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Nov. 2, 2004

Al Groh
November 1, 2004

It’s November 1, and you said you wanted to be in the hunt by now, and you are. Do you have to change things psychologically? Do you have to tweak anything now that you are in the hunt with a month left? How do you approach that?
There are some similarities to where we have felt that we’ve been each of the last three years. The similarity being, at this point, what we did down the home stretch was going to write the story of the season, even the first year where we ended up winning two of the last three games. Then the second year, we’re off to a good start, then we lose two in a row. Now, we’re 6-4, with three ranked teams in a row in front of us. So, clearly we had to be at our best at the end to finish strong. We ended up winning three out of four then. Then last year, obviously, we come home at 5-5. Clearly, our backs were against the wall. We have to be at our best to write the story of the season, and we win three in a row. So, I think the players are accustomed to being in the circumstance where coming into this time of the year they really had something to play for, they had to play their best. Now, it’s a little bit different this year in that, I guess you could say we’re playing for more of the higher rungs and not for more of the middle rungs. We went into that stretch two years ago, when it was all over with we finished second in the conference, but we had to climb some rungs to get up there. Now, we’re on a higher spot to start with. But I think in terms of the concentration that it’s going to take and the level of performance that it’s going to take, we’ve had good exposure to the seriousness of the games in November. That is, each of those years, coming to the stadium every time, it was win, or else. And I think we’re in much that same circumstance now.

What kind of effect did Maryland’s victory over Florida State have on you?
I just thought that it was crazy. The whole weekend was crazy.

Do you expect it to give the players a little bit of a bounce, that it was kind of forgiveness for what happened at Florida State and a chance to start over again?
I thought there was every reason to have a lot of bounce beforehand. But, it clearly demonstrates to the players what a good team they’re playing against. Maryland did a terrific job in the game. They were able to do some things against a team that we were really able to get very little going against.

You were in the race after beating Duke anyway, but, obviously, what happened last weekend moved you up without you doing anything. Did you have any reason to think going into Saturday that that could unfold? Were you watching the games on TV, or did you find out about the results later?
No, I was watching them. Yes and no. That is, the evenness of teams now, and the fact that clearly a team has got to be at its best every week, and that there are so many teams that are capable of having a really good game, sometimes week after week, a really good game. I don’t think from our experience with our own team and watching other teams, I think every game is a hard win. And, that certainly was demonstrated, whether it’s the North Carolina game, the Maryland game, the Michigan game, the Oklahoma game, for heavens sakes, the Texas A&M game. As I remember saying after the Temple game, and it probably sounded silly then, but I think it’s hard to win a game. And, there are so many teams that if you’re not ready to play really well, you’re going to have a hard time winning a game against them.

Had Maryland lost to Florida State as it was expected to do, they would have come in having lost three in a row, or four in a row. Human nature being what it is, do you think some of your players could have said, `Well, this team is 3-5,’and neglected to notice that all of those games had been competitive. Does this make your job a little easier?
Well, I think it surely gets their attention. There’s little that the coach has to say. I think one of the very noteworthy things is that during the course of the last four games that Maryland played, all ACC games, they’ve given up 60 points. That’s an average of 15 points a game in conference play. Now, that’s really championship level points allowed. If you can do that during the course of the season, the odds are you’re going to be a championship contender. Now, they have some circumstances that will prevent them from doing that this year. But, that’s what every team is striving for on defense to be that way. So, that’s pretty darn good level of consistency, in terms of the most important number that there is.

The program’s goal is to win a conference championship. And, when it becomes this time of the year, is it harder to get the kids to focus on one game at a time, to use your cliché, as opposed to looking ahead to the goal?
It’s a lot easier to do that, if that’s been the way things have been approached from the start.

Did you see something in what Maryland was doing offensively against Florida State that was the clear reason why their offense, which had been pretty horrible the previous two weeks, was successful?
They certainly demonstrated the value of having patience with a talented young player at any position, but in the case of their quarterback position, Joel Statham’s obviously a talented player, he’s a young player. From what I could hear or see, there were lots of people who were trying to do Coach Ralph Friedgen’s job for him, by picking his quarterback for a number of weeks. And, he had the patience and confidence in the player, and, obviously, made a very good decision in how he handled the situation. And, now he’s got a very good quarterback.

You said it would not have mattered to you had you played last weekend, but will you be a healthier team now? And, could QB Marques Hagans have played last week?
Yeah, he practiced well Thursday and Friday of last week. But, overall, there certainly will be some players who’ve got more spring today than they otherwise would have had.

Does the defense go out in the orange jerseys yet?
(Typically, the starters on defense wear orange jerseys in practice, while the other defensive players wear blue jerseys.)Some will. Some did Friday.

But, not 11 players?
Not 11. That’s not just a resonancy deal, that’s a standard deal, always has been. You play to a certain standard; the orange jersey goes with it. The rules aren’t such, but we would be at a great disadvantage. We’re having a hard enough time stopping them with 11, so we’re always going to put 11 out there. We’re never going to put nine out there, because, certain positions aren’t playing up to what we need. But, just because a player gets to start the game, it doesn’t mean that he’s earned the orange jersey. There’s a certain level of performance that’s required of that. So, when a position is playing to that level, it’s so designated; if not, we keep striving.

On that end, you’ve got CB Philip Brown starting at one corner. Can you talk about what you’ve seen of him?
Philip has done a nice job. He’s come on real well right from the start. He’s been tuned in. I thought he played well two weeks ago. And as it is every week, it’s based on who’s performing the best at the present time. What a player has done in the past or what he might do in the future has no bearing on who plays on each particular Saturday. It’s who’s going to give us the best chance to win every week.

Is he a guy who you thought, he came in talking about wanting to start this year, did you think that, given his talents, this might happen at some point?
I thought he would be viable contender, yes, more based on his attitude than anything else. He came in with that mentality.

DE Chris Long is listed as about ready to play in a game again?
More than likely, yes. I think there’s still another test or two that they want to take on him.

Has he lost weight through this?
Not appreciably, no. What he had lost, he had lost beforehand, as much a result of just what happens with a lot of freshman–more practice for a longer period of time. I don’t think his weight drop was necessarily a circumstance of the mono.

Do you think DE Kwakou Robinson has got to step up his play? I know that the stats don’t always reflect what you require, but I don’t think he had a tackle against Duke.
When DE Chris Canty left the lineup, I said that this was a guy who was coming out of our lineup who produced a lot of plays for his position, he had a lot of runs batted in, if you will. And that other players could go in there and do a solid job then that would be good. But, Chris was one of those players who gave you a lot more than solid. And, that we would have to find the plays someplace else, whether it’s from somebody else at the position or from some other positions. But, when one of your top producers goes out, then that challenges the whole operation to try to find the production someplace else.

Canty had 100 tackles last year as a down lineman in a 3-4 scheme. Maybe this can relate to that. Is that staggering?
If I recall correctly, he had the most tackles for loss of any down lineman in the whole conference, or most tackles period. So, there’s a high producer that’s not there.

Is that a matter of a guy not only making big plays, but good plays?
Oh yeah, he made plays a lot of places on the field. He got to the ball at a lot of places that defensive linemen don’t get to. Of course, that’s why he’s one of the more highly regarded defensive linemen in the country.

You said a minute ago that you’re having a hard enough time stopping people with 11 men. Maybe that was a bit of a joke or an exaggeration, but is some of that that you’re still looking for some of those big plays elsewhere that Chris used to give you?
Oh, sure, we’re always looking for some plays. Somebody’s got to make plays on defense to get them stopped; you just can’t stand there and hold the line. The cheerleaders might say, `Hold that line,’ but it takes a little bit more than just holding the line. Guys have to really do some things, especially when you get to this time of year. And, more and more players at this time of the year have to take on a personal responsibility to be playmakers. That’s inherent to this stretch drive for any team in any particular season.

Your season last year turned right after the Maryland game, with a loss up there. When you look back at that game, what do you remember about that? How does that game strike you?
We did many of the things in the game that you can’t do against that level of competition. We had a stop early in the game on 3rd and three, or 3rd and five, which would’ve resulted in a punt situation on which we got a penalty. The subsequent drive resulted in a touchdown. There’s seven points that we had the opportunity to take off the board. We had one of the worst played runs that you could have in terms of corner force that we just forfeited seven points.

We’ve heard for seasons now that Friedgen’s offense is one of the more sophisticated ones in college football. First of all, is it as sophisticated as it’s supposed to be, and if so, what kind of challenges does that present for you guys?
Well, it’s a very varied offense. I would say that it’s very varied, and it has a lot of volume, multiple personnel groups that are constantly coming in, and different schemes from each group. That is, sometimes teams will give you multiple personnel groups, but you really see the same concept from all the different groups. You see different concepts from many of their different groups. It gives them a good opportunity to utilize the skills of particular players that they might have. There probably are not a lot of things that we haven’t seen someplace else, it’s just that we’re seeing them all at once here. That is, we played one or two games this year when the other team’s predominant group was four wide receivers. We played a couple games when the predominant group was two tight ends and two wide receivers. We’ve had a couple teams that were mainly regular, which is two backs, a tight end, and two wide receivers. This team is all of those things. And so it increases the volume of preparation for the players.

You’ve talked about the Maryland defense. Is the thing that makes their defense so difficult to play against its speed, its scheme, or a combination of both?
They don’t give up a lot of points. They have a very sound approach to how they play. They’re well prepared for all of the games that they play. They have a good talent level. All the things that are intricle to playing good solid defense are very apparent, and really have been from the outset there. I’d say it’s probably been the greatest constant on their team.

I think their defense on paper is listed as a 4-3, but they have that Leo position. Are there any similarities with that to how a 3-4 operates?
It’s primarily a 4-3 in concept, and Shawne Merriman plays that one position. He’s a very good player. He’s relentless. He’s versatile. He’s very productive for them. He’s a very impressive player. He’s primarily an on-the-line-of-scrimmage or a rush man, but when they do certain things, when some teams would drop a defensive end and there’s zone blitzes, well, now he’s that hybrid defensive end. So, he’s a little more athletic defensive end doing those things than if he actually had his hand on the ground.

When you looked at your tight end situation before the season, particularly before TE Jonathan Stupar got hurt, did you think that TE Tom Santi might be red-shirted this year?
Nope, as I say all the time, we don’t ever think about whether a player is going to be red-shirted. We don’t ever go into the season saying we’re probably going to red-shirt a player. We think in terms of when they’re ready, we’re ready; when they can contribute something to winning, we’re ready to use them. It was quickly apparent with Tom that he had a very good skill level and a little something special going on about him, as far as how he picked things up and tuned right into the environment. That is, at no time was it too much for him. He was up to it mentally; he was up to it maturity-wise. He was up to it right from the start.

Did Stupar’s injury, though, make you take any longer look at him, give him more reps?
Well, it certainly got him more reps, because he immediately ascended in one spot on the depth chart.

For a young guy, does he have pretty rare versatility to be able to play the number of roles that he played at Duke?
Yeah, he gets kudos for that. He does a lot of special teams work, either as a starter or a backup. He’s got jobs to learn there. He’s got jobs to learn in multiple groups, but that’s all in keeping with what I said. At no time has it seemed that this was too much for him. He’s done an admirable job for a young player being able to really get in the swing of things right away. I’m sure if heard me use the word `comfortable,’ he’d say, `Coach, it wasn’t all that comfortable.’ But, he’s operated at a very good visible comfort level in how things don’t get to him.

That’s really an area where Virginia hasn’t gotten a whole lot of players. How much did having Montgomery Bell Academy head coach Jeff Rutledge there help?
Oh, it’s a major factor, sure. In not just knowing Jeff, but being on the same team with him for a couple of years. I’m sure it helped a lot.

Did you look at Jeff at all after former offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave, now with the Jacksonville Jaguars, left in that process? Did Jeff ever become a candidate for offensive coordinator again?
No. In fact, I’d even forgotten, in answering the previous question, I’d forgotten about the previous circumstance. But, he knew us. He knew how we operated. He knew what kind of players we liked. He knew what kind of a player that he had. Tom had expressed to him that Virginia was one of the schools that he would be interested in. So, as soon as Jeff made contact with me, actually, I was watching the tape the next day, and as soon as I had turned that tape machine off, the decision had been made. So, it was mutual interest at that point.

Are there some teams where on Monday when you come out to practice, you can tell your players aren’t going to need any help at all in trying to get up for a game? Has Maryland been one of those teams?
In competition, and thus collectively every team, has to every week feel the urgency of being threatened. And, we constantly see that on every level. We saw that on a number of circumstances this weekend. I’m sure the St. Louis Rams didn’t feel threatened last week by the winless Miami Dolphins. If they were playing them this week, I’m sure they’d feel threatened. That’s part of how some of these things happen. So, there are certain opponents that we have that, by their established prowess, anybody who’s going to play against them knows that they are a distinct threat. And, by what Maryland has accomplished here during the last three years, I think everybody in the conference would recognize them when they play them as being a distinct threat.

It seems the rhetoric between the two teams has graded up during the last three years. Is that the way things go–two close teams, guys that play each other in high school?
Yeah, it’s a long-standing rivalry. The two schools have been rivals for a long time. Until very recently, it was geographically Virginia’s closest geographic conference rival. I can remember when I was in school, it was considered to be a good rivalry, and it wasn’t because we were any good. I remember it as being a rivalry back then. It has been for a long time, and I’m sure it’ll continue to be. Now that you have both teams that have done well here and the game occurs late in the season and it’s important in the conference standings, that’s the biggest thing to me. If every team that’s a good team is your rival, then all you’re going to be doing all year is playing rivalry games. They are as we believe they are. They all count just one. Therefore, they’re all important to win. They all have a bearing on the final outcome. And, the only thing that’s important is when they put the numbers up on the tote board at the end of the race that you can get your number up there, however the race is run. So, that’s where we are with it. That doesn’t sound very exciting, but that’s how you do it. Fortunately, I’ve been through it a few times, and that’s how you do it. I’ve said our goal was to get to November 1 and be in the hunt. This is November 1, and we’re in the hunt. Our goal is to get to November 7 and still be in the hunt. We’ll be deeper into it, or we’ll be further out of it. Then, if we can get to November 7, then we’ll assess what it takes to stay in the hunt. That’s it; that’s all we’re trying to do.

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