Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Think less, play more is needed

CHARLOTTESVILLE -- On Saturday, Virginia fans went on a blind date fearing the worst but hoping for the best. They wound up dining by candlelight with a four-headed octopus.

Nobody could have anticipated that William and Mary -- a team picked to finish fifth out of six teams in its division in the Colonial Athletic Association preseason poll of coaches and media -- would walk out of Scott Stadium a 26-14 winner, but that's what happened. Reporters and fans scurried to their computers to bury coach Al Groh, as they should have. The loss was brutal. Unacceptable. Embarrassing.

But to make any season predictions based on that game is dangerous.

Saturday's debacle marked UVa's fourth straight season-opening loss. And they haven't just been losses; they've been sloppy, nauseating losses.

The Cavs folded at Pittsburgh 38-13 in 2006. They fell at Wyoming 23-3 in 2007. They were destroyed at home against Southern California 52-7 last year.

But in each of those three seasons, they rebounded to win their second game.

None of those bounce-back opponents was the caliber of TCU, which will visit Charlottesville this Saturday, but the fact is that UVa historically has improved after Week 1.

Why? How could the Cavaliers practice for a month and look so inept? They had seven turnovers against the Tribe, their most since 1994. They couldn't cradle potential interceptions on defense. They couldn't get their receivers open. They couldn't catch punts.

Two errant shotgun snaps were borderline comical -- including one that rolled to the quarterback.

"How that can happen is as befuddling to me as it is to you," Groh said Tuesday.

The easy thing to do is point at the spread offense and the special teams. After all, both systems are new, installed by freshly hired assistant coaches. Perhaps they just need time.

But fumbling the ball when you're cocking it to pass? Failing to pick up inches on fourth down?

"That's not the offensive scheme," quarterback Marc Verica said. "That's just fundamental football, really."

The same culprit that struck in the previous three season openers.

Groh preaches fundamentals as much as every other coach, but he certainly doesn't do it the same way. And maybe that's UVa's problem in season-openers: The players are coming off too much exposure to Groh. There's too much thinking, not enough free-spirited play.

A few weeks ago, Virginia's official Web site ran an article and video feature depicting a day in the life of Groh. It was interesting stuff, trailing Groh from the time he left for work in the predawn hours until his return home around 11 p.m.

Two things struck me while I watched this video:

1. Groh's players aren't kidding when they say their coach is an extremely dedicated worker, and 2. Groh speaks to his players the exact same way he talks to the rest of the world, complete with lots of NFL analogies, esoteric philosophical asides and copious use of the word "circumstance."

I'm not sure why that second one surprised me, but it did. For some reason, I thought Groh would be different around his players. Less wooden. More rah-rah. More plain-spoken in an attempt to connect with the 18- to 22-year-olds he's coaching.

Instead, he seems to make things more complicated than they need to be. And when you're overthinking, you're underhitting, undercatching and underperforming -- all hallmarks of disastrous football games.

Is it any wonder the Cavaliers seem to play better the less their lives revolve around Groh? Perhaps things just get simpler. Once school starts, all the drilling and film study are directed toward a specific opponent, classes (we hope) provide a distraction and Saturdays become an opportunity for release. The game is reduced to a game again. Athletic ability shines through.

It remains to be seen how much talent this Cavaliers team really has, and how well that talent is suited to Gregg Brandon's spread offense, but no system can absorb seven turnovers. The Cavaliers went 0-5 last season when they lost the turnover battle, 5-2 when they won or tied it.

So we can safely assume the Cavs are not quite as bad as they showed against William and Mary. And maybe, as the team starts thinking less and playing more relaxed, we'll find that the four-headed octopus at least has a decent personality.

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