After a 45-10 embarrassment in the Constitution State in front of a semi-national television audience, Al Groh’s Virginia football squad appears to have hit rock bottom. For now, at least.
The stats are staggering, even when considering that the week one opponent was #1 USC. Out of 119 D-1 schools, Mike “nepotism is dead” Groh’s offense ranks 118th in total offense and 113th in scoring. Perhaps a second visit to Lubbock is warranted? On the defensive side of the ball, Bob Pruett’s chargers rank 93rd in total defense and 97th in scoring defense.
WITH THE BALL (inoffensive?)
Long before the game was out of hand (perhaps not that long), fans and even casual observers had questions about what was going on the offensive side of the ball. With piano-extraordinaire QB Marc Verica taking his first meaningful (and fourth+ ever) snaps under center, Virginia lined up in their version of the spread – shotgun formation with at most one running back. Football novices and even crackpot ESPNU commentators wondered aloud why Groh & Groh did not even attempt to establish a running game. Tailbacks Cedric Peerman and Mikell Simpson combined to rush for more than 1,100 yards last season, and the wide receiving core beyond Kevin Ogletree is at best unproven and at worst unthreatening to any opponent.
Cavalier Daily columnist Eric Strow pleaded on the Tuesday following the game for more handoffs in a piece entitled “Run, Forrest! Run!” Strow goes through all the great stats from last season and this year’s corresponding porous numbers. 154 yards through three games on 2.1 per carry, 38 carries against Richmond but only 14 in Storrs. Certainly, the offense was playing catch-up nearly the entire game, but as the first series showed, there was a commitment to the (short) pass from the get-go. Was it to give Verica confidence in his first start? The gameplan clearly focused on short passes and Verica looked comfortable with increasing confidence even early in the game. Or, was it meant to hide deficiencies up front?
Strow briefly mentions “the concern surrounding the offensive line,” but counters with the documented experience of tackles Eugene Monroe and Will Barker. He asks: “the others on the line might be inexperienced, but is that really a reason to not run?” and pleads “coach Groh, I implore you. Run the football. Things can’t get any worse if you do.”
Voices of reason would likely point of that all three interior members of the O-line are gone, including at least one that was a clear strength in the run game – 1st round pick Branden Albert. And, a the Roanoke Times points out, “Barker was called for two holding penalties Sept. 6 against Richmond and yielded sacks against Southern Cal and UConn.” The head man probably wouldn’t have gotten more than a few sentences into the Cav Daily article before uttering a line the dropped on the media the day following the game: “all those runners run the same when there’s no holes.” Perhaps true, but why not give it a chance?
On the positive side, Verica did look poised and accurate in the clearly-adjusted gameplan. Postgame, Groh called Verica’s performance “fairly decent” and said that his 73% completion percentage was “not an unexpected circumstance for a guy in his first game.” Obviously that had a lot to do with the passes thrown – most going to the first option, averaging 7 yards per completion with nearly half netting 5 yards or less. Kevin Ogletree continues to impress at receiver and appears back to his 2005 form, standing out as the only receiver able to get open consistently. KO accounted for roughly 1/3 of the passing offense, but did suffer a knee injury that he appeared to bounce back from.
IN DEFENSE (penetrable?)
Where to start? 500+ total yards with long stretches between negative-yardage plays. UConn QB Jared Lorenzen completed 87% of his 15 passes and also ran 10 times for more than 5 times a clip. 380+ team rushing yards including 206 from one-time Virginia recruiting target Donald Brown, who let on that there was a “little bit [of extra motivation], but things happen for a reason.” The RTD notes that Brown ”favored the Cavaliers for a long time, but they didn’t commit to using him at running back until late in the recruiting process.” Tailback may not have been or currently be a position of need, but Brown did have two 60+ yard runs against Virginia’s depleted D-line and seemingly experience- and at least quantity-heavy (read: 3-4) linebacking corps.
Safety Brandon Woods was victimized multiple times on runs and was replaced atop this week’s depth chart by reputed-hitter RS freshman Corey Mosley, who had never even been listed on the two-deep before. Groh was about as critical of a player as he’s ever been, stating “without talking down (Woods) … certainly we’re looking for more than we’ve been getting.” Consider him taken down, along with NT Nate Collins, who was replaced by RS freshman Nick Jenkins, once thought to be a candidate to play last year in his first season after choosing the Cavaliers over offers from Florida & Tennessee, among others. Most expect a rotation to continue at the nose position, but Jenkins is certainly now in line for more reps. Jenkins proves slightly more size than Collins in over center, while Mosley comes in four inches shorter than Woods.
Groh conceded that Mosley “hit a little bit of a roadblock” in the spring, but has “built-in ability that would give him a chance to be a very good player,” and brings “multiple set of skills that he brings to the position,” including “quick speed,” “acceleration,” “toughness,” and “long speed.” Hopefully he’s not talking about cross-country running. Jenkins has “been a very mature player since he’s gotten here,” but has been “one of those players that needs to develop technique and learn the system.” Recently, however, “he’s played a little bit better than [Collins].” The second-term O-line was also shaken up, with three true freshmen – one of which (Austin Pasztor) has already played – no now in a backup role. Two first-year players who traveled to Connecticut but had yet to play remain on the second team at linebacker (ILB Steve Greer & OLB Cameron Johnson). Is there a smell of burning redshirts in the air?
All and all, not much of a shake-up, especially in light of Groh’s Sunday comments (“It doesn’t make any difference what you did last year or what you might do in the future or what Rivals list you were on or what watch list you might be on, for whatever circumstance. It’s all about who’s playing well now and who gives us the best chance to operate in the next game.”). Remember that in Groh’s first season (2001), he benched two starting O-linemen after a shutout against NCSU.
Two final notes… DE Sean Gottschalk – who was expected to see significant playing time this year – remains “on a leave of absence for undisclosed personal and health reasons.” LB and onetime-safety John Bivens has left the team because of recurring knee problems (surgery last November & further problems this summer), and has joined the baseball team, where he will have three seasons of eligibility (not four, because of the ‘Bear Bryant Rule’). In his debut on the diamond, Bivens went 0-1 with a walk and a stolen base.
SPECIAL TEAMS (surprisingly a strength?)
PK Yannick Reyering made a 43-yarder against Connecticut. True freshman P Jimmy Howell averaged nearly 40 yards on (just?) five punts at Connecticut, with none proving to be returnable. Ogletree, Peerman and Chase Minnifield all had kickoff returns of 34+ yards.
COACHING (can it get worse?)
Several media outlets made note of the fact that only three assistants – and no true defensive assistants – were on the sidelines in Storrs. Groh was joined on the field by visor-wearing RB coach Anthony Poindexter, special teams coordinator Bob Diaco (LB coach in title as well), and OL coach Dave Borbely.
Virginia “insider” Doug Doughty of the Roanoke Times pleaded for DC Bob Pruett to be “moved from the press box to the field to help inspire his unit.” In addition to in-person X’s and O’s, Pruett’s predecessor Mike London was often able to inspire his unit via a deserved “chest bump or a high-five” and “chastise them” and “get in their faces if the situation warranted.” Doughty reports that “observers on both sidelines Saturday at Connecticut were struck by the absence of emotion displayed by the Cavaliers on and off the field. Head coach Al Groh huddled with the defense periodically, but, when play resumed, he had to go back to watching the game.”
Doughty goes on… Groh is “spread too thin. The Virginia players should have been angry Saturday during a 45-10 loss to UConn, but the defensive unit sat quietly as the final minutes ticked off the clock. There was nobody in their faces. Not a coach. Not another player.” He even mentions former All-American Chris Long and his HOF father Howie, who according to a “coach familiar with the UVa operation” was a “’larger than life’ influence on the UVa program.” Doughty asks “is it a coincidence, in [former roommate and friend Chris] Long’s absence this year, that [nine-sack linebacker from a year ago Clint] Sintim is still waiting to get on track?” Virginia’s defense won’t see London on that sideline again, and “in his mid-60s, Pruett does not have the same demographical profile as London, 48, but he has always had a reputation as a players’ coach. Why not put him on the sideline and find out?”
RECRUITING (good news?)
Taft Coghill, Jr. of the Free-Lance Star reports that stud Chancellor recruit Dominique Wallace – who was unable to watch the Connecticut game because of limited ESPNU availability – is not second-guessing his oral commitment.
Wallace, who has been living up to his billing this year, was quoted as saying “everybody has a bad year every once in a while.” Further, other 540 commits Liberty DB Corey Lillard & Orange QB/athlete Quintin Hunter remain steadfast in their pledges to Virginia. Hunter’s coach says he “still loves Virginia and its proximity to his home” while Liberty’s head man insists he preaches decommitting only in “’extenuating circumstances’ such as family issues or a college coach leaving.” For what it’s worth, Doug Doughty opines that Hunter – once viewed as an athlete – may be “worth a second look at QB” given the current situation at Virginia.
In a vote of confidence (?), the decision-makers in Bristol, Connecticut have chosen the Virginia-Duke game for a noon ESPNU telecast. While this may seem like destination of last resort for the ACC’s media partners, note that Virginia’s upcoming home game against up-and-coming Maryland has been optioned for ESPNU with an alternative of an internet broadcast on espn.com.
Much has been made about the fact that the decision-makes in Las Vegas have installed Duke as a 6-7 point favorite for this weekend’s contest in Durham, but it may be deserved if one looks only at the present. Yes, Duke has lost 25 straight conference games, a closely streak that followed a 30-game losing streak against ACC foes. Yes, Duke has been an underdog in 40 straight ACC games. However, Virginia has lost to its two D-1 opponents this season by an average of 40 points per game and looked unimpressive in a win over 1-AA Richmond at home. Duke, meanwhile is nearly 3-0 after beating JMU and Navy and narrowly losing a game they controlled to Northwestern.
Duke’s QB Thaddeus Lewis leads the ACC in total offense with nearly 275 yards per game and has thrown 206 consecutive passes without an INT. Top WR Eron Riley has 5 TDs in three games and averages nearly 20 yards a catch. On defense, a deep rotation on the line has helped to yield just 171 yards rushing and less than 21 points per game, down from 33 last year. Even the kicking game appears improved, with made 46- and 52-yarders by different two kickers to date, after hovering around 50% made last year.
It’s early, but HC David Cutcliffe is getting praise – at least locally. The Fayetteville Observer is onboard: “Cutcliffe is selling the future of football, the odd-shaped ball of sports, on a campus where the prim and proper spherical basketball rules. I’ll buy a few shares and see where the stock goes in two weeks.” The Winston-Salem Journal notes that Cutcliffe’s team is “one holding penalty away from being unbeaten” and heaps praise on a program that may be heading in the right direction before even netting the benefit of his recruits.
As October approaches, at 1-3 or even 2-2 the road doesn’t get any easier Virginia. Realistically, there’s no three-game stretch that looks better than Richmond-UConn-Duke at the moment. After Duke, Maryland, ECU, and UNC come to the friendly confines of Charlottesville, but there’s no chance Virginia will be favored in any of those games. Following that stretch, a home Miami contest is sandwiched between road tilts at Georgia Tech and Wake Forest. After a bye the season concludes with games against conference heavyweights Clemson at home and VPI in Blacksburg.
Finally, in future-season news, Virginia has agreed to go against Groh’s often-cited desire to never play against his former assistants and will face Lynchburg’s Liberty University, perhaps in 2012. As The Roanoke Times points out, “Liberty would be happy to have Rocco” for an extended tenure as the Flames have cracked the D-I AA poll for the first time in 11 years. Last week in Storrs, UConn coach Randy Edsall expressed a desire to schedule Virginia again, and Groh confirmed that the two coaches have discussed the possibility. “Obviously, it’s a game with a team from a BCS league and it’s a one-hour flight,” Groh said. “I certainly wouldn’t want to do it on a frequent basis. It becomes more like a conference game and loses a little bit of its zip. But we’d be open to pursuing it.” Does he know something we don’t know about an added credit for strength of schedule in the BCS formula?
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