Though Virginia's fan base hasn't entirely grasped that the Cavaliers could be on the verge of a breakthrough season, as evidenced by thousands of empty seats every fall Saturday afternoon in Scott Stadium, coach Mike London may indeed have his program on the right track.
Now, the challenge remains for U.Va. (4-2 overall, 1-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) to find at least two more wins to get bowl-eligible on a schedule that still includes games against North Carolina State, at Miami, at Maryland, against Duke, at Florida State and against Virginia Tech. Excluding Miami, U.Va. has lost its most recent meetings against the other five opponents, including three consecutive losses to Duke and seven straight losses to Tech.
Here's a unit-by-unit evaluation of what U.Va. has done through the midpoint of the season:
U.Va.'s two-headed quarterback approach with starter Michael Rocco and true freshman David Watford, a Hampton High graduate, has been relatively effective (completing a combined 59 percent of their passes for 1,443 yards; Rocco bouncing back late at Indiana and getting a big third down conversion pass on the final drive against Georgia Tech, Watford leading U.Va. in overtime against Idaho). Still, Rocco's eight interceptions have to be a big concern for offensive coordinator Bill Lazor. Rocco's interceptions are the primary reason U.Va. has a minus-three turnover ratio (11th in the ACC). Running backs Perry Jones, Kevin Parks and true freshman Clifton Richardson, a Menchville High graduate, have been rock solid -- combining to average 5.5 yards per carry (combined 1,121 yards and 11 touchdowns). Jones, who leads the team with 514 yards rushing, could give U.Va. its first 1,000-plus yard rusher since 2004 (Alvin Pearman, 1,037 yards). U.Va.'s offensive line has been strong in pass protection, as the Cavaliers have surrendered just seven sacks.
After giving up 62 plays of 20-plus yards last season, a point of emphasis for defensive coordinator Jim Reid's unit entering the season was limiting big plays. This season, opponents have had just 23 plays of 20-plus yards thus far. Despite a lack of experienced depth at linebacker, U.Va. has gotten excellent efforts from middle linebacker Steve Greer (leads the team with 51 tackles and tied for the team lead with four pass breakups) and weak-side linebacker LaRoy Reynolds (40 tackles). Though he hasn't started this season, backup defensive tackle Will Hill, a Lafayette High product, is tied with starting defensive tackle Matt Conrath for the team lead in tackles for losses (5 1/2). Cam Johnson has had limited snaps due to the debilitating effects of sickle cell trait, but he has still been U.Va.'s most active defensive end with two sacks and two forced fumbles. As expected, cornerback Chase Minnifield has anchored the secondary with four pass breakups and two interceptions. True freshman cornerback Demetrious Nicholson has also logged two interceptions.
Robert Randolph still has an opportunity to be one of the nation's best kickers, but he's struggling with a little inconsistency after starting the season very strong. He made his first eight field goals, but has connected on just three of his last seven. Punter Jimmy Howell has been decent, averaging 40.7 yards per attempt. U.Va. has entrusted its return duties to two promising true freshmen -- Darius Jennings and Dominique Terrell. Jennings has averaged just 20.9 yards per kickoff return, while Terrell is getting only 5.5 yards per punt return -- not U.Va.'s most inspiring area thus far, but Terrell is getting more comfortable on punt returns. Conrath has two blocked kicks, pushing his career total to four. U.Va. has been excellent on kickoff coverage, giving up just 18.4 yards per return.
It's fair to say U.Va. has slightly overachieved to this point. Last weekend's 24-21 win against No. 12 Georgia Tech could serve as a program kick-starting moment for London, if he can avoid the same kind of letdown that took place after last season's win against then-No. 22 Miami (followed by four consecutive losses). U.Va. boasts the nation's 21st best total defense (309.2 yards per game; third in the ACC) and 34th best total offense (433.5 yards per game; third in the ACC). If the coaching staff can continue to get that kind of efficiency on both sides of the ball, U.Va. should be able to attain bowl-eligibility for the first time since '07. Seriously challenging for an ACC Coastal Division crown? Well, that goal may still be at least a year away.
OVERALL GRADE: B+Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times