By Jeff White
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — They bounded into the visiting team’s locker room at Kenan Stadium, player after player, coach after coach. Once inside, they exchanged hugs and handshakes and high-fives, the players’ heads nearly hitting the low ceiling as they bounced up and down.
“That’s what I’m talking about!” senior defensive end Nate Collins yelled.
“1-0!” a teammate shouted, referring to Virginia’s ACC record.
More than 11 months had passed since UVa had walked off a football field victorious — Oct. 25, 2008 — and this was a moment to savor.
“It feels too good,” senior cornerback Chris Cook said later of the joy and relief that followed UVa’s 16-3 win over North Carolina on Saturday afternoon.
“I mean, I almost came to tears when I walked into the locker room, just to see everybody celebrating and feeling good about winning.”
This has been a trying season for the Wahoos, who entered their ACC opener with an 0-3 record, and for ninth-year coach Al Groh, whose job security is a popular topic on talk radio and Internet message boards.
Groh has had other teams at UVa that showed admirable resilience, though, and this one may yet do the same.
Against the heavily favored Tar Heels (0-2, 3-2), the Cavaliers dominated throughout. It was still a close game early in the fourth quarter, but an interception by sophomore cornerback Chase Minnifield set up a drive that ended with senior tailback Mikell Simpson’s 8-yard touchdown.
“That sealed the deal for us,” senior quarterback Jameel Sewell said. “I knew our defense was going to hold up. We just had to get that touchdown.”
Indeed, UVa came up with two turnovers in the final 10 minutes: the interception by Minnifield, who dived to catch a ball knocked into the air when Collins slammed into UNC quarterback T.J. Yates, and a pick by Cook with 2:50 left.
In between, sophomore safety Corey Mosley broke up a fourth-down pass by Yates with 4:27 remaining. Mosley starred in a secondary that was missing a starting safety, Rodney McLeod (knee), who was capably replaced by Brandon Woods, a senior from nearby Durham.
Virginia held UNC to nine first downs and 174 yards of offense. Carolina’s big-play receiver, Erik Highsmith, caught two passes for 11 yards.
“Our defense, we just challenged ourselves,” Collins said. “I felt like we met that challenge. We just kept pressure on that quarterback, and in the end we made plays when we needed to.”
Sophomore defensive end Matt Conrath, a towering figure at 6-7, knocked down three passes, a career high.
“We’ve been working real hard, and to start out 0-3, it was tough, but we stuck together, and we’re starting off the ACCs on the right foot,” Conrath said. “It’s a new season for us.”
Las Vegas’ predictions aside, it should shock no one that Virginia prevailed in this town. Much has been made of Virginia Tech’s dominance of UVa over the past dozen years, but the ‘Hoos have a similar stranglehold on their series with the Heels.
Virginia has now won four straight over UNC and 10 of their past 12 meetings. This victory felt as satisfying for the Cavaliers as any during that span.
For players such as Cook and Sewell, who were out of school serving academic suspensions last season, the win was their first since Nov. 10, 2007.
“It’s just an amazing feeling,” Sewell said. “It’s a feeling that we would love to feel again, but we’ve got to remember what it feels like to lose as well, so we just don’t take things for granted.”
At the team hotel Friday night, Groh showed his players film of the fourth quarter of Virginia’s come-from-behind win over Maryland in College Park in October 2007. In that game, Simpson produced one of the most electrifying performances in school history to help the ‘Hoos stun the Terrapins 18-17.
Simpson said it was good for him to see the videotape from Byrd Stadium again, and for UVa’s younger players to see it for the first time.
In 2008, he endured a forgettable season that ended prematurely for him when he broke his collarbone. His first three games this season were no more memorable, but against UNC he rushed for 100 yards on 20 carries and added 45 yards on four receptions.
“Maybe that just sparked Mikell,” Sewell said of the Friday night film session. “I had a lot of emotions just watching that … I guess that’s how everybody felt, and we needed to get back to how Virginia plays football.”
Groh said Simpson “ground it out pretty good [against Carolina]. It kind of looked like that game he played a couple years ago up in College Park.”
Simpson, for his part, credited his teammates.
“I think the offensive line played a great game today,” Simpson said, “and the receivers got in on the safeties and corners, and they opened a lot of holes, and it was just me running through them.”
Thanks to sophomore Robert Randolph’s career-high three field goals — he connected from 36, 38 and 43 yards — UVa led 9-3 heading into the final quarter.
Two years ago, on the same field, Chris Gould had kicked five field goals in UVa’s 22-20 win over UNC. The Cavaliers didn’t need that kind of production from Randolph, but he earned the coaching staff’s confidence with a flawless performance.
“Robert really hasn’t had to make too many pressure kicks that determine games,” Groh said. “He did today. As I say about the whole team, as the season evolves, we learn more and more about our team, who we are and what we can do, and we learn more and more about the players. Since Robert is pretty new to be on the field, we’re learning about him, and clearly we learned some very positive things today.”
Sewell finished 13 of 24 passing for 136 yards, and he ran effectively at times, too. He also showed his toughness. Sewell was shaken up after a hard hit early in the second quarter — his replacement, Marc Verica, went 3 for 3, for 12 yards — but missed only one series.
“He’s a very passionate, gutty player,” Groh said of Sewell. “That’s why his teammates respond to him in the fashion they do.”
In the locker room afterward, Groh reminded his players of the importance of the team’s next game, Oct. 10 against Indiana at Scott Stadium.
To reporters, Groh said, “We want to make sure that this isn’t just a one-week celebration.”
That’s a message the captains, including Vic Hall and Cook, will preach ahead of the Hoosiers’ visit.
“We hadn’t had a win in a while, and to get this first one, on the road, against a tough team, it just felt great,” Hall said. “We just gotta build off this.”