Virginia Beat: A Compilation of Special Teams Disasters

After watching UVA flub two straight games on horrendous special teams mistakes – the kind of longstanding incompetence that ought to see safeties coach Anthony Poindexter relieved of his corollary duty as special teams coordinator – I thought it would be cathartic, going into a badly needed bye week, to put together a top five (or bottom five) of terrible special teams plays so far this season.

And since I couldn’t seem to narrow down the list, you get ten instead.  Consider it a sign of how bad things really are – and we still have four games left in this miserable season.  The dishonorable mentions not listed here: numerous attempts to carry a kickoff out of the end zone that all fell short of the 20-yard line (let alone the 25 where the new rules give you the ball); a kick-catch interference penalty in the TCU game; numerous block-in-the-back penalties on punt returns, including one behind the line of scrimmage against Wake Forest that gave Wake a second chance at fourth down (which they converted and turned into a field goal) and one in a previous game taken twenty yards from the location where, at that instant, the ballcarrier was stepping out of bounds.

#10: It’s really bad when one of your best plays is also one of your worst.  There was a lot of well-deserved praise for freshmen Anthony Cooper and Demeitre Brim for chasing down Louisiana Tech kick returner D.J. Banks and hauling him down at the UVA three-yard line.  Brim made the tackle thanks in part to Cooper slowing him down around the 15.  Great effort boys; it doesn’t completely obscure the fact that you just gave up a 94-yard kick return.  UVA’s defense would hold on the next series, apparently preserving a two-touchdown lead intact, but the field position would ultimately prove beneficial to Tech, as they would score a touchdown on their next possession, still with a short field, to cut UVA’s lead to 24-17.

#9: Also against Louisiana Tech.  Early in the game, UVA jumped out to a 14-3 lead, and it looked like the woes of the previous two games (an uncompetitive loss to Georgia Tech and a slightly-competitive loss to TCU) would be behind us.  Going for the gusto, the UVA coaches made the questionable decision to kick onsides; not only was the kick terribly executed, but UVA was offsides on the play, giving the Bulldogs the ball at the UVA 39.  Shortly thereafter it was 14-10 and the early-game momentum was gone.

#8: This one was fortunately not costly, so it was funny at the time, but still facepalmingly bad.  After taking a 43-12 lead against Richmond, the coaches sent Brim and Jeremy Dollin out to cover the ensuing kickoff.  That doesn’t sound so bad, except Brim and Dollin happen to wear the same number, which is a 15-yard no-no in the rulebook.  This was the first game of the season, so it was a foreshadowing of things to come.

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#7: Midway through the season, the Hoos made a quarterback switch.  A little later, against Maryland, a less-publicized switch at kicker was also made, and this is why: the blocked field goal in the second quarter.  UVA was already in a 17-0 hole, and the field goal wouldn’t have changed the outcome, but all the same it was a psychological killer not to get any points after the offense finally found a way to move down the field.  Drew Jarrett’s kick was low and easily blocked, and Ian Frye has attempted all of UVA’s field goals since.

#6: A 60-yard punt return isn’t too bad on its face.  Lots of teams give those up every now and then. But when it comes on the first punt of the game the week after giving up a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, people start to wonder if you spent that week doing any coaching.  Wake Forest scored their only touchdown of the game on the very next play, so it turned out to be a very damaging mistake.

#5: This play only is this low on the list because it’s the last physical mistake.  But the effect was among the most damaging.  Wake Forest was clinging to a 16-10 lead and was forced to punt with two minutes to go.  UVA would get excellent field position and a chance to win, with returner Khalek Shepherd standing around his own 40.  But when the punt came down to earth, it clonked off of Shepherd’s facemask, and the ball was recovered by Wake, who proceeded to kneel out the clock, having burned up UVA’s timeouts on the previous possession.

#4: Now we get to the truly mental mistakes. We stay with the Wake Forest game, and go to just before halftime, where UVA’s offense has woken out of its slumber with a tying touchdown that leaves about 20 seconds on the clock.  UVA kicks off, gives up a long return, and compounds the mistake when Kyle McCartin makes a tackle out of bounds, costing his team another 15 yards.  Wake Forest takes advantage, completing a downfield bomb and setting up for a field goal and a 10-7 halftime lead.  The play has become a symbol of fans’ ire over the special teams mess; after promising for weeks that players would be held accountable for their mental mistakes, particularly 15-yard penalties, the coaches allowed McCartin to cover the second-half kickoff.

Stefon Diggs took it to the house on this one. (photo courtesy of TheSabre.com)

#3: The impact of a play doesn’t need a lot of explanation when you give up a 100-yard (actually more like 104) kickoff return TD to start the game, against hated rival Maryland, on Homecoming weekend, and end up losing by – yup, one touchdown.

#2: How to screw up a game’s ending, part 2.  And with the same culprit.  Holding on to a six-point lead, Louisiana Tech faced fourth-and-1 near the end of the game.  UVA had battled back from a 20-point deficit by scoring two touchdowns, and the defense had held yet again as the Bulldogs sent out their punt team.  UVA countered with its punt return team, naturally, and then the Bulldogs changed their mind (or had planned all along to try and screw with our coaches’ heads) and subbed in their regular offense.  UVA’s punt return team scrambled off the field – except for one.  Punt returner Khalek Shepherd watched the substitutions taking place in front of him, and it didn’t occur to him that with the punt team coming off the field, his services might no longer be needed.  10 players left, 11 came on, and if you can do math you just realized what happened.  The 12-man penalty resulted in a game-clinching first down for Louisiana Tech.

#1: Another case of a good play going sour.  It’s early in the third quarter of the Maryland game.  UVA has been clawing their way back from a 17-0 deficit.  They’ve scored a touchdown to make it 17-10, and then, on Maryland’s first play of the ensuing possession, Terp quarterback Perry Hills fumbles the ball as he cocks to throw, and Virginia recovers.  Though the Hoos fail to score a touchdown, they do get three points out of the miscue, and there’s a palpable feeling that things might finally be going the Cavs’ way.  Not just in the game, but perhaps in the season.  Players are fired up.  Too fired up.  A flag is thrown after the field goal: unnecessary roughness on Zach Swanson, to be enforced on the kickoff.  Instead of kicking from the 35, UVA is kicking from the 20, and Stefon Diggs, the man who carried the ball 100 yards the other way on the opening kick, takes it to midfield.  Handed outstanding field position, the Maryland offense takes advantage, scoring a touchdown to make the score 24-13.  Momentum: gone.

Small wonder, after all of this, that UVA fans are about ready to toss the special teams coach to the street.  How bad is it?  Poindexter is one of the most beloved players, and one of the best defensive players, in UVA history, and I only say “one of” because of Chris Long.  When fans are calling for the head of someone who’s darn near a demigod in UVA football lore, you have issues.


Brendan’s bio: I’m just this guy … this ordinary Virginia graduate and fan who woke up one day realizing his opinions on everything UVA could no longer be contained in one space. Thus was born From Old Virginia, a labor of love where you can find obsessive opinionating on Virginia football, basketball, lacrosse, baseball, and whatever else when the mood strikes. And if that’s still not enough for you, go to the Twitster and follow @MaizeNBlueWahoo for the dumb stuff that pops into my head when I’m watching the Hoos.

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