Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall and his team often speak of playing complementary football. The Cavaliers aren’t getting that on the road right now. The offense continues to struggle away from Charlottesville and it’s costing the team potential wins.
The latest example came Saturday when the Hoos fell 28-21 at Louisville. The offense posted just 14 points before a late touchdown drive that came while trailing by two scores. That output came against a Cardinal defense that entered the game tied for 109th nationally in scoring defense by allowing 33.4 points per game. Even if you account for the location, Louisville still had allowed 29.8 points per game at home this season (105th nationally entering the game).
On the surface, you could be tempted to chalk that up to a bad day or bad weather or both. Of course, that view would require such a performance to be an anomaly. It isn’t. Far, far from it. The Cavaliers have regularly produced disappointing performances offensively on the road.
Simply put, Virginia is one of the worst offensive teams in college football when it comes to road and neutral site games. The four-year average is 22.25 points per game on the road. Here’s the breakdown for scoring offense away from Charlottesville:
- 2016 – 19.5 points per game, 104th nationally
- 2017 – 22.0 points per game, 93rd nationally
- 2018 – 25.2 points per game, 73rd nationally
- 2019 – 19.7 points per game, 94th nationally (entering Saturday’s game, which improved the average to 20.0 and that would rank 93rd)
To climb the rankings, a team would need to score 24.0 points to rank 65th (the halfway point for the 130 FBS teams), 25.8 points to rank 50th, and 34.0 points or more to reach the top 25 this season. Previous seasons fall in similar ranges.
It’s a much bigger issue this season, though. There is a drastic difference in how the offense performs in home vs. away games. In the three previous seasons, the gap wasn’t as significant. In 2016, the scoring rankings were 104th on the road and 106th at home with a 6.0 points per game gap. In 2017, the scoring rankings were 93rd on the road and 110th at home with a 1.0 points per game gap. In 2018, the scoring rankings were 73rd home and away with a 6.1 points per game gap.
In 2019, the scoring rankings are 94th on the road and 33rd at home. There is a points per game gap of 19.8 points!
During the first two years of Mendenhall’s tenure, the Hoos’ defense also struggled on the road. In 2016 and 2017, the defense allowed 31.2 and 33.2 points per game away from Charlottesville to rank 64th and 81st nationally. Those defenses struggled at home too, ranking 120th at 36.3 points per game in 2016 and 71st at 24.3 points per game in 2017. In the past two seasons, however, the defense has emerged as a top 35 scoring defense home and away.
In 2018, the defense allowed 18.3 points per game at home (24th) and 22.2 points away (20th). In 2019, the numbers look the same at 18.0 points per game allowed at home (35th) and 22.0 points per game away (24th; that number was entering Saturday’s game and will drop to 23.4 points per game allowed, which will rank around 29th). In other words, over the last two seasons the defense has not only become one of the nation’s better units, it’s also become consistent both home and away.
The defense does indeed travel. That creates a formula that the coaching staff appears to be following in an effort to win road games. Set the tone and pace with that defense, keep the score and game within reach on the scoreboard, and execute well enough to win in critical moments.
The issues on offense on the road this season, however, are preventing the program from taking advantage of a high level defense. With the Cavaliers in Coastal Division contention – and they remain tied for the division lead even after the loss to Louisville – they’ve managed just one road victory. The Hoos opened this season with a win at Pitt, which put them in the early driver’s seat but losses at Miami and Louisville have once again erased any margin for error entering November. The two road losses in ACC play so far have produced 9 and 21 points.
One last road game remains in 2019. The Hoos take the trip to North Carolina next weekend in a game between two teams at the top of the division with just two losses in league play. A win would maintain at least a piece of the division lead with two home conference games and a bye week (plus the non-con game with Liberty) remaining in UVA’s chase for the division title.
If the offense can’t get in gear on the road, though, the Hoos may let the open window of opportunity this season slide shut.