By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Against Southern Mississippi, UVa scored 34 points and amassed 390 yards of offense, both season highs.
In the Cavaliers’ next game, against ACC rival North Carolina two weeks later, they scored 16 points and totaled 254 yards.
Nonetheless, senior quarterback Jameel Sewell called the game at Chapel Hill, Virginia’s first victory of the season, another step forward for an offense that began the season in a new spread scheme but since a Sept. 12 loss to TCU has become more conventional.
“Our offensive line, a lot of people have been saying we’re not tough enough or whatever it may be, but that offensive line just took it personally and made it their job to show how physical and how good they are, and I think they accomplished that,” Sewell said Saturday afternoon after UVa’s 16-3 win over North Carolina.
“Our running game really got off the ground. Holes were opened up, and we were physical.”
The Wahoos (1-0 ACC, 1-3 overall) continue to rank near the bottom of the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision in most offensive categories. They’re 99th in passing offense, 102nd in scoring offense, 110th in rushing offense, 117th in total offense and last in sacks allowed per game.
Against UNC, though, senior tailback Mikell Simpson rushed for 100 yards (on 20 carries) and the game’s only touchdown, and Sewell was 13 of 24 passing for 136 yards. Equally important, Sewell and Co. played a clean game.
“The one thing they did in the previous games that they didn’t do today is turn the ball over,” Tar Heels coach Butch Davis told reporters at Kenan Stadium.
Asked Sunday night about his offense’s performance against UNC, Al Groh said, “I thought we were playing against a much more talented defensive team [than Southern Miss]. There’s some really good players on that defense, certainly some heavily hyped and well-thought-of players, so it was going to be a little bit stickier there, we knew, in the first place.”
After Carolina pulled to 6-3 in the third quarter, UVa answered immediately. The Cavaliers produced a drive that ended with sophomore Robert Randolph’s career-long 43-yard field goal, and just like that, their lead was back to six.
Sewell opened the drive by completing a 14-yard pass to sophomore wide receiver Kris Burd, then hit redshirt freshman wideout Javaris Brown for an 18-yard gain to the UNC 32.
“When you play on the road like that,” Groh said, “you expect at some point that the home team’s really going to have a surge.
“[Sewell’s two completions] took the momentum right back for us. Those were two things that don’t show up as far as a 300-yard passing game is concerned. And then [Virginia showed] the ability to take the ball down the field, primarily running the ball, to score the touchdown that gave us the big lead.”
“We got more to make, but I thought we certainly showed progress in doing some things we hadn’t done before.”
On his Sunday night teleconference, Groh also addressed the need for Sewell to get rid of the ball more quickly.
“That’s something that he’s very conscious of and has been working quite a bit on,” Groh said. “In fact, on one of the really good plays that he made in the game, we had a critical third-down play on the drive that led to the touchdown, and we got a corner blitz. Along with the linebacker, we got two [rushers] off the weak side, and [Sewell] really stood his ground. He didn’t move an inch and stood right there, let the receiver come open and hit Jared Green for the first down.
“He’s made good progress in those areas. There’s more progress to be made. He certainly is cognizant of the value to him and to us of getting the ball out as fast as possible.”
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Raycom sideline reporter Mike Hogewood’s postgame interview with Groh at Kenan Stadium included a memorable exchange.
Hogewood: “Yeah, but you know this world of talk radio, and all this stuff. You’re 0-3, people had stuck a fork in your team, and yet somehow you got them back up, and today they came out and really played well.”
Groh: “Mike, we’re pretty hard to stick a fork in.”
September has been a struggle for the ‘Hoos in recent years, but they’ve won five straight games in October, dating to last season, and 10 of their past 11 games in that month.
“I guess you’d call it Octoberfest,” Groh quipped Sunday night.
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On the injury report issued Thursday night, UVa listed sophomore safety Rodney McLeod as “probable,” meaning he was likely to play against UNC. But McLeod’s injured knee didn’t improve as expected.
“Well into the week we were projecting that Rodney was going to play,” Groh said Sunday night. “As the week went on, we became more pessimistic about it, and probably Friday during our workout we determined that it would only be in an emergency.”
McLeod was a spectator Saturday, and he saw his replacement, fifth-year senior Brandon Woods, play superbly.
Woods, who was used primarily on special teams in 2006 and ’07, started the first three games last year but struggled and lost his job. Some outside the program speculated that Woods, who’s from Durham, N.C., might not return to UVa for a fifth year, but there “was never any question on our part,” Groh said.
“We thought he was a valuable member of the team, and both sides had invested a lot of time in his development and wanted to see it through to its fruition.”
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Cameron Johnson made his second straight start at outside linebacker for UVa. A 6-4, 255-pound sophomore who appeared in six games last year, Johnson is still seeking his first career sack.
On a couple of occasions Saturday, he nearly corraled Carolina quarterback T.J. Yates. Johnson was credited with one tackle for loss and a quarterback hurry.
In 2005, UVa defensive end Chris Long finished the season with 26 quarterback hurries but had only two sacks. Two years later, as a senior, Long recorded 14 sacks.
“I know in Chris’ case, at least, we saw that whole scenario play itself out,” Groh said. “As he became more and more accomplished as a pass-rusher, it enabled him just to get there a step sooner. So some of those times when the quarterback previously had been able to duck underneath and get away in that fashion, now he had him in full grasp.
“That’ll be the next thing [for Johnson]. I think if this is progress, he’s progressed to that point, as opposed to not being close enough for those things to happen. He did have some good rushes yesterday, and certainly had more on an impact on the game that at any other previous games.”
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UVa hosts Indiana (3-2) at 3:30 p.m. Saturday at Scott Stadium. The Cavaliers haven’t played at home since the Sept. 12 loss to TCU.
The Hoosiers won their first three games, then lost a close one at Michigan on Sept. 26. They fell at home to Ohio State this weekend.
“If I were in their circumstances,” Groh said, “at least I’d feel pretty strongly it doesn’t get any more challenging [than back-to-back games against Michigan and and Ohio State].”
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Groh said he doesn’t regret his decision to pass on the U2 concert at Scott Stadium.
“Given the results of the weekend, I would say that I’m pleased with how I decided to spend my time Thursday night,” he said. “I got a couple U2 CDs, so in my world that will suffice for a tradeoff for a win in the game.”