What happens when Virginia figures out how to play with some consistency? An ACC Coastal Division that annually seems up for grabs might add yet another contender.
Oh, the close calls are surely getting old for UVA fans, who were preparing to storm the field Saturday before Louisville’s touchdown with 13 seconds left gave the No. 5 Cardinals a 32-25 victory. It was eerily similar to the scene last season when Notre Dame broke Cavalier hearts with a late score. It’s even tougher to swallow when your in-state rival, also in the first year with a new coach, has had a nearly seamless transition.
However, this Virginia team — even if it finishes with merely a handful of victories — is better than those of the past few years. The Cavs, now 2-6, have shown improvement on an almost weekly basis, and in many ways are just an adequate placekicker away from thinking about bowl eligibility.
The wins are only going to come once the ability to play a full game manifests itself. In a loss to UConn, the defense dominated but the offense was stagnant before a missed field goal in the final seconds sank the Cavaliers’ shot at a road win. Versus Pitt, the offense was on fire for almost the entire first half, but a Kurt Benkert interception was returned for a touchdown in the closing seconds, and the junior quarterback wasn’t quite as sharp the rest of the game.
A week later against North Carolina, Virginia hung around, but Benkert still appeared tentative and unsure of himself.
Saturday, Benkert looked like he got some of his swagger back, and the Cavaliers appeared poised to finally finish a huge upset when they scored a touchdown and completed a two-point conversion to go ahead 25-24 with under two minutes remaining.
One problem: Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson is a Heisman front-runner for a reason. He moved the Cardinals down the field, and his 29-yard touchdown pass was enough to save his team’s College Football Playoff hopes. For Virginia, a perfect pass and perhaps a push-off at the goal line put a downer on an otherwise amazing day in Charlottesville.
It would be easy to look at the score, the records and the rankings and say Virginia played its best game, which just wasn’t quite good enough to beat an outstanding team.
The inconvenient truth: That wasn’t really the case.
First-year coach Bronco Mendenhall still can’t find anyone on campus who can consistently make a field goal from 35 yards or closer. The Cavaliers often couldn’t take advantage of amazing field position and three times got inside the Louisville 25-yard line with no points.
Benkert looked better on Saturday, completing 25 of 39 passes for 238 yards and three touchdowns, but there were still times he just didn’t seem as confident as he did earlier in the season. His two interceptions led to Louisville points.
The Cavaliers would be kicking themselves for not having an insurmountable late in the game, except nobody from Virginia can kick.
The absence of a kicker and a lack of depth on the offensive line are things that can, and presumably will, be addressed in the offseason. For now the best Virginia supporters can ask for is that the Cavaliers play their best for 60 minutes.
If they do that, there are at least a few winnable games left on the schedule in 2016, and the possibility of taking some momentum into 2017.
If next season the close calls start to become victories, the ACC balance of power will get even more interesting.