ACC: Mike London
There is a vastly different feel around the Virginia football team, one that has everything to do with its quarterbacks.
For the first time since his first spring in 2010, Mike London has offseason stability at the position.
"You’re telling me," he said recently.
London started ticking off the competitions he oversaw the past several seasons. In 2011, he left spring with a four-man race still wide open. In 2012, he thought Michael Rocco would be his starter until Phillip Sims transferred in after spring. In 2013, Rocco and Sims both transferred, leaving David Watford and Greyson Lambert to compete.
Then last spring, Watford, Lambert, and Matt Johns were a part of an open competition. You need a spreadsheet to keep track of all the different quarterback competitions in Charlottesville over the past four springs.
No other ACC team has had more over the same span. But this year, everything is different. Lambert opened spring practice today as the No. 1 quarterback after winning the starting job last spring. Johns, who started three games last season when Lambert hurt his ankle, remains right behind.
"Everybody knows from Little League to college to the pros, it’s all quarterback driven, and a lot of times you learn it by earning your pelts and playing in games, and those two guys have done it," London said. "They’re walking around older, more mature and confident. It’s unbelievable when you have a guy walking around who feels like he can do it, and he’s the guy. We have two guys walking around like that. It raises their confidence level, but it raises the team and staff’s levels as well."
As it should. Virginia has struggled with the instability at quarterback, going to one bowl game in the past four years. But progress was made a season ago, not only with stability, but production at the position. Virginia barely missed a bowl game despite playing one of the toughest schedules in the country (not to mention having its starting quarterback on the shelf for three games).
Lambert still has plenty of room for improvement this spring, as he works on bringing his mistakes down (11 interceptions to just 10 touchdown passes) and his completion percentage up from 59 percent. But his numbers were a marked improvement over Watford, who threw eight touchdown passes to 15 interceptions and completed 57 percent of his passes in 2013.
Cutting down on the interceptions must be a priority this spring. Since 2010, Virginia leads the league in total interceptions thrown, with 81. Improvement there should be expected with a second-year starter, who will know exactly what to expect when he steps onto the field for the opener against UCLA in September.
Flash back to a year ago in the opener against UCLA, and Lambert threw two pick-6s before getting benched.
"That experience is something that’s hard to mimic when you’re trying to find your quarterbacks in the spring; it’s hard to mimic when he’s taking his first couples snaps in the season," London said. "Thankfully, the man upstairs said, 'You’ve been through those hard times. Now, let’s see what you can do.'"
Another challenging schedule awaits. But at least this time around, London will have an experienced quarterback who is not looking over his shoulder every time he snaps the ball. How well Lambert does could end up determining how well UVa does. And that very well could end up determining London’s future with the team.
Offseason quarterback competitions at UVa under Mike London
2014: Greyson Lambert, Matt Johns, David Watford
2013: David Watford, Greyson Lambert
2012: Michael Rocco, Phillip Sims, David Watford
2011: Michael Rocco, Ross Metheny, Michael Strauss, David Watford
Bold denotes eventual starter
Last spring: Six teams had quarterbacks with zero career starts.
This spring: Two teams have quarterbacks with zero career starts.
Last spring: ACC teams combined for 76 returning career starts at quarterback.
This spring: ACC teams combined for double that mark, with 155 returning career starts at the position.
Last spring: Four ACC teams returned their starter from the previous season.
This spring: 10 ACC teams return their starting quarterback.
So even with Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston gone, it is pretty safe to say the ACC will be leaps better at quarterback in 2015. More experienced players return, though interestingly enough, the two most experienced teams at quarterback a year ago are now the least: Florida State and Duke.
Winston showed exceptional talent can make up for inexperience. So did three first-time starters a year ago, players that blossomed into bona fide stars: Brad Kaaya at Miami, Justin Thomas at Georgia Tech and Deshaun Watson at Clemson.
Add in Marquise Williams at North Carolina (who will miss the spring with a hip injury), and four quarterbacks have the potential not only to be selected preseason All-ACC quarterback, but one could very easily be preseason ACC Offensive Player of the Year.
Kaaya and Williams each threw for 3,000 yards. Kaaya led the ACC in pass efficiency and passing yards per completion; Thomas ranked No. 4 in the ACC in rushing. Watson threw 14 touchdowns to two interceptions and completed 68 percent of his passes in his injury-shortened year (while also being a valuable rusher).
In Williams’ case, he had to survive a heated quarterback competition last spring that went into the season, when coach Larry Fedora decided to play him and Mitch Trubisky. But once Williams became the full-time starter after the first month of the season, his play blossomed. As our David Hale pointed out, only five Power 5 quarterbacks had more total touchdowns (20) than Williams from game 7 until the season ended. Though Trubisky will get the first-team reps this spring, Williams is expected to return as the starter when he is healthy come fall camp.
Even beyond the top tier, a quarterback such as Chad Voytik will have a chance to improve under new offensive coordinator Jim Chaney.
“He’s probably one of the most impressive guys in our morning runs,” coach Pat Narduzzi said of Voytik. “People talk about Tyler Boyd and James Conner. That’s maybe one of the forgotten guys. Chad Voytik is a heck of a football player. He’s a competitor.”
And at Virginia, the Hoos are going into the spring without a quarterback controversy for the first time in five years. Greyson Lambert returns as the starter, with Matt Johns right behind him.
“This is the first time in a long time you have two guys who have played, and they played pretty good opponents, kept us in some close games and they both have stats,” London said. “If you look at the rest of the league, we probably have the most experienced 1-2 quarterback duo coming back, and that has to be a positive for us.”
London is close. Louisville and Syracuse have three players with at least one career start, thanks to injuries at the position a year ago. But unlike Syracuse, which will go with healthy Terrel Hunt as its starter, Louisville has declared an open quarterback competition.
Will Gardner (seven starts) will miss the spring, leaving Reggie Bonnafon (five starts), Kyle Bolin (one start) and Penn State transfer Tyler Ferguson to get the majority of the reps.
Two more teams will have open competitions this spring: Florida State (Sean Maguire, J.J. Cosentino, De'Andre Johnson) and Boston College (Darius Wade, Troy Flutie). The Seminoles have at least had stability at the position under Jimbo Fisher, who is on the verge of producing his third straight first-round pick at quarterback.
BC, meanwhile, will start its third quarterback in three seasons under Steve Addazio.
“No matter what you do, your quarterback doesn’t have any experience, and that’s our job. We have to find the guy that’s going to be the best leader for this football team,” Addazio said. “For me to tell you I know that’s going to happen at a high, high level next year? I can’t say that because that position is tough. But that’s our job. To get the next guy in line and to get the most out of that guy. Whoever that guy is, we’re going to make the most mature that we can make him in the shortest amount of time.”
Unlike last year, that is a problem only a few teams have to deal with this spring.
Now that the exceptionally gifted lineman is completely healthy, coach Mike London is expecting much more. Especially since the defense needs to find playmakers with five key starters gone -- including Eli Harold, Henry Coley and Max Valles, who combined for 24 of the team's 34 sacks.
"Andrew Brown looks good right now," London said in a recent phone interview. "It's time for him. All the things that were talked about when when came in -- now he's healthy. He's 290, squatting over 500. We feel good about where we are right now."
He did end up playing in six games -- including the final four. But he was unable to make the same impact as Blanding, who went on to become ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year and a Freshman All-American.
Now, Brown has an opportunity to shine. London said Brown is penciled in with the starters for the start of spring practice, set to begin next month.
"When you’re a big guy and have the whole turf toe issue, pressing that 300 pounds, cutting and planting -- you need that when you’re playing up front," London said. "Then he had the shoulder issue. I know it was frustrating for him, but the kid has been super throughout.
"He's excited about being healthy and we’re going to expect big things from him. He’s got to learn the game as he goes on, but he’s got a lot of talent and ability."
Despite losing five starters -- Daquan Romero and All-American safety Anthony Harris also are gone -- London is encouraged with the group he returns on defense. He points to experience along the defensive front with Mike Moore, David Dean and Donte Wilkins returning along with Brown. He points to the secondary as well. Despite losing Harris, the Hoos return Blanding, Maurice Canady, Tim Harris and Demetrious Nicholson, granted a medical hardship waiver.
At linebacker, London believes Micah Kiser and Zach Bradshaw have what it takes to step into starting roles. What provides some confidence is the notion that many of the veterans are going into Year 3 in Jon Tenuta's defensive scheme. Plus, London believes some of the staff shifts he made this offseason will put players in better position to succeed. Tenuta will now work with safeties, while Mike Archer moves to linebackers.
"It’s the whole maturation process, on the field, in the weight room, in the community -- then the proverbial aha moment occurs," London said. "A few guys like that now are going to be counted on to be the starters and significant contributors. It’s not about the scheme or the system, now it’s about taking all the different situations that occur when you become a smarter player, taking all those things and putting it together on the field."
BC promoted Todd Fitch to offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, and hired Brian White to replace Fitch as its receivers coach. White spent the last six years at Florida, most recently coaching running backs.
UVa, meanwhile, announced that associate head coach for defense/defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta will coach safeties, while Mike Archer will move from safeties to linebackers and be promoted to associate head coach. Volunteer assistant Brian Wetzel was named a graduate assistant as well.
“In making my evaluations of the program since the end of last season and discussing this with the coaching staff, we all felt these moves would benefit our defense, particularly with the makeup of the returning players,” Cavaliers coach Mike London said in a release. “It also benefits our program by placing Jon and Mike with position groups they have spent the majority of their careers coaching.”
The Hoos had previously hired Chris Beatty (running backs) and Dave Borbely (offensive line). Larry Lewis moved from running backs to tight ends and will continue coordinating special teams.
At BC, Fitch succeeds Ryan Day, who left for the Philadelphia Eagles. White, a Massachusetts native, had coached with Steve Addazio and Justin Frye for two years with the Gators.
"I am very excited to promote Todd as our quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator," Addazio said in a release. "Trust and continuity are two very important factors that went into my decision. It is my belief that our program needs to continue to grow and develop within the same system, continue to improve the areas of strength and to attack the areas that need improvement. I have always had great involvement in the offense and will continue to do so. Therefore, it is extremely important for me to be on the same page as the rest of the offensive coaches. With Todd's leadership and tremendous experience as an offensive coordinator in three different coaching stops, I am confident that he will help us continue to develop and bring us to new heights."
Here are the rest of your Monday links:
Brendan Fowler is the man of all seasons at Duke: football, lacrosse and wrestling, as ABC's Mark Armstrong tells us.
- UNC had to pay Duke more than $27,000 for the paint cleanup from its locker room.
- Our Jane McManus explains how NFL's new conduct policy makes drafting Jameis Winston a huge risk.
- Georgia Tech's Shaq Mason was the biggest snub from the Combine, DallasCowboys.com writes.
- The Palm Beach Post's Matt Porter has all the new jersey number changes for Miami this spring.
- Former Pitt basketball player Billy Knight is interested in the Panthers' AD job, Jerry DiPaola writes in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
It took all of three plays and 1:07 for those dreams to be dashed and for Virginia to walk off the field dejected again. It was the final heartbreaking blow in a season of close defeats in games Virginia was in position to win -- the hallmark of its 2014 season.
For the fourth time in coach Mike London’s five seasons, Virginia will not go to a bowl game. The tough pill for Virginia to swallow is it easily could have won seven games and maybe even eight.
Questionable offensive playcalling late against UCLA in the opener cost Virginia and London a trademark win. Virginia led at halftime a few weeks later against BYU. The Cavaliers outgained Duke 465-334 yards but allowed Duke to score the game-winning touchdown midway through the fourth quarter. The following week, UNC’s backup quarterback, Mitch Trubisky, on his first play, threw a 16-yard touchdown on third-and-15 with 4:05 left to give UNC a one-point lead. Then, the Tar Heels recovered an onside kick and ran out the clock. Virginia even had an opportunity to upend eventual ACC champion and undefeated Florida State in Tallahassee, Florida.
A win in any of those games, including Virginia Tech in the finale, would have sent Virginia to a bowl game.
For the most part, it was an offense hindered by inconsistent quarterback play that cost the Cavaliers. Greyson Lambert was named the starter following the spring, but he never took control of the job and was benched at times for Matt Johns. The offense ranked 88th nationally in yards and 85th in scoring.
However, there is reason for optimism in Charlottesville this offseason. A week after ending a double-digit losing streak, the Cavs snapped a separate 10-game conference losing streak, and, in one of the better moments of the 2014 season, London was nearly brought to tears in his emotional on-field postgame interview. Also, Lambert, who was only a sophomore, did have his moments and looked the part of an ACC quarterback on that late go-ahead drive against Virginia Tech. Defensively, Virginia was in the top third of FBS teams in yards and scoring. And the Cavs return Quin Blanding, the league’s defensive rookie of the year.
London will also return, which means there won’t be the coaching turnover that could set the team back.
“It’s always a disappointment to lose and not make it to where we set our goals but at the same time we did something most people never thought we could do,” Blanding told colleague Andrea Adelson recently. “… We came up a little short but I know it’s going to turn over to next year and we’re going to keep it rolling.”
Blanding finished the season second in the ACC with 123 tackles, setting the school record for tackles by a freshman. He was named the ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year and an ESPN.com Freshman All-American for his impressive debut season.
High expectations came in with you at UVa. How were you able to live up to them as a freshman?
Blanding: The way my mindset was, I knew in the offseason after my senior season I had to work hard and come out here and play my game. I knew coming into college, I had to make a name for myself early on in my first year. I know a lot of people had a whole bunch of hype on me and probably didn't think I was going to be where I was, but I just knew I had to go out there and play my game and do what I do best.
Did that put pressure on you to perform?
Blanding: I don't think it put as much pressure on me. It made me work harder than I normally did. It kept pushing me to get better every day to go out there every day and compete. I just wanted to be the best on the field.
What did the hard work you put in entail?
Blanding: No days off. It's literally no days off. After practice you have to lift, you have meetings, after classes you come back for extra meetings. It's always a grind no matter what you're doing.
What was the biggest surprise once you started playing?
Blanding: That you're not the biggest one. In high school, I was always the biggest one playing but now everybody is the same size as me or bigger.
Did you expect to win ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year honors?
Blanding: I knew coming in I wanted to make a name for myself and wherever my talent got me, that's where I was going to land. I just wanted to make my name known and people to start talking about me, and it's an honor to get this award.
How about getting over 100 tackles? Did you set any goal to get that many?
Blanding: I didn't expect that, but I just had to make plays when I had to make plays.
Recently, the administration announced coach Mike London would be back for another season. How do you feel about that?
Blanding: It felt really good to hear that he's coming back. He's a great guy and all our coaches are great people, and we're all behind them and we all believe. We're coming to make a change.
How big a role did he play in your decision to come to UVa?
Blanding: He was a big part. The main reason I came was because of the family atmosphere. He was a big part because he's a realistic coach with you. He's not going to sell you a dream and tell you all this. He's going to tell you if you work hard, you're going to play. If we all work hard we'll play for the ACC. If we all work hard we'll play for a bowl game. We kept working hard and playing our game. He believes in us and we believe in him.
You guys came so close to going to a bowl game, but ended the season with a heartbreaking loss to Virginia Tech. Can that be used as motivation headed into the offseason?
Blanding: There's nothing like coming off a tough loss especially to our rival Tech, so it put fuel to the fire. That loss is going to stay with me forever. Any loss is going to stay with me forever especially now that I'm in college. High school losses still matter to me. It's a loss so you will never forget a loss, but the next time you just can't lose.
The former is only in play because of the Hokies' letdown at Wake Forest last week. That, coupled with the Cavaliers' upset over Miami, has turned this prime-time affair into a win-or-go-home showdown between the in-state rivals.
"We made it more important for us in that last ballgame," Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer said. "We had a chance to get bowl eligible the last time and didn't get it done. So this game has more importance.
This season, as much as any over the past three years, has proven to be an exercise in frustration for the Hokies. Their Week 2 win at Ohio State seemingly portended a return to the double digit-win seasons that all in Blacksburg had become so accustomed to over the years. That triumph has instead turned noteworthy for the fact that it could end up being the blemish that keeps the Buckeyes out of the College Football Playoff.
Virginia Tech has lost six of nine games since its victory in Columbus, no defeat more humiliating than Saturday's 6-3, double-overtime loss to the Demon Deacons that was scoreless after regulation.
The Hokies have won just 20 games these past three seasons, after eight straight double digit-win seasons. A loss to the Hoos at Lane Stadium would see their streak of consecutive years going to a bowl game snapped at 21, which is the second-longest active streak in the nation.
Beamer's squad is one loaded with significant freshman and sophomore contributors, making for a bright future. But a rash of injuries across the backfield and offensive line, among other places, has helped make for an uneven campaign.
The significance of a 5-7 season would not be lost on anyone, especially not the 28th-year head coach most responsible for this run of productivity.
"Well, it's important," Beamer said of the streak. "It's been a very consistent program over the years. This has been a year that things haven't gone quite as normal as you'd want them to, but I think when you start throwing in -- I think a third of our starters we projected to start the year aren't there right now. Last count we played 21 freshmen, and when you have those things, then I don't think you've got a settled situation.
"I don't think we've had a year of personnel that's had as many changes and ins and outs as this particular year. I understand it all, but it is still important. It's important to this football team. It's important to this program. It's important to our alumni that we get back to a bowl and keep that streak going."
Beamer's counterpart Friday night will not be coaching for his job, as Virginia athletic director Craig Littlepage announced Wednesday that Mike London would return for a sixth season as the Hoos' head coach.
While London's team has improved its win total by three games from 2013, a win at Virginia Tech to extend its own season would go a long way toward building momentum for next season and validating the program's direction, especially since London has yet to beat his in-state rival.
For one side, Friday night will present the uneasy beginning to an offseason filled with questions.
"It's always important, particularly your last game, the emphasis on when you play your in-state rival, the implications that it has to playing an additional game afterwards, the kids that are on both sides, the community that support the programs -- all those things -- the alumni. All those things you have to take into consideration," London said. "But ultimately, the game is played on the field and in between the white lines, and the preparation and the players' ability to execute, perform, is the thing that matters most from year to year. This is another year of where now you look at the records, you look at other issues, the players knowing each other on both teams. It comes to the last game of the regular season."
North Carolina (5-5, 3-3) at Duke (8-2, 4-2), 7:30 p.m., ESPN. Line: Duke by 6. Both teams need this win badly: The Tar Heels to become bowl eligible; Duke to remain in the hunt for the Coastal Division crown. Duke is going for its third straight win in the series, but the past two years have not been easy -- the Blue Devils have won the games by a combined five points. Now, they only have a short week to prepare following a disappointing loss to Virginia Tech that was marked by uncharacteristic mistakes -- three turnovers, two missed field goals (including the potential game winner) and too many penalties. While Duke should be able to run the ball in this game, Marquise Williams will give the Tar Heels an opportunity to pull the upset. Last week against Pitt, he accounted for four touchdowns and went over 100 yards rushing. Williams leads the team in both rushing and passing and is the only ACC quarterback ranked in the top 10 for rushing yards per game (No. 7) and passing yards per game (No. 2).
Louisville (7-3) at Notre Dame (7-3), 3:30 p.m., NBC. Line: Notre Dame by 3.5. The Irish have hit a bit of a rough patch the past few weeks, so this is the perfect time for the Cards to take advantage. Though Will Gardner is out for the season, freshman Reggie Bonnafon has playing experience and that will help. So will having DeVante Parker and Michael Dyer on his side. The Irish have had issues stopping both the run and the pass this season, so those two could be in for another big day. Plus, the Louisville offensive line is coming off its best performance of the season. Defensively, Gerod Holliman could create problems for turnover-prone Everett Golson, and Lorenzo Mauldin could be back, giving the defense a much needed boost. Plus, Louisville has had a week to prepare for this game so you can bet Bobby Petrino will have some new wrinkles for Notre Dame.
Miami (6-4, 3-3) at Virginia (4-6, 2-4), 7 p.m., ESPN2. Line: Miami by 6. After playing such an emotionally draining game against Florida State, Miami has to now face a desperate (and physical) Virginia team while guarding against a letdown. Virginia has played Miami well over the past few seasons, winning three of the last four. The Hoos have to win out to get back to a bowl game, and potentially save coach Mike London's job. One of the big keys for Virginia is not only forcing turnovers, but scoring off them. Miami has turned the ball over 20 times this season so there will be opportunities there for the UVa defense. If Greyson Lambert can limit the mistakes, Virginia will have a chance.
These final three games could end up being the most challenging, because the Hoos are fighting for a bowl berth. After starting 4-2, Virginia has dropped three straight games and is in danger of losing out. A trip to No. 2 Florida State awaits this Saturday, then the Cavs face improving Miami after a bye and a road finale against rival Virginia Tech, which has a 10-game winning streak in the series.
"The whole mentality of that group is upbeat and optimistic," coach Mike London said. "They're guys that have had experiences, have had success while they're here, or they've been here playing at Virginia. There's still goals that they set for themselves as a team that are still very attainable and achievable. The first step of that is finishing up this week's practice and preparation and going down and playing in a hostile environment.
It is quite a challenge, especially off three straight losses. Two of those games were winnable for Virginia in the fourth quarter, amplifying the November urgency. Had Virginia been able to close out wins at Duke and at home to North Carolina, the Hoos would have remained the most pleasant surprise in the ACC.
Instead, they have reverted to form, with mistakes that cost them both games. In the three-game losing streak, Virginia is minus-3 in turnover margin. In its five losses this season, it is minus-6. In four wins, Virginia is at plus-8.
That statistic above all the others is what disappoints London the most.
"That's such a critical element of any success is being in the plus category and not giving the ball up as much," London said. "The most disappointing part of it in the latter few games here, we're in the minus category. You can't win football games. You can't flip the field. You can't have field position or battles if you're turning the ball over and allowing the team to score on a short field.
"Those are things we're very cognizant about. The ball security issues with our quarterbacks, with our receivers, when we run. That's probably the biggest thing right now, but, again, you have a chance to practice. You have a chance to perform and compete once again, and it's going to be on a national stage, and we're expected to improve."
Will the improvement be enough to get two wins in its final three games? The odds are going to be against the Hoos, but maybe they can rise up after being down for so long.
1. Florida State is not going quietly into the night.
And it would have been easy Thursday night after falling behind 21-0 at Louisville in front of the second-biggest crowd in Cardinals history. Yet, for the fourth time in the past six games, FSU came back from a halftime deficit to win. In the spirit of Halloween, it’s fair to call this team the Michael Myers of the 2014 college football year. The Seminoles just don’t die, and just when it looks to be over and you take a breather, Florida State rises from the floor and catches you by surprise. The Noles are not nearly as good as they were a season ago, but that doesn’t mean they’re not capable of winning the inaugural College Football Playoff in a season that so far hasn't seen one truly dominant team emerge. With Jameis Winston at quarterback, there’s no reason to believe FSU can’t win every game left on its schedule and two playoff games. If the Seminoles make the playoff, they’ll enter with college football’s best player (barring any disciplinary measure stemming from the code of conduct hearing).
A fair amount of analysts saw a loss somewhere on the FSU schedule before the season began. It might have been Oklahoma State, Clemson, Notre Dame or Louisville. Few believed the Hurricanes could upset the rival Noles, and that bandwagon dwindled after embarrassing losses at Louisville and Nebraska. Since the loss to the Huskers, though, Miami has played its best football and played its most complete game in a 47-20 win against North Carolina on Saturday. The offense, powered by the conference’s best duo at running back and a vastly improved quarterback, eclipsed 30 points for a third consecutive game, and the defense played the best it has all season considering the opponent; UNC was averaging 40 points per game over its past three contests.
Now, Miami has a bye week before hosting FSU on Nov. 15. Florida State fans need no reminder of how many times in the ’80s and ’90s Miami cost the Noles a national title. Miami coach Al Golden said the focus will be on Miami this week before turning his attention to Florida State.
“It’s really going to be about us,” Golden said. “We have to get better this week and worry about Florida State next week.”
3. The Coastal is now a three-team race between Duke, Georgia Tech and Miami.
I will follow that statement up by pointing out this is still the Coastal, and until math says otherwise, no team is ever truly out. However, with all three teams winning Saturday, they have clearly separated themselves from the rest of the division. Duke, a 51-48 winner in double overtime against Pitt, still sits in the best possible position, as the Blue Devils should be favored in all of their remaining games. Georgia Tech will receive a visit from Clemson, and Miami has to host Florida State. Duke already holds a one-game advantage over those two, as well. If Duke loses and Georgia Tech and Miami win out within the conference, it would set up some interesting tiebreakers. The Coastal might not let us down there. But it will almost certainly be one of those three facing FSU in Charlotte.
4. The feel-good Virginia story could be coming to an end.
First, Mike London deserves credit for the job he has done in Charlottesville coming off a 2-10 season and winless record in the ACC. The Cavaliers have played really good football all season long, and it should be taken into account the nonconference schedule Virginia loaded onto its plate. While Virginia certainly has the look of a bowl team, its hope of getting to six wins is beginning to look bleak after a 35-10 loss to Georgia Tech. The Cavs, now sitting at 4-5, close out the season with back-to-back games against Florida State and Miami and then the annual rivalry game against Virginia Tech. The Hokies are abysmal, but it’s tough to see the Cavaliers beating FSU or Miami. That should not take away from what London has done this season, and there is reason for optimism for 2015. A few lucky bounces and Virginia is bowl eligible and maybe wins the Coastal.
5. NC State coach Dave Doeren can win in the ACC.
Good for the Wolfpack and second-year coach Doeren, who lost his first 12 conference games. It didn’t look good in the second half on Saturday as Syracuse took a lead, but the Wolfpack responded to score the next 15 points and secure a 24-17 win. Nobody wants to see a team go without a win within the conference, and it was not as if the Wolfpack were not close in some games. They almost knocked off Florida State in September. While this season still hasn’t gone as planned for Doeren, he earned himself a night of relaxation after notching his first ACC win.
Virginia has been good on defense; Georgia Tech has struggled. Virginia is 4-4; Georgia Tech is 6-2. The Hoos have clearly played the tougher schedule, so that obviously is a factor. But their solid defense has not received much help from their struggling offense.
Georgia Tech, at least, has an offense that has been able to bail out its defense from some bad situations. There are a few reasons for that. The Jackets have gone back to the triple-option concepts that brought them success in years past, allowing them to not only run for more yards per carry, but also hit for more big plays both on the ground and in the pass game.
“A year ago, we didn't do our base stuff very well,” Johnson said. “We weren't very good at running the triple. We were still an option team, but certainly not like we are now. During the offseason, I decided I was going to get back to the things that had been very successful for us in the past. Fortunately for us, Justin Thomas has a great skill set. That's what we like to do.”
There is no disguising the fact that former quarterback Vad Lee was simply not the right fit to run this offense, and he ended up transferring. Georgia Tech is in a much better spot now with Thomas leading the offense.
Now, if only the defense played a little more consistently. There have been glimpses – especially when it comes to taking away the ball. Last Saturday against Pitt, the Jackets forced six turnovers and the rout was on. Still, it is hard to overlook the fact that Georgia Tech ranks No. 12 in the ACC in scoring defense, No. 12 in the ACC in rush defense and No. 13 in scoring defense.
Virginia is better in all those categories, so they might have an edge going into the game. But Georgia Tech presents so many challenges, even to the most skilled defenses. Forcing turnovers and eliminating big plays has to be imperative Saturday.
“When you gear up to stop the run or try to get an extra safety down, they've done a great job with the play-action pass off of that run action, been able to get behind defenders and throw the ball vertical,” Virginia coach Mike London said. “It's important that whatever keys you have as an assignment for you, whatever things your eyes tell you, you have to be sure that you're on point with those things.
“It's a type of offense that it calls for assignments and responsibilities, but at the same time they can affect you if you take your eyes off your keys. They've done a good job of explosive plays by utilizing the mistakes that defenses have made.”
This is a crucial game for both teams in the Coastal Division race. Both have two losses. Another would have a great impact on their chances of getting to the ACC title game.
We will see how both defenses respond.
Because their bowl hopes hinge on finding at least two wins against Georgia Tech (6-2), No. 2 Florida State (7-0), Miami (5-3) and Virginia Tech (4-4). Getting to six is not much of a certainty, anymore. Virginia has started to slide backward after jumping out to a 4-2 start, so the Hoos cannot afford to give away any more games the way they did against North Carolina last weekend.
Aside from the coaching mishaps on the two most critical plays at the end of the North Carolina game, three other troubling issues should be addressed. In consecutive losses, Virginia has forced just one turnover; scored just six total points in the second half; and missed crucial scoring opportunities inside the 35-yard line.
Virginia got off to such a good start this season because its defense not only forced turnovers, the Hoos ended up getting points off them. In its first six games, Virginia gained 19 turnovers and scored 72 points.
That is a huge assist for an offense still struggling to find its way. Some of that can be attributed to Greyson Lambert's ankle injury, which forced him to miss three games. But whether Lambert or Matt Johns has played this season, Virginia has been unable to play consistently or avoid making mistakes.
In a 20-13 loss to Duke two weeks ago, Virginia had the ball with 7:23 remaining and a chance to tie the game. The Hoos made it down to the Duke 35 before turning it over on downs.
Then last week against North Carolina, Lambert threw two second-half interceptions inside Tar Heels' territory. The last one, on a screen pass attempt to Kevin Parks, led to the game-winning touchdown. The production inside North Carolina territory in the second half was disappointing to say the least. On three drives that made it there, Virginia ended up with one field goal. Against the worst defense in the ACC.
"We've got to execute," Lambert said. "The coaches are putting us in the right positions. We've got to execute, get the ball in the end zone. We've got to make tackles, and just play football. A lot of the time we're able to do that. Sometimes here and there it hurts us sometimes."
For those optimists out there, Virginia has been in nearly every game this season until the fourth quarter. Its two ACC losses have been by a combined eight points, which might make them a little tougher to take, considering there were opportunities to win both.
"We just want to be close, be in it, and have an opportunity to be competitive in the end," coach Mike London told local reporters Monday. "That's the main focus right now for us, is despite the two losses, there is still an opportunity to achieve some goals these guys have set for themselves."
In the cluttered, unpredictable Coastal, Duke stands alone atop the standings at 2-1. Five teams, including Virginia, have two ACC losses. So all hope is not lost just yet.
"If you keep sobbing on losses, you can't put your best foot forward going into your next game," Harris said. "With the Coastal being open, we're just going to focus on winning as many games as we can and seeing where we are at the end."
Other adjectives that work: Improbable. Crazy. Insane. Head-scratching ...
You get the idea.
What went down Saturday was a microcosm of the way both North Carolina and Virginia have played recently: The Tar Heels are the team that won't go away; the Hoos are the team that cannot get out of their own way.
So it came to be that North Carolina came back to beat Virginia 28-27 to stay alive in the Coastal Division race. The game turned on four plays in the final 5:09, plays that are probably going to keep coach Mike London up tonight.
Play No. 1: Virginia had a 26-21 lead and began marching down the field, all the way down to the North Carolina 32. On second down, Virginia quarterback Greyson Lambert went back for a screen pass to Kevin Parks. Defensive tackle Nazair Jones read the play and leaped off the ground, snagging the interception. North Carolina took over at the Virginia 38 with a chance to win.
"I should have just done something different with the ball, thrown it in the dirt or something," Lambert said. "I thought that would have been a statement drive for us and a play here or there can always change that. We've got -- especially me -- to do a better job of executing."
Fedora said: "I was looking somewhere else at the time until everybody started yelling, and I saw him running and I saw the screen setting up and I mean he's 6-foot-5 and he's 290 pounds and he's mobile. That was big. Screens is a big part of what they've done on the past and our guys worked hard on it so it was good to see them execute that from their work in practice."
Play No. 2: North Carolina got down to the Virginia 11 after Marquise Williams threw a 27-yard pass to Ryan Switzer. On second down, Eli Harold tackled Williams to the turf. Williams' helmet popped off, sending backup Mitch Tribusky into the game.
Fedora considered calling a timeout, but decided to roll with it. Trubisky calmly delivered a 16-yard touchdown pass to a wide open T.J. Thorpe, pulling the Tar Heels ahead 28-27.
"I'm happy with what we've been doing with Mitch," Fedora said. I know a lot of people think we're idiots but it paid off for him in that situation. He was calm, he knew what he was running and he executed the play. He never blinked."
Trubisky said: "I saw his helmet come off and just knew I had to be ready. It was such short notice that I didn't have time to think about it."
Virginia safety Anthony Harris said, "It's tough to give up a play like that right in the middle of the end zone and give them the lead on that play."
Play No. 3: Fedora had a choice to make. With 4:05 remaining, he could kick to Virginia and hope his much-maligned defense would come through. Or ...
Assistant coach Ron West asked Fedora whether he wanted to go for an onside kick.
"Throughout the game, they were saying, 'Look, it's there, and then they said it again, and I said you know what? It's the right time to do it," Fedora said.
Kicker Nick Weiler, who missed two field goals in the game, lined up.
"We executed it in practice every time, so the coaches were confident in it," he said. "We had the look and we knew we had to make a game-changing play on special teams."
The signal went up, Virginia was unprepared, and Mack Hollins recovered the ball.
"Nick kicked a real good ball," Hollins said. "They were backing up while we were keeping it onside so by the time they turned around, they had no chance."
Virginia safety Quin Blanding said, "For them to cover it, it blew my mind."
Play No. 4: Williams returned to the field and made some plays by running with the ball -- getting North Carolina down to the Virginia 21 with 1:17 to play. The Tar Heels called a timeout, and elected to set up for a field goal.
Coming off the sideline, Virginia made a critical error. There was confusion among the linemen, and the Hoos ended up with 12 men on the field. The refs saw it and called the penalty.
"There was an extra guy on the field who should not have been there," London said. "When we make those switches, one guy comes in and one guy comes out. It was not caught or noticed. That is coaching, that is us on the sideline watching what's going on."
Now both teams are 4-4, and 2-2 in Coastal play. This one could be a launching point for the Tar Heels to make a run at a division title; it could also spell doom for the Hoos.
The Cavaliers will need another dynamite effort on defense Saturday as their bowl hopes hang in the balance. North Carolina quarterback Marquise Williams, who ranks 17th in total offense at 318 yards per game, is coming to Charlottesville and is playing the best football of his career.
The Virginia defense has been among the best in the country, though, and Williams will have his hands full just as the Virginia defense will have its issues with Williams. The Cavaliers are ninth in total defense when playing FBS competition, and few teams attack the quarterback better than Virginia. The Cavs have 22 sacks, which ranks 12th in the nation.
Blitzing and wildly pursuing the passer could leave the Virginia defense susceptible to the 6-foot-2, 220-pound junior Williams' athleticism. Over his last three games, Williams, who has solidified his position atop the depth chart, has rushed for 299 yards. If Virginia gets out of its rushing lanes and does not try to collapse the pocket with discipline, Williams could take off.
"The biggest thing is break down before you tackle ... and not going in to take someone's head off," said linebacker Max Valles, whose four sacks ranks 10th in the ACC.
When Valles does blitz, he knows Williams won't afford him much time to freelance. Valles expects the Tar Heels to get the ball out of Williams' hands quickly on passing plays, so the Virginia defense will need to get into their pass rush right at the snap. As a passer, Williams has thrown for more than 300 yards in each of the last two games, which means the Cavs will need to make him uncomfortable in the pocket, even if it doesn't equate to sacks.
"We have to get in our moves much quicker and not waste any time," he said.
North Carolina looks like it could be on the same delayed linear trajectory it was a year ago -- abysmal first half of the season with marked improvements in the second half. The Heels nearly upset Notre Dame two weekends ago, and last Saturday they dealt Georgia Tech a painful blow in the Coastal Division.
As bad as North Carolina has been, it is only one game behind in the loss column in the division, and it has remaining games against all three Coastal teams with just one conference loss.
One of those teams is Virginia, although the Cavaliers have a brutal schedule -- not just in the second half of the season but overall. It is an especially tough stretch to close out the season, though, with road games at Georgia Tech, Florida Ste and Virginia Tech plus a home game against Miami.
Still two games from bowl eligibility, the Cavaliers understand every game is crucial. A win against UNC begins with stopping Williams.
"Every game from here on out is a must win," Valles said, "so we can get to where we want to be, which is to be on top of the Coastal."
Defensive tackle Luther Maddy is out for the game, while super freshman running back Marshawn Williams is "very doubtful." Maddy has missed two straight games after having surgery on a torn meniscus, while Williams sprained his ankle in a win at North Carolina on Oct. 4.
The Williams injury may be tougher to overcome, considering the Hokies are getting thin at running back. Trey Edmunds and Shai McKenzie already are out, leaving J.C. Coleman as the probable starter against the Panthers. Joel Caleb and Sam Rogers will be in the rotation as well.
In other ACC injury news, Virginia coach Mike London was not yet ready to announce who would start at quarterback against Duke on Saturday. Greyson Lambert practiced on Sunday so if he is ready to go after an ankle injury, he will start. If he is not quite ready, then Matt Johns will.
Louisville coach Bobby Petrino also was mum on his starting quarterback against NC State. Both Reggie Bonnafon and Will Gardner played last week in a loss to Clemson. There also is still not decision on when receiver DeVante Parker will return from a foot injury. He has resumed practicing but was not quite ready to play last week.
Meanwhile, Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson said quarterback Justin Thomas was OK after injuring his ankle in a loss to Duke.
Now let's take a quick look at what else is happening in the ACC:
- It's midseason report time! Athlon Sports attempts to predict the Coastal champ at the midway point of the season. All four writers pick Virginia Tech. Note to Athlon Sports friends: There should never be agreement on the Coastal! Ever!
- Boston College coach Steve Addazio could not have been more complimentary of the Clemson defense.
- Clemson linebacker Ben Boulware played like a pit bull last Saturday.
- Dennis Dodd at CBSsports.com wonders whether Florida State can escape the shadow of the Jameis Winston investigations.
- Miami kicker Matt Goudis might be heading toward a redshirt.
- North Carolina hopes for a second-half turnaround, just like last season.
- NC State coach Dave Doeren suspended seven players for their role in a BB gun fight at their off-campus residence.