Over the past three years, the Virginia football team has improved and methodically clicked off checkpoints of progress. To name a few: Bowl game, defeat a ranked team, winning record, bowl win, 4-0 start for the first time since 2004, and win as a ranked team.
Those steps led to Saturday’s game in South Bend where No. 18 UVA faced No. 10 Notre Dame. It marked the Cavaliers’ first game where both teams were ranked since 2011 and an opportunity for the first win under that scenario since 1998. In other words, it was a marquee game billed as a barometer for Virginia. How would the Hoos fare in a nationally televised game against a team from the 2018 College Football Playoff?
The result, a 35-20 loss that left the program winless in its history against top 10 teams on the road, could be simultaneously encouraging and discouraging. The Hoos led 17-14 at halftime thanks to a late second quarter touchdown drive, but then saw their chances unravel with turnovers and 21 unanswered Irish points.
As far as being a barometer of overall progress, the game provided feedback there too. The basic takeaway: Virginia has come a long way, is capable of playing with and defeating top teams, but has a long way to go. That’s something that Cavalier coach Bronco Mendenhall has continued to say even through the season’s hot start.
Ultimately, much of what was shown was already known. Here are a few:
– Offensively, there are positives in play from big play potential to receiving touchdowns both by design and from scrambling, but there isn’t enough consistency in too many areas. That’s been the story of offensive coordinator Robert Anae’s tenure. The Cavaliers have scored more points than they have in years and can look great for stretches, but things often disolve away for periods too. The first and second half split in South Bend had plenty of that on display.
Some opponents can still overwhelm the offensive line and blocking schemes in use. That leads to protection issues and inconsistency in the running game. Notre Dame certainly did that Saturday with 8 sacks and 4 rushing yards allowed. The Irish accomplished much of that with just the front four on the defensive line. Overall, opponents that have the most success against Virginia’s offense are those that can shut down the run, eliminate escape lanes for the quarterback, and force the Hoos to mostly beat them through short and intermediate passes all game long.
– Red zone offense continues to leave points on the board. UVA left the red zone twice with just field goals in this game, a continuation of a three-year trend for red zone touchdown percentage.
– The defense can wear down over the course of a game and is still vulnerable to teams that can run with power schemes. Notre Dame went to two tight ends later in the game and ended up with 178 rushing yards and 4 rushing touchdowns on 5.1 yards per carry.
– The defense can control the game for long stretches and is a menace with havoc plays. The Hoos had 2 more sacks Saturday and made Notre Dame uncomfortable for much of the night. A direct defensive touchdown and field position for another boosted the Irish’s point total – otherwise, this was a game in the 20’s (or better) just like the coaches try to design toward.
– Turnover margin can be the biggest differentiator against quality teams. Notre Dame dominated there with a +4 margin and 28 points off turnovers. The Cavaliers have improved that category since Mendenhall arrived, but it’s still not something they can rely on from either side of the ball. If you total up the 43 games, the Wahoos are still -14. The 2018 team ended up at +2, while the 2016 and 2017 teams were in the negative. The 2019 team is starting at a -6 hole through six games.
– Special teams have made the most strides over the course of Mendenhall’s tenure. The kicking game is better. Punting has been consistent. There’s the threat of big returns in both the kicking and punting teams. The units can flip field position. The Hoos have been looking for overall consistency with the special teams and that continues to improve.
What does that tell us for the rest of 2019? The Cavaliers have a good football team and can play with really talented teams. They can win games. They should be comfortably in the bowl picture and a Coastal Division contender. The margin for error remains fairly small, though, and things like turnovers and missed opportunities on offense can be costly.
That means the Hoos must make strides with rushing offense, turnovers on both sides of the ball, and more as the season moves along if they want a breakthrough and a shot at more marquee games like the Notre Dame test this weekend. A bye week is up next to get that work started.