Posted: 10:00 a.m. Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2013
By Brian Schwartz
There are plenty of reasons to curb your enthusiasm headed into the start of Virginia's football season. After all, the Hoos are coming off a 4-8 (2-6 ACC) year and are coming back months later, without their starting QB(s) and players like LaRoy Reynold and Steve Greer, to face a brutal schedule.
However, before we give up on 2013 already, consider that much of what made 2012 so painful was the litany of careless errors, bad luck, and poor decisions that turned games around. Were those Wahoos a good team? No. But were they better than their record? Probably.
Calling these blunders "easy" fixes may be generous. However, relative to, say, talent level, the issues listed below are more realistic to solve and could lead to a dramatic uptick in on-field performance.
Last year, I wrote a post about what I called "inefficiencies," while WahooMetrics discussed what he more-intelligently called "ancillary problems." The premise of these pieces was that the Cavaliers weren't getting pummeled during normal gameplay (your typical run or pass play, for example). Rather, the team was consistently making preventable errors that had large effects.
After getting dismantled by Georgia Tech, UVA went on to lose its next 5 games by a combined 64 points; however, it out-gained these 5 opponents by 538 yards. This included losing to Louisiana Tech by 6 despite out-gaining them 625-394 and losing to Duke by 25 points despite out-gaining them 461-394. It's extremely difficult to fail to convert yards to points (and allow opponents to do so) at such a staggering rate without essentially giving the game away; and that's what last year's team was doing.
The purpose of this refresher isn't to depress Wahoo fans; rather, it's to remind everyone that the last year's issues were overwhelmingly preventable and (RELATIVELY) easy to fix. Here are a few of the inefficiencies(/ancillary problems) that UVA has the potential to quickly turn around for a more successful 2013 season.
While some penalties are related to talent level (an OT holding a defensive lineman as he runs past him toward the quarterback, for example), most are entirely preventable. And those preventable ones tend to have the biggest effect on games.
Last year, an illegal substation call against Louisiana Tech eliminated a chance to win the game on offense ("KHALEK, GET OFF THE FIELD!"), UVA's 16th(!) penalty of the game. Against Maryland, after scoring to cut UMD's lead to four, a personal foul on Zachary Swanson on the extra point handed Maryland great field position and a momentum-killing touchdown.
These types of penalties are purely the results of discipline and focus. Adding ex-Marine Tom O'Brien as well as three coordinators with 30+ years of experience will help fix that problem. So will simple regression to the mean. These type of preventable penalties cost UVA the Louisiana Tech game, at the very least, and hurt the team in many others.
Special teams and field position:
The abysmal performance of last season's special teams unit has been well-chronicled. Part of the reason why opponents were able to score so many points is that they started so close to the Virginia end zone. UVA finished in the basement for most special teams stats, highlighted by a 119th rank in average kick return allowed (27.5 yards and 2 TDs).
Anthony Poindexter lacked experience coaching special teams, and simply didn't have the ability to assign the correct players to his unit or scheme correctly. For example, he appeared to completely ignore the rule change that moved kickoffs forward 5 yards and touchbacks out to the 25 yard line. Other teams took advantage, utilizing high kicks that pinned the Hoos deep, but UVA kept kicking line drives that opponents either happily accepted as safeties or successfully returned.
As Tiki noted in his special teams preview, the unit can't get any worse; the addition of a true special teams coach, Larry Lewis, means that we could expect some easy and real improvement.
We all remember Mike London's "double ice" blunder that surrendered the Tech game to the Hokies.
However, that was just part of a pattern of poor situational management that dragged the team down all season. Against Duke, UVA was forced to settle for a long field field goal before halftime (which missed), after failing to use timeouts on defense - two remained in the team's pocket headed into the locker room. Against Maryland, down 11 points with 10 minutes remaining, he punted the ball on 4th and 1 from the UVA 41. Later, he once again failed to use timeouts on defense, preventing a potential game-tying drive.
These weekly strategic errors ruined opportunities to put points on the board. And they are about as easy to fix as any in the world. (Anything that could be solved by taking a quick poll of fans in section 122 is an easy fix). The hiring of Tom O'Brien as associate head coach gives Mike London an experienced adviser to consult with during these high-leverage situations. Football is a game of few, pivotal moments, and the coaching staff must manage these correctly.
Okay, turnovers themselves aren't an "easy" fix. However, improving on last years' issues will be.
The 2012 Hoos were 110th of 120 teams in turnover margin (-14), including 114th in takeaways (12). Once again, regression to the mean dictates that UVA is likely to improve in this department. Additionally, Jon Tenuta brings an aggressive philosophy that will translate to an increase in turnovers. (I'd like to think that Watford will also do a better job of not giving the ball away...but we are looking for baby steps here).