By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — As recently as 2007, UVa’s football team opened with a humbling loss and bounced back to have a successful season.
That season-opener, however, was on the road, in the high altitude of Laramie, Wyo., against a Football Bowl Subdivision opponent.
The Cavaliers’ loss Saturday night came in the friendly confines of Scott Stadium, against a Football Championship Subdivision foe. This one — a 26-14 loss to William and Mary — stings worse than the setback at Wyoming.
“It’s definitely a tough pill to swallow,” senior linebacker Denzel Burrell said.
Four minutes into the game, the crowd of 54,587, save for the W&M fans in the stadium’s southeast corner, was in high spirits. So were the UVa players.
After forcing a Tribe punt on the opening series, Virginia had needed only three plays to go up 7-0 on quarterback Vic Hall’s 34-yard touchdown run and Robert Randolph’s PAT.
“And then it seemed from then on, we just stalled out,” said junior Marc Verica, the third of the three quarterbacks to play for Virginia. “Too many three-and-outs and too many turnovers. We put the defense in bad position all game long.”
Not since 1994, when they turned the ball over seven times in a win over Clemson, had the Cavaliers been so careless with the ball. Against William and Mary, UVa lost four fumbles and threw three interceptions.
“We know why we lost: We turned the ball over too many times,” Verica said.
The Tribe, by contrast, had no fumbles and only one interception.
“I wish I could give you something more profound, fellas, but I think we all know what the story of this one was,” said Al Groh, whose record in season-openers as UVa’s coach fell to 3-6.
Given the emphasis the Cavaliers put on ball security throughout training camp, to lose this way was particularly frustrating.
“That’s been a pretty prominent goal of ours,” Verica said, “if not the primary focus offensively: Just don’t beat yourself. Don’t make yourself easy to beat, and teams that make themselves hard to beat are teams that don’t turn the ball over, they don’t get penalties, they don’t make mental errors, just don’t do things of that nature.
“It’s definitely been a goal of ours and will continue to be a focus of ours. And it has to improve if we have any hope of winning games this year.”
After Virginia’s first series, the spread offense installed by new coordinator Gregg Brandon rarely seemed to faze the Tribe’s defense. UVa totaled only 268 yards of offense and all but abandoned the passing game for long stretches.
“Clearly we need some more work on what we’re trying to do,” Groh said. “We were hoping that this game would be a lot smoother than it was.”
The coaching staff entered the game planning to use Hall and Sewell. It held open the possibility of playing Verica, who started nine games in 2008, as well.
Hall and Sewell split time at QB in the first half, and each had a TD run. But Hall, who played cornerback for the first 11 games last season, hurt a hip late in the second quarter, and he didn’t take any snaps after intermission.
He played a pivotal role in the outcome, however. Hall muffed a punt inside Virginia’s 10 midway through the third quarter. The Tribe, trailing 14-13, recovered at the 9. Two minutes later, the third of Brian Pate’s four field goals put W&M ahead for good.
“That’s a decision that Vic had to make at the spur of the moment,” Groh said. “I’m sure he’d like to have it back. By the same token, his seven points were pretty important to us at the beginning. He gave it everything that he had for us today.”
Sewell, who started 22 consecutive games at quarterback before missing last season for academic reasons, looked rusty in his first game back. He ran effectively at times but completed only 9 of 17 passes for 80 yards. Worse, he had three passes picked off, all by cornerback B.W. Webb.
Webb’s third interception sealed the Tribe’s victory. After two fourth-quarter series with Verica stalled, UVa’s coaches went back to Sewell. The score was 19-14, 3:45 remained, and Virginia took over in good field position (its 41-yard line).
In 2007, Sewell became known for morphing into Steve Young in the fourth quarter, but the magic was missing on this drive. Webb stepped in front of an ill-advised throw by Sewell and returned it 50 yards for a TD.
On a night when William and Mary quarterback R.J. Archer, a graduate of nearby Albemarle High, completed 23 of 44 throws for 184 yards and one TD, Virginia’s QBs were a combined 18 for 33 passing for 137 yards.
“Clearly we need better performance than what we got at the position,” Groh said.
The loss was Virginia’s first to a team from the FCS (formerly Division I-AA) since 1986, when William and Mary won a 41-37 shootout at Scott Stadium.
“They deserved it in every respect,” Groh said Saturday night.
His message to his players after the game?
“We’ve got 11 more weeks to go,” Groh said. “There’ll be a lot of negativity out there, some of it well-deserved. We can either crack or we can stick together. One thing we haven’t ever done around here is crack.”
Groh said he didn’t plan to bring up the 2007 season, which started for UVa with the 23-3 loss at Wyoming and ended with a trip to the Gator Bowl. His players, however, might.
“You try not to make too many connections between two seasons — they’re definitely different, with different players and things like that — but we have the ability to bounce back, and that’s just what we’re going to have to do right now,” Burrell said. “Starting 0-1 is definitely not what we envisioned for ourselves, but we definitely need to just move on from now and get even at 1-1 next weekend.”
Hall said: “The best thing we can do is stick together and keep working hard, because we still got a long season left.”
It resumes next weekend. No. 17Texas Christian comes to town Saturday for a 3:30 p.m. game at Scott Stadium.
“We can’t get this game back,” Burrell said. “We can’t play [W&M] again this year, so we’ve just got to look forward to TCU.”
Asked what he would tell UVa students and fans, Burrell said, “Hopefully to just keep faith in us and keep supporting us. We’re as down as they are about this loss, obviously, and I just want them to know we’re going to work as hard as we possibly can.”