Sunday, August 28, 2011
Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Hey, UVa: This is not flag football
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CHARLOTTESVILLE -- We could talk about offense. We could talk about defense. We could talk about wins, losses, quarterbacks and goals.
But in looking at Virginia's 2011 football season, why don't we start by addressing the thing that matters most?
The Cavs need to clean it up.
Sure, we talked about that last year. But guess what? It didn't get better -- the number of penalties actually got worse as the year progressed -- so we need to talk about it again.
UVa was a sloppy, penalty-riddled mess in Mike London's first season as coach. The Cavaliers ranked No. 5 in the nation in flags per game (8.17). In penalty yards per game, only Baylor and Troy had a sorrier average than UVa's 73.33.
"That's a huge problem," sophomore defensive end Jake Snyder said. "A lot of it's definitely mental. If you look back at it, there's a lot of offsides, a lot of false starts, little things we can change."
To London's credit, he's publicly identified reduction of penalties as one of his biggest keys to this season. Yes, it's even bigger than the quarterback. After all, it doesn't matter who's throwing the completions if they're getting called back.
The correlation between infractions and results has been clearly established in Charlottesville. The Cavs averaged a whopping 81.6 penalty yards in their eight losses last season. In their four wins? Just 56.8.
That's still too many -- the Cavs averaged 54.9 overall in Al Groh's final season -- but it's significantly better.
The assumption that flags would be reduced as players got more familiar with a new system didn't hold. The Cavs were penalized more in November than they were in October. They were flagged more in October than they were in September.
Part of that can be attributed to a step up in competition as the year progressed. But there's a more basic problem than that.
Too often, the Cavs were just lax on the details.
"The first thing is technique," offensive coordinator Bill Lazor said. "We had a lot of holding penalties on offense. The first thing you have to look at, is, €˜Was their hand placement correct? Did they move their feet wrong?'
"A lot of times, it's that guys aren't moving their feet. Most of the time, their hands are outside. So it's discipline."
And discipline is a reflection of coaching. Undisciplined play infuriates coaches -- particularly those coaches who used to be cops.
So London & Co. have tried to beef up the orderliness of all facets of the program.
"A lot of that comes throughout the year, training all summer in our conditioning program," Snyder said. "We really focus on discipline. Coach [Evan] Marcus has done a great job of instilling that in us. The little things matter. Hold each other accountable. If you see somebody mess up, don't just let it go. Make them go back and do it again.
"That's a thing we've been doing all summer, and I think that's going to carry over."
The Cavs hope so. Their goal is to streamline the message, lay out what's acceptable and what isn't. They figure they're in a better position to do that here in Year 2.
"We all know there's a tremendous amount of things that can be accomplished with continuity," London said. "And I think going into our second year, we've experienced that and now we'll have an opportunity to capitalize on it."
Talent-wise, this looks like it could be another long season in Charlottesville, but there are some positive signs. Recruiting's gotten better. Some bridges to alienated alumni and high school coaches have been repaired.
The Cavs probably won't finish in the Top 25 poll this year. But if they can finish among the top 25 teams in fewest penalties, that would be a sign of meaningful progress.