By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — UVa’s football team will play in a hostile atmosphere this weekend at M.M. Roberts Stadium in Hattiesburg, Miss. It will be the Cavaliers’ first road game, but, like it or not, they’ve been exposed to unfriendly crowds this season.
Fans at Scott Stadium booed the home team late in UVa’s opening-night defeat to William and Mary, and they did the same Saturday during Virginia’s 30-14 loss to Texas Christian.
The Wahoos are off to an 0-2 start for the first time since 2002, and many fans haven’t hesitated to voice their displeasure.
“It does bother me a little bit, but you got to look past that and just focus on the game,” sophomore defensive end Matt Conrath said Monday afternoon at John Paul Jones Arena.
Asked if he understood why fans are unhappy, Conrath said, “I do understand, but then again, they’re our fans, so … We understand that right now it’s only the people on our team that really believe in us. So it doesn’t matter where we play. We’re just focused on our team.”
After Virginia’s loss to William and Mary, ninth-year coach Al Groh predicted that his team would have to deal with “negativity,” and he acknowledged that some would be deserved.
His players are doing their best to ignore the criticism.
“We’re just going to focus on ourselves,” junior offensive guard Isaac Cain said Tuesday afternoon. “We can’t worry about what other people think, because when we play, it’s just us.”
Sophomore offensive guard Austin Pasztor said: “I’m not really that affected by the booing. It doesn’t get to me. Obviously it would be nice if they were cheering and the stands were packed, but we just try to go out there and play no matter where we are.
“Obviously when we play away, we hear a lot of boos, especially at Virginia Tech … It’s not a big deal to me. It doesn’t bother me.”
UVa plays at Southern Mississippi (2-0) at 3:30 p.m. Saturday. CBS College Sports will televise the game.
Pasztor, for one, won’t mind playing away from home.
“Going on the road’s a little bit different,” he said, “and it’ll give us an opportunity to be in a different circumstance and try to get our first win.”
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Groh was asked if he worried that the criticism might cause his players to lose faith in UVa’s system.
“I don’t think the players lose faith based on what fans think,” Groh said. “Players take their reaction based on results, because as we’ve said in this room on many occasions before, confidence is the result of demonstrated performance.
“You have two young wide receivers the other day whose confidence probably is elevated from where it was last week. They’ve stepped up and made plays. They’ve had some demonstrated performance.”
Groh was referring to redshirt freshman Javaris Brown, who caught a 56-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Jameel Sewell, and true freshman Tim Smith, who caught a 26-yard TD pass from Sewell to make it 30-14 with 1:48 left.
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The attendance figure announced for the TCU game — 48,336 — was the smallest at UVa since Scott Stadium was expanded to 61,500 seats before the 2000 season.
The small crowd, coupled with the boos, didn’t impress high school standouts who attended the game. Groh was asked about the negative impact that’s having on UVa’s recruiting efforts.
“I think myself and the team are just focused on what we have to do to get ready for this week’s game,” he said. “But if that be the case, then if there’s somebody who’s creating a less-than-positive impact, and if they really care about their team, then they’d be wise not to create a less-than-positive impact, don’t you think?”
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Pasztor was so excited about the Cavaliers’ first touchdown against TCU — Sewell’s long pass to Brown with 4:14 left — that he forgot he was on the unit that lined up to attempt a two-point conversion.
“We scored the touchdown, and I was celebrating, congratulating Javaris,” Pasztor said. “He’s a friend of mine and that was his first touchdown. I kind of jogged off the field with him, and then everyone started cheering when we scored those two points, and I realized I was supposed to be out there.”
Even without Pasztor, tight end Colter Phillips scored on a run to make it 30-8.
“Actually, we ran it behind where I was supposed to be,” Pasztor said with a sheepish smile. “I don’t think anyone really noticed until the guys who were on [the PAT unit] came off and they were like, ‘Where were you?'”
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Groh said his players are well aware that the team is struggling, and he doesn’t intend to pile on.
“They don’t need to be told,” he said. “They were the ones out there. They know the results. They saw the video.
“We all want to do better. It’s not what we had in mind. We all wanted to do better, and we’re going to stick together to do that, continue to grind it out, and keep asking ourselves the question, which we do basically every day of the year: What else can we do to get the results we want? That’s an organizational question, that’s an individual question.”
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Losing can divide a team, but that hasn’t happened at UVa, Conrath said emphatically.
“No one’s pointing the finger at anyone,” he said. “We’re definitely together. Both sides of the ball could have played better [against TCU].”
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Cain, who came to UVa as a walk-on from Hampton High, was put on scholarship this season. He reached another milestone against TCU when he started for the first time as a Cavalier. He replaced B.J. Cabbell, who’s dealing with an injury, at right guard.
“I just kept working hard,” Cain said of his development at UVa. “I wouldn’t crack. Just kept pushing. Didn’t let my circumstances bring me down.”
Did he dream that he’d one day be awarded a scholarship?
“I don’t think I ever looked that far in the future,” Cain said. “I just kept looking to get a little bit better every day.”
His teammates treat him no differently now that he’s on scholarship, Cain said.
“As far as football goes, it doesn’t mean anything. It just means a little less responsibility for my parents financially,” he said.
“Everyone on the team’s important, and we don’t try to belittle anyone because of their status on the team.”
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Cabbell started all 12 games last season. With Cabbell hobbled, Aaron Van Kuiken has moved up in the rotation at guard. He’s a 6-7, 305-pound redshirt freshman.
Van Kuiken is progressing well, Groh said. “It’s just a case of, as it has been with a lot of guys and particularly with offensive linemen, there’s no position that’s as developmental as offensive line, and he’s been here for one year and now five weeks into his second year. So he’s in that developmental phase, but we are pretty positive about where he’s going.”
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Pasztor, who’s from Ontario, leads the Canadian contingent on the UVa roster. The team’s true freshmen include defensive end Brent Urban and offensive lineman Hunter Steward, who are also from Canada.
At first, Pasztor said, he made sure to look out for Urban and Steward. “I thought I should kind of be a mentor to them, or whatever, just to get them used to living here and playing big-time football, because it’s a little different in Canada. But they’re good, and they’re on their own now, and I don’t spend too much time with them.”