COLLEGE PARK, Md. — Tom O’Brien said earlier in the week that Virginia’s football team still needed to learn how to win.
After Saturday’s 27-26 loss to Maryland at waterlogged Byrd Stadium, it was apparent the Cavaliers must have skipped a couple of chapters. Hemingway wrote about one of those: never leave a wounded lion. I think Bobby Bowden wrote the other: how to better cope in the Red Zone.
Coach Mike London’s team, mired in a three-game tailspin, violated both those ancient tenets and yet still had a chance to beat its crusty old rival in the last scheduled meeting. Even though Virginia had several chances to deliver the coup de’ grace and instead traded touchdowns for field goals, the Cavaliers had one last shot.
With 94 seconds remaining and no time outs, UVa got the ball back at its own 36, trailing by one point.
Tight end Jake McGee, who notched a career-high 114 receiving yards in the game, senior center Luke Bowanko and sophomore quarterback David Watford were all attempting to inspire their teammates for one final drive.
“We were all talking on the sidelines before we went out and talking in the huddle,” McGee said of the last gasp. “All the guys knew what needed to happen, but there comes a point where the words have to stop and you’ve got to see what each guy is made of.”
Virginia moved the ball quickly, using only three plays to get to a first down at the Maryland 28 with 1:11 to play. After opening up the offense for most of the game, London and offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild suddenly became ultra conservative. Instead of trying to either score a touchdown or get the ball closer for back-up place-kicker Alec Vozenilek, they called for two Kevin Parks runs up the gut, garnering only four yards, before Watford tried to get outside but was bottled up for a one-yard loss, leaving a 42-yard field goal attempt from the left hash.
“Coach London just wanted to run the clock out and kick the field goal,” Watford said. “I should have centered the ball on that last run I had instead of taking it as far left as I did.”
If you’re a Wahoo, and unless you’re in a cave somewhere or a space station, by now you know that Vozenilek’s kick was wide right. Even though Virginia lost this game earlier by failing to convert potential touchdowns and settling for field goals, that suggestion wasn’t any consolation to a dismayed Vozenilek.
“I got a chance to win the game with a field goal and I missed it,” Voz mumbled. “It was the last play we had.”
On a day when Virginia did most everything right but win, losing to longtime rival Maryland, particularly in such a fashion, left a bad taste.
Up to that point, Vozenilek, the team’s punter who took up kicking duties last week due to starter Ian Frye’s injury, had been a perfect 4-for-4 on the day with boots of 28, 18, 27 and 26 yards. Perhaps putting him in a position to win the game from that distance and that angle was a coaching error that resulted in Virginia dropping to 2-4 on the season, 0-2 in the ACC.
The Cavaliers effort was kind of like those happy/sad faces you see on the walls of the classic old theatres.
Playing a turnover-free game and committing only five penalties, Virginia’s offensive numbers were Oregon-like: 505 yards and 93 offensive plays. There’s where the resemblance ends. For the third consecutive year, the Cavaliers, regardless of how many yards they put up, can’t light up the scoreboard.
“We had a chance to get off to a 14-0 start and instead we trailed 7-6,” McGee said.
The Cavaliers bungled the first opportunity when they recovered the first of two Maryland fumbled punt returns at the Terps’ 13-yard line and couldn’t smell paydirt. Two runs up the middle and an incomplete pass resulted in a field goal and a 3-0 lead.
Later in the quarter, the Cavaliers' offense actually showed some signs of life with an impressive 12-play, 79-yard drive with a first down at Maryland’s 6, and they still couldn’t punch it in. Three Kevin Park runs came up a yard shy of the goal line, resulting in another field goal and a 6-0 lead, to which Maryland quickly answered on the ensuing possession and led 7-6.
Although the Cavaliers appeared to work out some of those issues as the game wore on, they wasted another chance to put the final dagger in the Terps with nine minutes left in the game. A loose ball touched a Maryland player on a punt and Virginia recovered at the Terps’ 17.
This time, the play call was a six-yard pass to Parks, followed by a three-yard Parks’ run, and, finally, on a third-and-one from the 8, a Parks’ run right that resulted in a 1-yard loss. Voz struck again from 26 yards out to give Virginia a 26-20 lead.
But what if just one of those had been a touchdown? What if Virginia had decided to be a little less vanilla and not so ultra conservative in the red zone for goodness sakes? You’re on the road, fighting for your lives, while the villagers back home are assembling the pitchforks and ready to storm the castle.
Shouldn’t you go for broke?
“It’s a hurt locker room in there,” London said afterward. “It gets down to those four or five plays again. We make the field goal and it’s a moot point right now. But you want to win the game, pretty, ugly, you want to win games.”
Parks, who rushed for 112 yards and had 50 more receiving, couldn’t even watch Voz’s last field goal attempt. He turned his back, too nervous to look.
“We’ve got to score more touchdowns,” Parks said. “Leave no doubt on the field. Getting the win is all that matters.”
Give Maryland credit. The Terps converted a crucial third-and-21 on its go-ahead scoring drive, perhaps the biggest play of the game.
Still, the win was within Virginia’s grasp against the 5-1 Terps.
London saw progress. His offensive line put together its best effort of the season with Bowanko moving to center. Watford played his first game without committing a turnover and agreed that he played with the most confidence in six games (27-for-44, career-high 263 yards, 1 TD, no sacks, no interceptions).
Still, the conservative approach to end game was troubling if not haunting.
“I wouldn’t characterize it as being conservative,” the coach said about the calls on the final drive. “The biggest thing is to put yourself into a position where the playmakers can help extend the drives or get those first downs or those points.”
Perhaps he was referring to the overall drive, which certainly wasn’t conservative until the final three plays that left Vozenilek in a precarious position and perhaps cost Virginia a much-needed win.
Never leave a wounded lion. Virginia is still learning lessons.