No one wanted the sequel, but Virginia football fans got one anyway. From the program that brought you ‘The Great Timeout Caper Of 2012,’ came the latest rivalry gaffe: ‘The Tackle Lateral Haunting Of 2021.’ Judging by postgame reactions, this too is a box office bomb.
The Cavaliers have struggled against their in-state rivals from Virginia Tech. Struggled may even be too kind. The Hokies have won 21 of the last 23 meetings, taking a once even series – the series split was 36-38-5 in VT’s favor prior to this stretch – and making it a lopsided affair. The latest chapter ended with a 29-24 Tech win.
Sometimes it’s an unlucky bounce, an unfortunate play, or something understandable. Others, it’s something else entirely. Sometimes, certain moments live on within the futility. Saturday night’s latest disappointment likely will. Much like 2012, the immediate aftermath is full of alarm bells and furor.
In 2012, Mike London watched two minutes of precious time tick away while Virginia Tech set up a game-winning field goal. He finally called two timeouts with four seconds remaining, but Cody Journell made the kick and Virginia went home with a 17-14 loss. Fans fumed.
In 2021, there were frustrating moments to choose from but the signature play that raised the ire of fanbase came in the final two minutes as well. Driving for the potential game-winning score, the Hoos moved the ball to the VT 9-yard line where it faced a 3rd-and-8 call.
Offensive coordinator Robert Anae signaled in a tackle lateral play and Bronco Mendenhall allowed it. With five 500+-yard receivers on the roster, UVA didn’t take a shot to any of them on that play. Brennan Armstrong rolled right, stopped, and threw the ball backward across the field to left tackle Bobby Haskins at the 17-yard line. The Hokies were not fooled, easily made the open field tackle, and then won the game on fourth down.
The Tackle Lateral Haunting Of 2021. Fans fumed.
And just like that, a season of promise after a 6-2 start ended with a whimper. Four straight losses, falling short in the clutch against Pittsburgh with an ACC Coastal Division title shot still on the line and in the rivalry clash with Virginia Tech. Despite record-setting numbers from Armstrong, Dontayvion Wicks, and the UVA offense, the season ended exactly the same way as 2020. A .500 record. A disheartening loss to Tech.
Mendenhall, when asked, said “whether that’s squandered or not, I’m not sure I can put it in that category.” It’s hard to catalog it in any other way, though. UVA finished 6-6. It let a division title chance get away. It let the in-state rival take a game away too. It let halftime leads evaporate against UNC and BYU. It barely hung on against Miami and Louisville.
The Cavaliers made it to bowl eligibility in October and had some momentum building thanks to those narrow road wins. After all, they posted four straight seasons with at least four ACC wins for the first time since George Welsh’s teams did it from 1987-2000. However, I wrote then that if this season followed the 2017 path of losing out after the sixth win – only a bowl chance to stop the skid remains – then questions about the program’s position would be left “hanging in the air and possibly losing altitude.”
Well, here the Hoos are. That worst-case scenario is on hand. Mendenhall has built a program that makes it to bowls and rose to a division title once, but those positives are drowned out by postseason defeats and frequent losses in big games, especially in the rivalry showdown with Virginia Tech.
Consider that UVA has ended the season on a win just once since 2006. Consider that in the five most recent losses against the Hokies, the Hoos have rotated three quarterbacks on nearly every play in a 52-10 disaster, gotten shut out, lost in overtime after leading enter the final three minutes, limped through a listless effort, and then missed opportunities at home with ‘The Tackle Lateral Haunting Of 2021’ mixed in to rub salt in it.
To borrow Coach Mendenhall phrasing, the momentum gained through 2019 is slipping. Fan belief and enthusiasm is waning. Confidence is dwindling. Hope is withering. It is up to the Hoos to begin reversing that atmosphere swirling around the program after the latest loss to Virginia Tech. It may take all the way until next season’s meeting to even get that chance with some fans. If they can’t figure out a little more consistency and more importantly a way to beat Tech, then all the -ing verbs may end with -ed instead. To wit: Finished.