When Virginia crosses the Potomac this weekend to face ancient rival Maryland for presumably the last time, it will mark the halfway point of the season for both teams. Both fan bases are still trying to figure out exactly what their team is all about.
Are the Cavaliers, 2-3, the same team that upset BYU in the season opener in early September? Are they the power running team they portrayed themselves to be in preseason? How good could this team be if it stopped shooting itself in the foot?
And, just like the line in that old TV quiz show, “What’s My Line?,” would the real Maryland Terrapins please stand up. Are these Terps the 4-0, 25th-ranked team in the country Terps, or the team that got bludgeoned 63-0 in Tallahassee last weekend?
It seems that both rivals will be searching for their identity when they meet for the 78th time on Saturday at Byrd Stadium in College Park. The heat, however, will squarely be on Virginia coach Mike London.
His team has stunk up the place the past two weekends, losing to beatable opponents Pitt and Ball State, chiefly as the result of six costly turnovers that those two opponents converted into 31 points. It’s tough enough out there without spotting your foe essentially five touchdowns worth of mistakes.
How bad is it in Charlottesville? Last week, social media sites were all over offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild. This week, since a 48-27 drubbing to potential MAC champion Ball State, London has been the object of fan base fury.
Some want London fired. Some want everyone fired. But hey, didn’t UVa just do that 10 months ago? Well, almost.
It is so bad that AD Craig Littlepage came out Sunday and said that London’s job is safe and asked fans for their patience while all the offseason changes (new offensive, defensive and special teams coordinators and systems) kick into gear.
London kind of hinted back in the offseason that perhaps fans shouldn’t set their expectations too high with all the changes and a challenging schedule that included No. 2 Oregon, BYU and a good Ball State team among the nonconference portion.
Now, everyone’s in a tizzy. Clearly the Cavaliers have been their own worst enemy the past two weeks. The turnovers have been the difference in the two losses. Take ‘em away and UVa probably wins both games and we’re writing about a completely different topic this morning.
Fact is, Virginia hasn’t played a complete game with offense, defense and special teams clicking on all cylinders yet. The fans are wondering what the heck is taking so long?
London, a laid back, easy going kind of guy, probably would have loved to have been anywhere else in the world at 3 p.m. Monday, rather than fielding media questions about why his football team is failing. Yet, he answered every query, was positive, upbeat, and tried to explain where he’s coming from.
About the new systems in place: “There is a process to a lot of these things. Obviously we want to win. We want to win now. I believe in the coaches. I believe in the players. But there is a process to that. We want to show improvement week to week and that’s my job. That’s the main focal point right now.”
About the turnovers: “If that continues, then you don’t give them the ball. You don’t keep throwing them the ball. You don’t keep handing the ball off to them and I think that they will respond in a way that they understand. They want to be players that can be counted on as explosive players. I look for that to change and the ball security aspects to improve greatly.”
About QB David Watford’s accuracy and is he considered a first-year starter even though he’s been in the system: “With five games into his college career in terms of being a quarterback, he is a first-year starter right now. I know it’s frustrating to him and frustrating to people that may be watching but I think there is a level of him improving that’s yet to be made.”
About what happened between beating BYU and playing so poorly the last two weekends: “The fact that there are some young players that have to play to give us an opportunity to be competitive and win… the fact that we had 13 penalties – that’s not an excuse for anything – that will cause you to lose games. Along with turnovers, that recipe is a recipe not to be successful.”
London said the coaches are solely focused on player improvement and eliminating mistakes. They feel if those things happen, the Cavaliers can compete with anyone remaining on the schedule.
The question is, will these players stop turning the ball over, stop committing dumb penalties.
The players who chatted with media Monday, Eli Harold, Khalek Shepherd, and freshman Eric Smith, all seemed upbeat, excited about Saturday’s game against Maryland.
Well, Harold wasn’t quite as upbeat as usual, to the point where one writer commented that the sophomore defensive end seemed down.
“I’m not down, I just woke up,” Harold smiled back.
Against Ball State, Watford threw one interception that led to a touchdown, tight end Jake McGee fumbled a reception that turned into a field goal and a controversial fumble by running back Kevin Parks led to another TD. A 79-yard TD pass from Watford to Tim Smith was called back because of an ineligible lineman down field penalty by freshman tackle Eric Smith, making his first start.
At Pitt, punt returner Dominique Terrell didn’t get out of the way of a rolling ball, which touched his leg and Pitt recovered at the UVa 19, leading to a TD. A few minutes later, a bad snap to Watford was mishandled and Pitt recovered at the Cavaliers’ 18, leading to another score, the only two scores by the Panthers in a 14-3 win.
Essentially, if Virginia can stop beating itself, the Cavaliers have a chance to turn things around. Otherwise, it’s gonna be getting really hot around here.