A step backward for Virginia football

[READ COLUMN IN THE CAVALIER DAILY]

Everything was going great. Thousands of white-clad fans yelled happily at their beloved Cavaliers, who were zipping from one end of the field to the other with the ease of fleet-footed cheetahs bounding across the African savannah. Players in navy and orange high-fived each other left and right, reveling in their God-given athletic talents on display against a displaced band of Floridian football players. Under the gentle glare of the October sun, the Cavaliers’ confidence was sky high.

Then the game started.

The Seminoles stormed into Scott Stadium and unleashed a ruthless assault on the ill-prepared Cavaliers, whose shell-shocked fans promptly fled for the exits as their team discovered the searing brutality of a unit speared by desire and self-belief. On this Saturday, the grass between the goal posts ceased being a football field and welcomed its new identity as a bloodbath. Warriors in golden helmets tore through their enemy’s gossamer lines of defense like cannon balls piercing glass walls, effortlessly pummeling them into the earth if they ever impeded their warpath.

Florida State was a team on a mission. Virginia was but a team on a field.

Many are calling Saturday’s 34-14 massacre an inevitability, the unavoidable result of a physically inferior team meeting a team gleaning with strength and speed at every position. They say the Cavaliers gave it everything they had but could not help succumbing to the potency of the Seminoles’ wide arsenal of weapons on both sides of the ball. They say it was a minor setback. They say there’s plenty of season left. Frankly, I think that’s a load of crap.

Saturday’s game was more hyped up than a Rihanna concert on the Lawn, and for good reason. It was Virginia’s first game against a conference opponent, a pivotal ACC showdown against a team with one of the biggest names in college football. After two stellar performances against lambs, the Cavaliers had their first opportunity to show their mettle against a lion, and at home before a highly publicized ‘white-out’ no less. Their first three games featured hard running, crisp tackling and smart decision-making, all tangibles they needed to bring to the table against a streaking Florida State squad. Yet they brought none of it.

A loss to a superior team is not grounds for rebuke, but a 27-0 first-half drubbing most certainly is. Was it a lack of preparation? Definitely not. London’s men had plenty of time to prepare for this game. You might as well view last week’s 48-7 romp of Virginia Military Institute – which didn’t even count toward their bowl eligibility – as a scrimmage in preparation for this game. Was it a lack of fire? I sure hope not. If you can’t get fired up for a game like this, football isn’t the right activity for you. No matter how you look at it, the Cavaliers’ lethargic start to this football game was inexcusable.

Watching Virginia sleepwalk through the first half made me check the sideline to see if Al Groh had commandeered the headset from London. All the newfound improvements ushered in by the new coaching staff disappeared, and the 2009 Cavaliers appeared to retake the field.

Blockers failed to open up holes for running backs, the dismal result being a combined 57 yards rushing between Perry Jones and Keith Payne. Virginia – which entered the game with 105 pass attempts and 107 rushes – reverted to pass-heavy play-calling that featured 13 more passes than runs. Tackling was poor and at times completely absent. Even the fans failed to deliver – attendance reached just 47,096, which isn’t too far from last season’s homecoming crowd of 45,371, the lowest turnout at Scott Stadium in 10 years.

And then there was Marc Verica. The fifth-year senior quarterback looked more like the deer-in-the-headlights sophomore that spewed interceptions than the poised veteran that was slinging touchdown passes during the first three games of 2010. With Florida State entering the game with the country’s highest sack total, Verica must have known he needed to make adjustments in his timing. Yet the Seminoles’ pass rush seemed to take him completely by surprise, as he continued to hold the ball too long and make inaccurate throws.

Verica was 4-15 in the first half, and all four completions went to running backs. His incompletions were sloppy and interceptions downright costly. I didn’t think I would do it again, but I find myself once again questioning his legitimacy at the quarterback position.

We should not be disgruntled that Virginia lost this game. Florida State is clearly a better football team. But we should be upset with the lack of effort and preparation that reared its ugly head in the first half. Virginia was whipped up and down the field during those opening 30 minutes, and it wasn’t until London lit a fire under their butts at halftime that anyone stood up to stop the bleeding.

Disappointing is perhaps the best word to describe a loss that brought a team on the up-and-up so far down, but hope still remains. If the Hoos can rekindle their early-season firepower and put up a fight at Georgia Tech this weekend, their season might be totally revitalized. Players have said this debacle is behind them, but I hope the lessons that came from it are not.

Maybe Cavalier fans shouldn’t expect their team to win this year, but they should always expect them to compete.

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