By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Like a lot of other people who had the day off, Al Groh spent much of Saturday in front of the TV, watching college football.
That’s not the norm for him this time of year, and it was a enlightening experience, Groh said Monday during his weekly news conference at John Paul Jones Arena.
“I had a very interesting college football weekend,” he said. “I got a chance to get a much broader perspective on things. Obviously, when you’re not playing [and] you have a remote in your hands, you can kind of see what college football around the country looks like.”
Among his conclusions after shifting from coach to spectator for a day:
“It certainly revealed that there’s probably far too many teams and players that are anointed way too early in the season,” Groh said, “and far too many teams and players that are condemned too early in the season to see the significant turnarounds that occur in so many games.
“A season is to be played out rather than to be seen in microcosm. I realize that’s not the reality of the way that it’s seen, but that’s reality of the way things go.”
Groh’s Cavaliers are one of those teams that many have written off for the season. Virginia is 0-3 for the first time since 1982, and it’s the only winless team left in the six conferences with automatic tie-ins to the Bowl Championship Series.
Of the 120 teams in the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision, UVa ranks 97th in scoring offense and 100th in scoring defense. In kickoff returns, Virginia ranks 119th.
An unbeaten team might not have welcomed an early-season break. For the Wahoos, however, their first and only bye week may have come at an opportune time.
After losing 37-34 to Southern Mississippi in a Sept. 19 game they led 34-17 in the third quarter, the ‘Hoos had the next weekend off.
The Cavaliers play their ACC opener Saturday afternoon against North Carolina (0-1, 3-1) in Chapel Hill. Still, they spent more time in practice last week working on their strengths and weaknesses than preparing for UNC.
“Our priority here was pretty much taking care of ourselves rather than getting way ahead on the upcoming game,” Groh said.
If the ‘Hoos can take a positive from the three losses — to William and Mary, TCU and Southern Miss, whose combined record is now 10-1 — it’s that none was to an ACC foe. Win Saturday at Kenan Stadium, and UVa will find itself in the upper third of the Coastal Division standings.
“This is the ACC, so it’s like a whole different season,” sophomore safety Rodney McLeod said Monday. “We’re trying to win an ACC championship. We would definitely like to get back those three games that we had, get wins, but you just gotta move on to the next game.”
Groh said it sometimes “takes three or four weeks out there for teams to find an identity, and by identity, I mean its personality, its strengths, the concerns that you have about the team … Having had three weeks to do that, it confirms some of our thoughts that we had going into the season, and also certainly pointed us in certain directions, and clearly showed that we are profiting [from more practice time].
“Practice is one thing, and the game is the other. But at least the practices were more efficient, particularly in terms of movement of the ball.”
After totaling 268 yards of offense against W&M and 177 against TCU, Virginia modified its new spread attack, with impressive results. UVa piled up 390 yards against Southern Miss — 78 rushing and 312 passing.
The 312 yards marked a career high for quarterback Jameel Sewell, a fifth-year senior who for the second straight game took all the snaps for UVa.
Vic Hall, who started at quarterback against William and Mary, has missed all but one play of the past two games with a hip injury. When Hall returns — perhaps as early as this weekend — Groh and offensive coordinator Gregg Brandon will have to figure out exactly what the converted cornerback’s role will be.
For now, though, Sewell looks increasingly comfortable as leader of UVa’s attack. He threw two late touchdown passes against TCU and then torched Southern Miss for most of the first three quarters.
“He’s got a little bit of momentum going,” Groh said. “Certainly can play better, but he has been playing better. That’s been his history his previous two years as a starter, to continue to get better as he accumulated more starts.”
As a redshirt freshman in 2006, Sewell started the final nine games for a team that finished 5-7. A season later, he started every game as the Cavaliers went 9-4.
When Sewell first got the job, in 2006, it “was a little bit rocky,” Groh pointed out, “but then we went on and had some real good wins, and he had some real good games. And the same thing was true in ’07, and as the season picked up momentum, so did Jameel, or maybe they coincided with each other.”
Virginia desperately hopes that’s the case again this year.
“The Southern Miss was definitely a tough one for us, just knowing that we had the game in our hands and we just let it slip away,” McLeod said. “We just gotta move on to the next game. We know our mistakes. What we have to do. It’s a new season. The ACC is here.”
Not since 1982 have the Cavaliers started 0-4. That was the team’s first season under George Welsh, who by the time he retired in 2000 had become a coaching legend. This is the Wahoos’ ninth season under Groh, whose record at his alma mater is 56-47.
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Virginia’s next home game, Oct. 10 against Indiana, will start at 3:30 p.m., the ACC announced Monday. The game will be available over the Internet on ESPN360.com.
That’s Homecomings weekend at UVa. The Cavaliers haven’t played at Scott Stadium since Sept. 12.
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Sophomore safety Corey Mosley, a second-year starter, has committed a costly penalty in each game this season. Against Southern Miss, he was called for pass interference on a third-and-37 heave.
That gave the Golden Eagles an automatic first down. The drive ended with a touchdown that pulled Southern Miss to 34-31.
“There were some calls in that game that were challenging for the officials,” Groh said, “but that was one of the easier calls.”
Asked what he’s said to Mosley about the penalties, Groh said, “Each one of them has really been significant in the outcome of the game. So we can’t withstand too many more of those, clearly. Too many, meaning zero.”
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Three of UVa’s four starters at linebacker last season — Clint Sintim on the outside, Jon Copper and Antonio Appleby on the inside — were seniors.
At inside linebacker, redshirt freshman Steve Greer and senior Darren Childs have played most of the snaps this season. On the outside, returning starter Denzel Burrell, a senior, is splitting time with classmate Aaron Clark and sophomore Cameron Johnson.
The play of the linebackers has been positive, Groh said, but the defense has missed Sintim and Copper in particular. Sintim led the nation’s linebackers in sacks last year, and Copper led the Cavaliers in tackles for the third consecutive season.
“We are getting good, solid play there,” Groh said, “but we are not getting the game-changing plays yet that we have gotten previously from that position.”