CHARLOTTESVILLE — A Virginia football season that began with a promising victory has declined alarmingly, and coach Mike London's job could, and should, hinge on dramatic improvement.
Such progress need not include championship contention or even the break-even record required for bowl eligibility. Rather London, his staff and players need to demonstrate that the unsightly manner in which they lost to Ball State on Saturday was an aberration.
That 48-27 defeat dropped the Cavaliers' record to 2-3, hardly catastrophic or cause for the panicked in-season coaching change that some fans endorse. Indeed, Ball State is a credible Mid-American Conference program that was 9-4 last year and is 5-1 this.
But Virginia squandered a 10-point lead and was outscored 24-3 in the final 17 minutes. The Cavaliers committed 13 penalties and four turnovers to the Cardinals' one and none.
Style points and perception matter, even in defeat, and the way in which Virginia lost reflected poorly on all involved.
To date, those problems are not isolated. Entering Saturday's game at Maryland, the Cavaliers stand 120th nationally in turnover margin and 93rd in penalties, rankings that speak to poise, discipline and … coaching.
"We want to show improvement from week-to-week," London said Monday at his weekly news conference, "and that's my job."
The trend line is just the opposite.
Virginia opened 2013 with a 19-16, bare-knuckles victory over Brigham Young. The Cavaliers created a late turnover, scored the go-ahead touchdown with 2:36 remaining and played stout defense throughout against a quality opponent.
They haven't been as good or as clutch since — a 49-0 walkover versus VMI was irrelevant.
The slide might be forgiven were London on firmer ground. But Virginia is 18-24 in his three-plus seasons, and last year's 4-8 mark included a six-game losing streak that followed an encouraging home victory over Penn State.
So fans have every right to wonder if this is Groundhog Day.
"When we went on that losing streak, guys were down, and we never got back up," defensive end Eli Harold said. "We were loafing. We didn't show up. We didn't have any passion. …
"I think everyone knows what we have to do to prevent that from happening. I think it all starts with practice."
But London and his players insist that practices prior to Ball State were crisp. They said the same before a 14-3 setback at Pittsburgh, where the offense appeared helpless.
"We believe we should have won," London said of Pitt and Ball State.
When will practice translate to game day?
"We want to win now," London said. "I believe in the coaches. I believe in the young players that are playing. But there is a process to that. … We're close."
Athletic director Craig Littlepage and his top lieutenant, Jon Oliver, desperately want London to succeed. They not only bypassed more experienced head coaches to hire him but also rewarded him with a raise and contract extension after a 2011 season in which Virginia went 8-5 and media voted London ACC coach of the year.
Also, Littlepage and Oliver encouraged (mandated?) staff changes last offseason that brought in the likes of defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta and associate head coach for offense Tom O'Brien.