ACC Football: 10 Things We Have Learned About Virginia After Three Games
It has certainly been an interesting beginning to the Virginia football season.
Head coach Mike London inherited a program in shambles.
The players were dejected, the fans were apathetic, and the team was coming off a paltry three-win season that included a home loss to William & Mary.
While the Cavaliers have been far from perfect to start the 2010 season there have been some positive signs. At 2-1, Virginia's most impressive performance may actually have come in their loss in Los Angeles against the Trojans.
The season may still be young but we are starting to find answers to the many questions facing the Cavalier program in 2010.
The following are some of the lessons we have learned and things we can take away from Virginia's start to the season.
4th and 6 Is Better Than 3rd and 18
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Even when a coach is in the middle of his honeymoon it does not mean he's above second guessing.
Coach London has done plenty of great things in his early tenure with the Cavaliers. However, he looked bad Saturday against VMI.
Early in the game, the Keydets were stopped short of the first down marker on third down when the referees called a holding penalty.
Rather than declining the penalty and requiring VMI to punt from inside their own 30, the Cavalier coaches decided to take the 10 yards.
On the next play, Virginia's secondary got burned badly for a big gain and helped the Keydets march towards mid-field.
Ultimately the drive ended well for Cavalier fans as cornerback Chase Minnifield made an athletic interception, but the decision was still puzzling.
Was he really concerned about field position?
Did he lose track of what down it was?
Coaching decisions can win or lose games, particularly when you are a team like Virginia that cannot afford to make mistake.
London can get away with the bad call against VMI, but mental errors like that will not help them pull off an ACC upset.
Virginia has certainly made some poor decisions in the first three weeks, but that's part of college football.
Fortunately they have responded well to the adversity and that may be the greatest sign of all.
Chase Minnifield Stradles The Line Between Hero and Villain
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Minnifield is a complicated player.
One minute he can make you scratch your head and kick the coffee table.
Then he makes a play that inspires you to name your first born son after him.
The life of a corner back is anything but easy, particularly when your partner in crime has been sidelined for the first two games.
Still, Minnifield has been caught out of position in critical situations so far this season. Quarterbacks have challenged the young man and the results have been mixed.
Of course, Minnifield's low point came early Saturday when he muffed a punt and helped VMI gain early momentum inside Virginia territory.
I know the sun is bright, but punt returners cannot play the ball as poorly as Minnifield did.
So right when it seemed like the cornerback was going to be a goat, he makes one of the most athletic moves I have ever seen.
Tipping an errant pass in mid-air, Minnifield dove for the ball and cradled it for a timely interception.
The ability to maneuver himself and the ball into that position was nothing short of incredible. It woke up a lethargic crowd and jump started a team that was far from sharp early on against VMI.
A second interception later on, combined with a nice 20-yard punt return, led Minnifield to becoming an MVP candidate for the week three victory.
We may not know which Minnifield will show up week to week or even quarter to quarter. However, at his best, he is a big play threat that can lead his team to victory.
Ras-I Dowling Is More Than A Little Rusty
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While on the subject of corner backs, Ras-I Dowling finally made his 2010 for the Cavaliers.
This season premiere though was certainly disappointing, though understandable.
Dowling has been limited in practice since an injury he suffered prior to the start of the season. So it would be unreasonable to expect him to be at peak performance after a long break.
Still, Virginia fans know that the ACC season starts on Saturday. In other words, Dowling will need to get better and soon.
Dowling allowed a VMI wide receiver to get behind the coverage in a critical situation when the game was still close. It was the consistent inconsistency that Virginia fans have come to know and tolerate.
Dowling may be a projected starter on Sunday based on his talent, but if Virginia is going to surprise people he needs to improve his mental game. Too many times, Dowling has been known for his mistakes than his successes.
The talent is undoubtedly there, but his leadership and experience will be tested this season.
Everyone knows when a quarterback challenges Dowling that it could end in a huge turnover but it could just as likely result in a big touchdown. It's a gamble, one that Virginia fans are scared of risking.
Virginia's Offense Is Built On Balance
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Virginia football and offense were two things that simply have not gone together these past few seasons.
Last year the Cavaliers ranked 118 out of 120 FBS teams in total offense. The year before that they were 105th. Even in 2007, when Virginia made the Gator Bowl, they were 101st.
In other words, the anemic offense was one of the worst in college football.
Through three games this season, Virginia ranks 33rd in total offense. Only North Carolina State and Florida State bolster more prolific offensive numbers.
There are many reasons for this turnaround, but a key to success has been clear.
Against the Trojans of USC, the Cavaliers had 36 rushing plays and 36 passing plays. Nine of their first downs came via the pass, ten via the run.
They continued a trend the week before when Virginia had 35 runs and 35 passes against Richmond.
Against VMI, Virginia went way off-balance with 34 passing attempts and 36 rushes.
Do we notice the pattern yet?
The Cavaliers are most successful when they are two-dimensional. When Virginia can run the ball, that allows quarterback Marc Verica to use play action to find open receivers and move the chains.
This will be a critical statistic as Virginia enters conference play. Will they be able to maintain a balance against the talent in the ACC?
If Virginia can avoid being one-dimensional against Florida State then the Cavaliers could be in prime position for an upset.
Virginia's Mental Toughness Will Be Tested This Season
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Everyone was surprised when Virginia held their own against the Trojans of USC. The Cavaliers looked like a team to be reckoned with considering the energy and passion they displayed throughout a gutty but ultimately a losing performance.
Well, that fire and passion is easy when it's one of the premiere college football programs in the country. It was that lack of urgency that was clearly lacking in the beginning of the VMI and Richmond games.
The Cavaliers may have some talent, but they are not talented enough to overlook any team remaining on their schedule.
If all Virginia does is play to the level of their competition, it will be difficult to ever sustain success.
Teams that play with chips on their shoulders sometimes lose their edge when the criticism turns to praise. The Cavaliers cannot afford that.
Despite the better than expected play, Virginia is where just about everyone expected them to be, 2-1 with a tough game this upcoming weekend. Failure to recognize that could lead to some frustrating play as the season continues.
It's a marathon Virginia fans, not a sprint. The players must continue to improve if they have any hope of building a program.
Virginia's No. 2 Quarterback Is Still Undetermined
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Since just about everyone knew that Virginia should handle VMI, the biggest question entering the contest was who would back-up Marc Verica at quarterback?
After all, Verica is a senior. The heir apparent is still unknown and after three weeks, the answer seems murkier as opposed to clearer.
Most people expected to see Ross Metheny enter the game as signal-caller. Having already used his redshirt season, Metheny was a safe bet to see some game action and he played well.
In just one possession, Metheny marched the team down the field with a 15-yard touchdown pass to Jared Green. On the eight play, 61 yard drive, the redshirt freshman was 4-of-5 for 53 yards.
However, when the fourth quarter came along, fans were surprised to see true freshman Michael Rocco take the field.
Rocco looked to be a redshirt candidate himself and coach London's predecessor made some enemies for his decision to burn redshirts unnecessarily.
Well Rocco certainly looked poised in his collegiate debut, going 4-of-6 for 64 yards and a touchdown himself.
After the game, coach London said he put in both because it is important to know who is second on the depth chart and they did not have a clear favorite yet.
Well, with similar numbers and poise, the only thing that seems cleared up is that Virginia will have quite the battle for the quarterback position in 2011.
It will be interesting to see what this means for the rest of the season. If the Cavaliers continue to play well, Verica will be just fine.
However, if the season gets away from Virginia, will we see more of these two young men than we expected?
Raynard Horne Wants Anthony Poindexter To Keep His Job
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Special teams have been horrific for Virginia in the first two games of the season.
It did not look much better in the beginning of the VMI game with a muffed punt return in the first quarter.
Well Raynard Horne helped erase some of those sour memories. After VMI scored to tie the game at 7, Horne responded with a kickoff return for a touchdown.
Granted, it was not a thing of beauty. Horne clearly began to ran out of steam around the 20-yard line and had to huff and puff his way into the end zone.
However the result, the first kickoff return for a touchdown since 2004 for Virginia, was a thing of beauty.
Give Horne some credit, it would have been easy for him to tank this season. He appeared in prime position to take over running back responsibilities but was bumped off the depth chart this summer.
Instead of crying about it, Horne made an impact when he finally got the ball in his hands.
Virginia made its first field goal of the year and finally made the maligned special teams and secondary coach Anthony Poindexter look good.
To be fair, Poindexter's charges have been the weakest links in the first three games of the season. The secondary has let down a tremendous effort from the front seven on defense and the special teams have kept points off the board.
However, with some positive results against VMI, maybe the secondary and special team units can be improved as the Cavaliers enter conference play.
Poindexter was the only coach retained by London when he became head coach of the Cavaliers. As much as he means to the program, now is the time to put up or shut up for the legendary player.
Virginia's Colorful Language Is Targeted At Al Groh
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Whatever happened to the Sea of Orange?
Former Virginia coach Al Groh made a concentrated effort to reshape the Cavalier fans. He tried to eliminate the ties and sundresses; he sought a real marching band.
It's okay to be demanding when you're winning, but when the Virginia program was falling from the sky thanks to its incompetent pilot, fans rebel the best way they know how.
Well coach London has clearly embraced that change. With new uniforms, new color schemes in the stadium and a new attitude, the Cavaliers are clearly launching a new era.
These seemingly superfluous decisions are a simple way of trying to not only erase painful memories of the past nine years, but harken back to some of the traditions of the glory years.
Virginia will have plenty of fans on hand to celebrate the 15th and 5th year anniversaries of the team's victories over Florida State. Coach London has asked for a white out, something that Virginia has not had since the mid-90s.
Will the new color really make that big a difference? Probably not.
However, a new hue seems to be brightening the spirits of everyone as Virginia tries to turn the page on their football program.
The ACC Is Wide Open
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So apparently the WAC is a tougher conference than the ACC according to statisticians.
I am not sure I can believe that, but the results have been ugly thus far.
Georgia Tech cannot defend anybody, including a team that lost to an FCS team.
Virginia Tech actually did lose to an FCS team in James Madison. Sure the Dukes are better than people give them credit for but this is an unacceptable loss for a supposed top 25 team.
Miami is terribly inconsistent because their quarterback Jacory Harris is all over the place. His talent does not match his decision-making and that makes the Hurricanes vulnerable.
North Carolina has some many off-the-field issues that their team is about one more loss from quitting for the season.
Duke just lost to Army.
In other words, Virginia should not be intimidated by anyone on their schedule.
The Cavaliers may not be as talented as some of their ACC brethren, but they do have a fair amount of confidence and passion. They have a clear game plan and can be very competitive if they execute it correctly.
Right now it is hard to tell just who is good and who is not in the ACC. The winner may very well be 6-2 or even 5-3 in conference.
Virginia will certainly lose some games in the ACC this season, but there is reason to believe that they can beat most if not all of them if some breaks fall their way.
Sometimes Goodbye Really Is A Second Chance
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Running back Keith Payne quit football.
He was done with the academics, the poor placement on the depth chart and everything else that seemed to be happening in his life.
When coach Al Groh was finally let go, Payne and coach London had a candid conversation.
London wanted Payne back, but it required a commitment. If the running back wanted his chance he would have to earn it on and off the field.
Payne hit the weight room and the books. As a result, he has become a pleasant surprise in the 2010 football season for Virginia fans.
The Payne Train has done a great job of bullying defenders out of his way. Being able to break tackles and keep his legs moving not only inspires the fans but his fellow teammates.
He is a fan favorite and an integral part to this team's success. His thunder matched with the lightning speed of Perry Jones makes the Virginia offense competent.
It also makes them competitive.
LaRoy Reynolds was used to competing, but coach London recognized that his future was not going to be in the secondary.
The linebacking corps was solid but it missed the speed necessary in a successful 4-3 defense.
Coach London needed someone who could make plays and attack the ball.
Reynolds was the answer.
After a simple switch, Reynolds has adjusted beautifully and become an MVP on the defense.
Through three games, the linebacker is tied for second on the team in tackles with 16.
His big play ability is evident. He already has registered enough tackles for loss to have been sixth on the team for the entire 2009 season.
I guess sometimes second chances pay off.