) weren’t as good in actuality as they appeared, noticed some of his teammates losing confidence when things began to unravel.
“You could tell when things went wrong a lot of guys were hanging their heads and didn’t think we were in it,” Watford said. “We try to stay as positive as we can. We try to keep everybody up.”
Nearly every Cavalier player blamed this loss on a lack of execution, leaving the rest of us to wonder if it’s a matter of a lack of talent, an inability to grasp the new coaching concepts, or what.
“We have to coach them better,” London said. “I have to do a better job.”
Right now, Virginia seems to have a bad case of Buzzard’s Luck: can’t kill anything, can’t find anything dead.
London’s biggest challenge now is keeping everything together. He said he will stay positive.
Meanwhile, Duke is 5-2, only one win away from qualifying for a second straight bowl trip.
“It is extremely difficult to go down 22-0 on the road in a conference game and then come back and win by 13 points,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. “I think our guys believed that we belonged.
“Quite frankly, we were an irrelevant football program in this league and I think we realized that we earned relevance,” Cutcliffe said of his program, which used to be the doormat of the ACC.
That distinction now belongs to London’s Virginia team. Virginia is now what Duke used to be and there doesn’t seem to be any easy answers on how to stop the bleeding.