99 Virginia Football Thoughts Before Kickoff

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Virginia kicks off football season in fewer than 70 days.
Bryce Hall will be back to help anchor the defense this season. ~ Mike Ingalls

The Virginia football team made strides in Bronco Mendenhall’s second campaign, moving from 2-10 in his debut year to a 6-6 regular season finish in year two. That lifted UVA to bowl eligibility for the first time in six years, though the Military Bowl finale with Navy ended with a dud performance and a loss.

Still, Mendenhall accomplished what both Al Groh and Mike London did as well. He guided UVA to a bowl game in his second season on the job. The challenge now is to get the Hoos to back-to-back bowl appearances for the first time since 2004 and 2005 (and hopefully the program’s first bowl win since the Music City Bowl in 2005 as well).

Eliminating a second-half trend from late last season could help. The “99 Virginia Football Thoughts Before Kickoff” series continues.

No. 68 – Stops To Start Second Half

One key to UVA’s success last season was posting wins early in the schedule. The Hoos opened the season 5-1 with wins at Boise State and North Carolina as part of the mix. As an earlier entry in this series studied, a fast start to the season has been historically important in bowl years for the Cavaliers.

A quiet trend contributed to that fast start. During the first six games of the season, Virginia’s defense allowed a scoring drive to start the second half just twice in those first six games for a total of 10 points. Over the final six games, however, the defense allowed a scoring drive to start the second half five times as the team finished the regular season with a 1-5 record. During that span, the D gave up 31 points on the first drive after halftime.

That second-half swoon was a contrast from opening drives during the rest of Mendenhall’s first two seasons.

In 2016, despite the final record, the defense help up well to start the game and to start the second half. On game-opening drives, UVA opponents scored just three points all season and that came from Richmond in the opener. The D forced seven three-and-outs on opening drives. In Mendenhall’s first season, that carried over to the second half as well. Opponents managed just 13 points on drives to start the second half with the only touchdown coming in the season finale. The D forced five more three-and-outs. In total, the Hoos gave up 16 points on half-opening drives by opponents.

In 2017, the good work continued on game-opening drives. In the regular season, Virginia allowed just 10 points on the first drive of the game and forced five three-and-outs. As noted above, the season started well on drives to start the second half with only 10 points allowed through the first six games before the surge of 31 points allowed over the final six games in the regular season. For the record, Navy scored on its opening drive of the game but not the opening drive of the second half.

Those 31 points on drives to start the second half cost UVA’s scoring defense 2.4 points per game on the season average.

A discouraging part of the late-season trend came with how those drives unfolded too. Boston College (field goal), Pittsburgh (touchdown), and Louisville (touchdown) all used 10 plays to get points on the scoreboard. That’s indicative of a defense that simply couldn’t get a stop when it needed it. You can add in Connecticut’s opening second-half drive in 2017 as well; the Huskies went 13 plays before turning the ball over on downs.

Unfortunately, that part held true in 2016 on the first drive of the second half too but the D managed to keep points off the board on two of those trips anyway. Central Michigan missed a field goal on the end of a 12-play drive, while Pitt did the same on the end of an 11-play drive. Duke got a field goal after 15 plays and Miami got a field goal after 10 plays. (To add to the troubles, UVA also gave up two one-play touchdowns on the first drive of the second half; VT did it in 2016 and GT mirrored the feat in 2017.)

Overall, that represents eight drives from the 24 regular season games to date in Mendenhall’s tenure where the defense has allowed the opponent to start the half with long drives of double-digit plays. Even if long drives don’t produce points – and opponents did score five times – that serves to wear down the defense and create a field position advantage.

Over the first two years with Mendenhall, opponents have scored 216 points in the third quarter (100 and 116 respectively) and 410 points (207 and 203 respectively) in the second half. That’s not what happened at BYU over his final five seasons. From 2011-2015, the defense there gave up fewer points in the second half than in the first half for three of those seasons (in a fourth, the D gave up the exact same in both halves). The Cougars did not allow a 100-point quarter nor a 200-point half in any of those five years; in fact, they gave up more than 100 points in a quarter only once since 2000 when they allowed 105 in the fourth quarter of the 2006 season.

As Mendenhall continues to add depth to the roster, this is an area that hopefully reaches the BYU trend lines. That would go a long way to Virginia becoming a consistent bowl threat again.

The “99 Virginia Football Thoughts Before Kickoff” series has discussed much more. The previous articles are below. Click away.

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