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QB question could define UVa's season

9/3/2014

Two things were made clear in Virginia's 28-20 loss to UCLA on Saturday.

The first is that sophomore Matt Johns looked light years ahead of starter Greyson Lambert at quarterback for the Cavaliers.

The second is that Virginia, already riding a tightrope toward bowl eligibility with one of the toughest schedules in the country, let a perfect opportunity to steal an upset win slip away.

Beyond that, at least from an offensive perspective, a lot of questions remain for the Hoos.

After the game ended, Mike London declined to name a starting quarterback for this week's matchup against Richmond. It is fitting, perhaps, that the QB London benched two years ago, Michael Rocco, and another UVA transfer, Michael Strauss, will lead the Spiders offense into Charlottesville, while London weighs his options between Lambert and Johns (with the man who started all 12 games last year, David Watford, now a clear No. 3 on the depth chart).

Regardless of London's choice Saturday, he's positioned for more criticism.

What did he see from Lambert throughout spring and fall camp that led to such certainty about the quarterback to begin with? Johns said he and Watford split about 10 percent of the first-team reps during the last month, while Lambert took the other 90 percent.

And if London was so certain of Lambert's long-term success, why pull him after less than a half of football against UCLA? Shouldn't the anointed starter have been given a chance to right the ship?

“Like any other position, you have to perform,” London said after the game. “We'll continue to evaluate players and look at the tape, and the players that can help us will play. Greyson is a young man who understands that as the game is going, there are decisions made that are in the best interest of the team."

If the decision is purely about performance, there was little question who should be the starter against Richmond.

After Lambert struggled early, tossing two interceptions that were returned for touchdowns, Johns entered in the second quarter and immediately injected some life into the stagnant offense. For the game, he completed 13 of 22 passes for 154 yards and two touchdowns and, most importantly, didn't turn the ball over.

“I was put in the game and said, ‘Guys, we're going to score and we're going to win,'” Johns said. “I felt like I gave us an opportunity, but it wasn't enough.”

Johns may have inspired the team, but not the play-calling.

Virginia was a huge underdog, and its chance to upend a top-10 team -- particularly as the UCLA offense found its footing in the second half -- seemed to hinge on taking a few risks. That never happened.

Of Virginia's 29 first-down plays, 22 were runs. Of the 45 passes attempted by either QB, 32 were throws of 5 yards or less. Both of Lambert's picks came on short screen passes, and those short passes accounted for a lowly 3.8 yards per attempt. The running game wasn't much better. After Kevin Parks' first carry of the game -- for 17 yards -- UVA's tailbacks averaged just 2.6 yards per carry the rest of the way.

Johns, meanwhile, looked sharp on deeper throws, completing 6-of-9 for 132 yards and two scores.

"We wanted to run the ball and control the tempo a bit,” London said after the game. “One of the things you can do is keep the clock running with some short passes. The game plan was put in place to keep us in the game. We felt pretty good about where we were at the end of the game.”

Still, as Virginia drove deep into UCLA territory with a chance to tie the game late in the fourth quarter, it was still the ground game that took precedent. The Cavaliers ran on two first-down plays. Ran again on second-and-9 from the Bruins' 18. Ran again on third-and-10 a play later. By then, the boos from the crowd had enveloped Scott Stadium, and Johns' doomed-to-fail fourth-down toss was an afterthought.

Of course, after the game Johns took full blame for the failed drive and for the third-down play call. He'd read the wrong line on his wristband, he said. When asked what the play was supposed to be, he offered a limited but logical response.

“A pass play,” he said.

Whether it was the young QB falling on his sword to protect coaches or an honest miscommunication isn't really the point. The table had already been set by questionable decisions dating back to the spring.

It's no secret that London's job is in jeopardy at Virginia, and Saturday's game was either a reminder of just how close the Cavaliers are to being relevant again or just what's holding them back. It's a matter of perspective, and what happens over the next 11 contests -- starting with which QB starts Saturday -- will ultimately decide London's future.

“I think it was a great testimony to show we could play with anyone,” Johns said. “I think we're going to build off that the rest of the season.”