Virginia Football Won't Have an October To Remember
Revenge is a dish best served cold.
For North Carolina, the memories of an overtime loss last season to the Virginia Cavaliers have hardly faded. The Tar Heels saw their ACC Coastal dreams turn into a nightmare on a Saturday afternoon in Charlottesville as the Cavaliers continued their unexpected dominance over UNC at home.
For Virginia though, those memories are a distant memory, a painful reminder of what could have been. The Cavaliers are currently mired in the worst losing stretch during the Al Groh era. A loss this Saturday would leave Virginia in an eight-game skid that could result in one of the ugliest seasons in the past few decades.
Last year, the Cavaliers were in pretty poor shape as well. In September of 2008, the Cavaliers went 1-3, being outscored by a combined score of 128-36.
The Virginia Cavaliers looked like they were doomed, but then the impossible happened. Al Groh's team somehow rebounded from sheer obscurity to go undefeated in the month of October. In the course of 31 days, Virginia went from the bottom of college football to leading the ACC Coastal Division.
Can Virginia simulate a similar comeback this season?
In a word, no. Sorry to burst your bubble.
Although Virginia would love for history to repeat itself, there were three factors that helped drive the Cavaliers towards success in 2008. It just so happens that none of these things exist this time around.
1. Home, Sweet Home
Virginia, like most mediocre teams, are much better at home than on the road. While Groh's team have typically been lucky to win more than one or two road games every year, Scott Stadium has treated the Cavaliers well in the past.
It is no coincidence that last year's turnaround began at home against a rival in the Maryland Terrapins. The Terrapins were coming in expecting a rout and that's exactly what they got. Just turns out that Maryland was on the wrong side of it.
In a night time atmosphere, Virginia's Marc Verica found a rhythm and absolutely torched the unprepared Terrapin secondary for 226 yards and two touchdowns. In total, Virginia had 31 points, only five points short of what they had scored the entire month of September.
Virginia used that confidence to knock off East and North Carolina in consecutive weeks. The 3-0 home stand concluded with a dramatic overtime score to knock off the ranked Tar Heels and Virginia's momentum helped them continue the good play into Atlanta to defeat the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets.
This year though, October's schedule is not so kind to the Cavaliers.
First, Virginia must go to North Carolina who were stung by the Yellow Jackets the week before. Desperation to stay in the Coastal race mixed in with revenge and the crowd will be crazy next weekend.
Not a good combination for a team like Virginia still seeking its first win of the season.
Virginia's three home games this time are not in consecutive order, making it more difficult to get a winning streak going. However, even if Virginia played every game at home this season, it would make little difference.
The Cavalier fan-base has lost so much faith in their program, Scott Stadium is resembling a library more than a sports arena. The last home again TCU was the lowest attendance in ten years.
Virginia's home field disadvantage has actually begun to create a caustic environment for the team and that means October will not reap rewards this time around.
2. Running Back Depth
Cedric Peerman was the hero of 2008 for Virginia.
The senior running back rushed for 461 yards and six touchdowns in October of 2008. However, it was his big plays at critical moments that helped keep Virginia drives alone and helped the Cavaliers achieve at least some success last season.
Well Peerman is gone now and, as a result, there is a vacuum has yet to be filled.
Virginia's running backs were practically non-existent the first two games of the season in 2009, but there appeared to be hope against Southern Mississippi.
Rashawn Jackson and Dominique Wallace combined to become an impressive running duo against the Golden Eagles. The two had 18 carries and helped give Virginia some of the balance on offense that was needed to allow quarterback Jameel Sewell time to throw the ball downfield.
Except Wallace, the emerging freshman, is now out for the season with an injury he sustained last week. With Mikell Simpson still nursing an injury, Virginia is lacking a dynamic running back to get those big yards when needed.
Although Jameel Sewell has shown his ability to move the ball with his feet, the Cavaliers will not win a game until he learns to stay in the pocket and consistently find receivers.
No matter how talented a quarterback may be at running, using Sewell in this way is asking for trouble. If he cannot find alternative options in the backfield, Virginia will continue to struggle mightily to move the ball.
3. Improved Turnover Ratio
We all remember the William & Mary game earlier this year when Virginia coughed the ball up an amazing seven times to start the season with an embarrassing loss.
The Cavaliers had a similar poor start in 2008. 14 turnovers in September, including five against Duke in their ACC opener.
On the other side, Virginia struggled to generate those game-changing takeaways and atone for offensive mistakes. By the end of the year, Virginia was near the bottom of the ACC in turnover margin.
However, in October 2008, Virginia was able to limit their mistakes (comparatively speaking) and was able to make a run as a result.
For the month, Virginia went from 14 turnovers to just five the following month. Better yet, they forced nine takeaways, a big factor in their undefeated October.
In fact, in Virginia's two big wins against Maryland and North Carolina, the Cavaliers committed zero turnovers.
Unfortunately, the Georgia Tech game showed signs of things to come in November. Virginia won, but the team committed three turnovers against the Yellow Jackets mostly behind the poor decision-making of Verica.
Virginia would continue to throw the ball away at costly moments en route to a disappointing conclusion, something that has continued into this season.
Even though the Cavaliers "only" have ten turnovers so far this season, they are still tied for last in the ACC in turnover margin. Do not expect another big turnaround in October.
North Carolina and Georgia Tech both boast strong defenses that can shutdown the anemic Virginia offense. While Maryland's defense has been awful this season, Virginia has only won once in College Park since Groh became head coach of the Cavaliers.
With Virginia's offense struggling to move the ball, expect Cavalier players to take some bigger risks. That, inevitably, leads to turnovers and with a Virginia secondary that has struggled to get their hands on the ball, the turnover margin will remain a problem for the foreseeable future.
In total, Virginia is 9-3 the past three seasons in October. If the Cavaliers have any chance of salvaging their season, it will begin against North Carolina this upcoming weekend.
Virginia has shocked people before, for better or worse. Groh has made a career of fighting back when facing the pink slip and he very well could do it again.
Just don't hold your breath.
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