By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Walking off the field at Scott Stadium on Sept. 21, the UVa football team was well-positioned to bounce back from a disappointing 2012 season. The Cavaliers had just pounded VMI to raise their record to 2-1, and a string of seemingly winnable games lay directly ahead.
Walking off the field at Scott Stadium two months later, the Wahoos were in a much darker place. A season that began with a stirring comeback victory over BYU — a team that would go on to win eight regular-season games — will be remembered as one of the worst in Virginia history.
In the final game of its fourth season under head coach Mike London, UVa lost 16-6 to arch-rival Virginia Tech on Saturday at Scott Stadium. The `Hoos (2-10, 0-8) closed the season with nine consecutive defeats and finished winless in ACC play for the first time since 1981.
“I don’t really have a lot of answers for it,” junior tight end Jake McGee said. “We’ll have to dig deep and look into things to see what we need to do to change it. 2-10 is not going to cut it.”
Worse for the Cavaliers, the loss was their 10th straight to the Hokies, whose fans turned out in force to see the battle for the Commonwealth Cup.
“It’s real tough,” said sophomore defensive end Eli Harold, who led Virginia with three sacks Saturday. “It hurts. I’m not used to losing. Not a lot of guys are. It’s just something you have to deal with it. It’s life. How are you going to respond? You gotta be resilient.”
With a few exceptions, the `Hoos struggled in all three phases – offense, defense and special teams – for most of the season. The offense’s failures, though, were especially damaging.
In its first season under defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta, Virginia forced 21 turnovers, including two against Virginia Tech (8-4, 5-3). But coordinator Steve Fairchild’s offense turned those takeaways into a mere 13 points.
“That’s probably been the story of the season,” junior tailback Kevin Parks said. “The defense makes plays, they come up with big stops, and we can’t do anything with it.”
Junior Alec Vozenilek did all the scoring for UVa on Saturday, kicking field goals of 36 and 29 yards.
“It’s frustrating when you see your defense playing that great, and you’re not doing a thing to help them,” said McGee, who finished with four receptions for 65 yards. “As a guy who sees himself as a playmaker, [for UVa to] end up with six points, it’s frustrating. It’s tough to swallow, and it’s something that we’re really going to have to [try to fix].”
UVa’s defense made a goal-line stand on the game’s opening drive and finished with five sacks of Tech quarterback Logan Thomas. If there was a sequence that summed up Virginia’s season, it came late in the first half Saturday.
Leading 9-6, the Hokies surprised the `Hoos with an onside kick that kicker Eric Kristensen recovered near midfield. Three plays later, however, true freshman linebacker Max Valles sacked Thomas, forcing a fumble that defensive tackle Brent Urban recovered at the Hokies’ 34-yard line.
With 1:47 left in the second quarter, Virginia was poised to go into the break tied or ahead or, at worst, down three points. Even better for the Cavaliers, they would receive the second-half kickoff. After Parks was dropped for a 1-yard loss on first down, however, sophomore quarterback David Watford threw back-to-back incompletions.
That brought up fourth-and-11, with 1:08 on the clock. The Cavaliers’ coaches, instead of sending Vozenilek out to punt, opted to gamble.
“We’re trying to win the game,” London said. “And they ended up getting the ball because we didn’t execute.”
Watford overthrew seldom-used wide receiver E.J. Scott on a deep route along the UVa sideline, and the Hokies took over at their 35 with 64 seconds to play in the half.
“It was still a long field for them to travel,” London noted, but the Hokies quickly moved across midfield. Then, on third-and-10 from Virginia’s 26, Thomas hit tailback Trey Edmunds on a crossing route. Junior linebacker Daquan Romero missed a tackle, and Edmunds turned a short pass into a 26-yard touchdown. Suddenly it was a 10-point game.
“That’s obviously a momentum-shifter that [Tech] took advantage of,” said UVa center Luke Bowanko, who was among the players recognized in a Senior Day ceremony before the game.
“That’s what good teams do: They take the momentum, they seize it and make plays, and we didn’t make enough plays, today or this year.”
Had the Cavaliers capitalized on the turnover, perhaps the game would have ended differently. They’ll never know.
“That’s a point in the football game where you gotta make a play,” Bowanko said. “We didn’t make it, obviously, and those things don’t come around too often, as they didn’t in the rest of the game, really. But this team needs to make that play. They haven’t all year, and it’s frustrating. I know guys are trying. I know they want to make the play, but it’s the game of football.”
Watford completed 13 for 23 attempts for a modest 122 yards – 38 came on a first-quarter pass to McGee – before redshirt freshman Greyson Lambert replaced him late in the third quarter.
Lambert, facing an amped-up defense that knew the `Hoos had no choice but to throw, was sacked three times. He completed only 4 of 16 passes, for 54 yards, and threw an interception.
“Kudos to their defense,” Lambert said, “but when it comes to down it, I didn’t make the plays that needed to be made.”
The UVa offense’s best player Saturday, as was the case all season, was Parks, who rushed 17 times for 105 yards. He ended the season with 1,031 yards and became the first Cavalier since Alvin Pearman (1,037) in 2004 to run for 1,000 yards.
“That’s about as big as it gets for an offensive lineman,” Bowanko said. “That’s all we can really hang our hat on, the running backs’ yards. So that was big for us … I’m proud of him. He deserved it. He earned every single yard. He makes a lot of yards after contact.”
Parks said: “I know it means a lot to [to offensive linemen]. For me, I’d rather have a win any day, but that’s the way things go sometimes.”
Like most of his teammates, Parks has eligibility remaining. Only seven seniors played Saturday for Virginia: Bowanko, Urban, offensive tackle Morgan Moses, wide receiver/punt-returner Tim Smith, fullback Billy Skrobacz and defensive end Jake Snyder.
In a somber locker room after the game, London thanked the seniors for their contributions to the program.
“I wish I could have done a better job for them, coaching them, doing things for them, because you always want your guys to go out on a positive note, and today we did not,” London said. “Today wasn’t good enough for us to win a game to give us an opportunity. But nonetheless I love the effort of those guys and who they are and what they’ll be with their Virginia degree.”
Bowanko said: “You create a lot of friendships, a lot of lifetime bonds throughout these five years. You realize that you’re never going to suit up and be able to play next to those guys again. It’s sad, but it’s rewarding knowing that most of these guys came out there and gave it their all and played 100 percent, and that’s all I can ask for. And I love a lot of those guys, and I’ll never forget these five years.”
The Cavaliers finished 8-5 in 2011, a season that ended with a trip to the Chick-fil-A Bowl in Atlanta. Since then, the `Hoos have gone 6-18.
London said he doesn’t want wins and losses to determine his players’ self-worth. “But if you’re going to be a football team that has an opportunity to win games, you have to, as we just talked about, eliminate those mistakes that cause you to lose,” he said.
“We gotta work on making sure that when we get turnovers we have opportunities to score points. We have to make sure when we have tackles and balls in your hands, you gotta catch those things, and what you do is you roll up your sleeves and you go to work and you just keep working at it till you get it right. And we gotta get it right. We gotta get it fixed, and we’ll get it fixed.”
Lambert said: “All problems can be fixed. We’re going to go back to the drawing board and prepare like we never have before, and prepare so this never happens again.”
Parks was asked if the 2-10 record would motivate UVa’s returning players in the offseason.
“I hope it does,” he said. “If that doesn’t motivate you, I don’t know what will.”