Changing Expectations for Virginia Football

Well, that was a pleasant Saturday afternoon. Delightful pre-autumn Charlottesville weather, a good tailgate with great friends, and a solid Virginia win that gets UVa halfway to bowl eligibility.

There was a lot to like about Virginia’s 27-3 win against the Louisville Cardinals. I would submit that the most encouraging thing about Virginia’s win was that the Cavaliers played a far from the flawless game and still won going away. While 27-3 sounds like a pretty thorough thrashing, the truth is, the game could and should have been an even more convincing beatdown.

Virginia left points on the field throughout the first half, scoring only 6 points on 3 trips inside the red zone. The field goal kicking circus continued with a missed chip shot on the first offensive drive of the day. Dropped and inaccurate passes converted what should have been touchdowns into field goals and Virginia held a disappointing 6-0 lead at halftime, considering what could have been.

Virginia fans know how and when to panic better than any fans in the country. Usually missed field goals and averted touchdowns signal panic time and stir thoughts of returning to the tailgate for booster libations. Maybe it’s the “New Standard” for fans believing in the program Bronco is building, but there was no sense of impending doom as the Cavaliers headed to halftime with a lead smaller on the scoreboard than the results in the stat sheet.

If there is truly tangible evidence of a New Standard emerging for Virginia football, I think it is most evident in the resolve this team shows during critical moments in a game. While Virginia’s offense misfired in the first half, the defense was stellar. Virginia fans have often had to settle for “bend but don’t break” defenses in the past. Today’s defense neither bent nor broke. When faced with a first and goal from the Virginia five-yard line after an unfortunate interception, Virginia’s defense gave up 2 yards on 3 plays and forced a harmless Louisville field goal. Virginia’s defense forced 2 turnovers on downs – which matched their total from last week.  Virginia’s defense allowed a paltry 214 yards for the game, 54 of which were on Louisville’s inconsequential drive late in the 4th quarter. That is execution. That’s yet another example of learning to win. If that is Virginia’s New Standard, I count me in.

I would argue that Ahmad Brooks is the best all-around athlete to wear a Virginia football uniform. While we are only 4 games into his career, Bryce Perkins might change my conclusion in that argument. As much as I love his athletic ability, his raw speed, his ability to hurdle potential tacklers, and his passing ability, I think his leadership might be his most valuable contribution to the Virginia program. The team feeds off Perkins – his determination, his confidence, and his courage. It was easy to see on the first scoring drive of the second half. Perkins put the team on his back running, hurdling, and passing for Virginia’s first touchdown that essentially put the game away for the Wahoo’s.

Quarterback comparisons are accurate metaphors for the Louisville and Virginia as programs heading in opposite directions. Louisville is stacked with talent but plays uninspired, lackadaisical football filled with mental mistakes. It is clear that Lamar Jackson’s immense talent covered up many flaws in Bobby Petrino’s program. Conversely, Virginia is a hardscrabble, over-achieving bunch who are starting to believe in the potential of the possible at UVa.

Virginia football fans are reluctant optimists. Not just “show me” fans, but “show me and then show me again” fans. Virginia has produced two wins where the Cavaliers played very well when they had to and won convincingly while not playing flawless football. As a result, my expectations have risen considerably for Virginia football in 2018, but I need to see improved execution again. My expectations are still tempered by the reality that this is a rebuilding program, not a finished product.

My new expectations are that Virginia’s “earned, not given” culture is going to translate to what opponents are going to have to do to beat Virginia. They’re going to have to earn it. I don’t think Virginia is going to give away yards and points to lose games. That does not mean Virginia is going win-out the rest of the way, but it means that Virginia’s opponents need to bring their A-games to win.

We will get a good chance to test the progress of the Virginia program Saturday when Virginia travels to Raleigh to take on ACC dark horse NC State. The Wolfpack had more players taken in the NFL draft last season than any other college program besides Alabama. They are building a pretty strong talent pipeline to Raleigh that can reload rather than rebuild. Quarterback Ryan Finley is an NFL-caliber quarterback blessed with a bevy of talented receivers. Virginia’s New Standard will face its toughest test of the season.

I don’t know if Virginia will leave Raleigh with a win next week. I am certain though that Virginia is not going to beat themselves and that if the Wolfpack wins, it will be because they earned it, which makes Virginia’s chances of returning to Charlottesville with a win that much higher.

Beat Tech.

Follow David on Twitter @DMRayner.