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Cavaliers, London Struggling Mightily

Friday, October 11, 2013 1:01pm
By: Virginia Insider

Staff changes implemented after the 2012 football season were designed to prevent the situation in which Virginia currently finds itself.

Former North Carolina State head coach Tom O'Brien and highly regarded defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta, both of whom had UVa ties, were hired at considerable expense in hopes of restoring UVa's program to its past prominence.

Nobody said it would happen overnight, but a 48-27 home loss to Ball State prompted calls for London's head. One week earlier, UVa had Mike LondonUVa's loss to Ball State increased the pressure on Mike London. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic) dropped a 14-3 decision to Pittsburgh in what was best described as "a winnable game" by first-year offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild.

The Cavaliers could muster only 188 yards in total offense against the Panthers but it was back-to-back first-quarter UVa turnovers that made the difference on an afternoon when the Cavaliers held Pitt to 199 yards.

Pitt was coming off a 58-55 victory at Duke, in which quarterback Tom  Savage threw six touchdown passes, so UVa's defensive performance was seen by some as the start of something big. Instead, Ball State rolled into Scott Stadium and rung up 509 yards in total offense.  

Ball State (5-1) is a respectable Mid-American Conference team that has been piling up points and yardage all season, but the Cardinals' offense might not have mattered if Virginia had not been penalized 13 times for 93 yards.

Two Virginia scoring plays were nulllified by penalty and the Cavaliers also had a minus-4 turnover differential. After the teams went into halftime tied 24-24, Ball State scored 17 points off three third-quarter UVa turnovers.

Ball State, which did not have a turnover and was penalized once all day, put on a display of precision that Virginia fans can only wish to see from their team.

Actually, most UVa fans didn't see the game. The announced attendance of 37,386 represented the second-smallest home crowd of London's four-year coaching tenure.

Brigham Young and Oregon were added to Virginia's schedule in hopes of making it more attractive to season's ticket-holders. Season ticket-sales had dropped from 38,000 in 2008, following UVa's appearance in the 2007 Gator Bowl, to 28,000 in 2011.

London's 4-8 season in his first season was followed by a trip to the Chick-fil-A Bowl and an 8-5 finish in 2011. He was named ACC coach of the year that season, then followed that followed by a second 4-8 season in 2012.

London is well-liked but, in the end, he will be judged by his record. If the Cavaliers go 2-10 or 3-9, how can UVa possibly keep him?

Where would the wins come? Virginia might be favored at home against Duke and the Cavaliers have had some success over Georgia Tech in Charlottesville, but UVa wouldn't be favored in that game based on recent results.

Messy Quarterback Situation Still Plagues UVa

While turnovers have been a problem all season, UVa had not been penalized more than 50 yards in any game before the visit from Ball State. The offense has sputtered under sophomore starter David Watford, a first-time starter.

By all reason, Michael Rocco should have been the starter this season as a fourth-year senior. Among the teams that Virginia defeated with Rocco as a starter were Florida State, Penn State and Miami twice. However, Rocco felt unwanted after the 2012 season and asked for his release.

If Rocco felt he had been jacked around, he had a right to be.  Former high-profile recruit and Alabama back-up Phillip Simns had transferred to Virginia in the spring of 2012 and received a release from the NCAA that allowed him to play immediately, based on medical concerns in his Virginia family.

Rocco was UVa's starting quarterback at the beginning of the 2012 season, only to be replaced by Sims, who started four games before Rocco returned as the starter. They alternated over the final month of the season and both QBs played in every game.

At the time that Rocco requested a release from his scholarship, there were strong rumors that Watford would transfer. Instead, Rocco left and Virginia distributed a pre-spring depth chart that had Watford at No. 1, followed by redshirt freshman Greyson Lambert and Sims.

The Cavaliers had to know that Sims was in such deep academic water that he eventually would be declared academically ineligible. UVa went into preseason camp with three scholarship quarterbacks -- Watford, Lambert and redshirt freshman Matt Johns.

In the meantime, Rocco transferred to Richmond, where his uncle, Danny, is the head coach. Sims enrolled at Division II Winston-Salem State and neither he nor Rocco will be eligible until 2014.

There is no assurance that Rocco will start at Richmond, where he will have to beat out another transfer from UVa, Michael Strauss. These former Virginia quarterbacks are everywhere you look in college football, as evidenced by former UVa scholarship QB Ross Metheny, who had the University of South Alabama on the brink of upsetting Tennessee at Neyland Stadium.

Strauss and Metheny never competed against Sims, but if things don't work out for London, people could look back at the Sims transfer and argue that that was the point when everything started to head downhill.

New Hires Have Yet To Bear Fruit

Less than 10 days had elapsed following the 2012 season when UVa announced that four assistant coaches would be leaving the staff -- defensive coordinator Jim Reid, D-line coach Jeff Hanson, running backs coach Mike Faragalli and tight ends' coach Shawn Moore.

It was Reid who had given London his start in coaching, while Moore may be UVa's greatest player over the past 25 years. London may have been the person quoted in the news release, but he didn't make the call. The mandate came from executive associate athletic director Jon Oliver, who oversees the football program.

Offensive coordinator Bill Lazor subsequently resigned to become the quarterbacks coach under new Philadelphia Eagles' coach Chip Kelly. The five new full-time UVa assistants are O'Brien, Tenuta, Fairchild, special-teams coach Larry Lewis and wide receivers coach Marques Hagans, who was elevated from graduate-assistant status.

Fairchild previously served as the head coach at Colorado State and has been the offensive coordinator for NFL teams in St. Louis and Buffalo. Lewis once served as the head coach at Idaho, meaning that London has three former Division I head coaches working under him.

On paper, that's a lot of coaching firepower, but it hasn't generated  many wins or much excitement. Moreover, O'Brien and Tenuta are making a ton of money. And, they have multi-year contracts. If Oliver and Co. decide they have to make a move, London wouldn't be the only coach that would command a hefty buyout.

A third 4-8 season in four years would not be considered progress but it might be enough to save London's job. However, it's anybody's guess where those two additional wins would come from.