By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Indiana University’s football team played in front of 108,000 fans two weekends ago in Ann Arbor, Mich., the overwhelming majority of whom were pulling for the home team.
That didn’t seem to faze the Hoosiers, who, if not for a controversial call late in the game, might have upset the Wolverines. So they’re not likely to be cowed by the atmosphere Saturday at 61-500-seat Scott Stadium, where a less-than-capacity crowd is expected for UVa’s Homecomings game.
Indiana is accustomed to playing at Michigan and Ohio State and Penn State, all of which have enormous stadiums. Still, the Hoosiers may feel a little disoriented Saturday. They’ve never played a football game in this state, and they’ll be only the second Big Ten team to visit Scott Stadium.
The first — Penn State — went home unhappy after losing 20-14 to UVa on Dec. 1, 2001. That was the final game of Al Groh’s first season as the Cavaliers’ coach. Nearly eight years later, his team has had to scramble to prepare for an opponent it knew little about until recently.
“It makes it tougher, I think,” sophomore defensive end Matt Conrath said. “We’ve got to really focus in.”
In their research, Conrath and Co. have learned what many in the Midwest already knew: Indiana (3-2) has several game-changing players, including tailback Darius Willis, wide receiver Tondon Doss, kick-returner Ray Fisher and defensive ends Jammie Kirlew and Greg Middleton.
Told that the Hoosiers look good on paper, Groh said, “They look good on video, too.”
Virginia (1-3) looked awful on video, and on the field, for most of its first two games — losses to William and Mary and Texas Christian. But the offense, revamped after the TCU game, started to hum Sept. 19 in a 37-34 loss at Southern Mississippi, and the long-awaited breakthrough came last weekend in Chapel Hill, where UVa beat North Carolina 16-3.
Before heading into the locker room, Groh spent a few moments on camera with Raycom sideline reporter Mike Hogewood. The Cavaliers’ usually stoic coach had to pause to collect himself at one point.
“Actually, I consider myself to be a pretty emotional person,” Groh said Wednesday. “I just a lot of times keep those emotions to myself or have an idea how to use them to the best purpose.”
What got to him after the UNC game, Groh said, was just “a sense of appreciation for everything that the players put into it to make it come about. And really being pleased for them to be able to go in and have that sense of satisfaction that comes from really applying yourself and getting the result that you want.”
Now that they have one victory, of course, the Cavaliers want another. If nothing else, they’re a more confident team than the one that headed to Chapel Hill.
“You always know you can win,” senior quarterback Jameel Sewell said, “but when you actually do it, it’s easy to follow through the next couple of days, before the next game, in a positive manner.”
Standouts against UNC included senior tailback Mikell Simpson, who rushed for 100 yards and the game’s only touchdown. Not since the Gator Bowl on Jan. 1, 2008, had Simpson, who wears jersey No. 5, run for 100 yards in a game. He also had four receptions for 45 yards against the Tar Heels.
“We really needed him to step back up,” Sewell said. “When his eyes are right and his wheels are moving right, it’s going to be really tough to stop him, and to get him going will open up a lot of things, because now you’ve got to focus so much on where 5 is going.”
If Simpson can continue to run effectively, he’s “just going to open up a lot of things for me to do passing-wise,” Sewell said. “And if I deliver, we should do pretty well.”
About 20 minutes before kickoff Saturday, Anthony Poindexter will have jersey retired. Poindexter was a two-time All-America safety at UVa in the ’90s and is now the secondary coach at his alma mater.
His defensive backs distinguished themselves in Chapel Hill, picking off two fourth-quarter passes and shutting down UNC wideout Erik Highsmith.
“You can tell the secondary’s already gotten better, just because he’s back there,” former UVa great Chris Slade said of Poindexter, who coached the running backs last season.
Not coincidentally, Virginia’s linemen and linebackers kept constant pressure on Carolina quarterback T.J. Yates.
“Sometimes the rush bails out the coverage,” Groh said. “The guys are open, and they can’t get them the ball because the rush is there right away. Eventually on the pass-coverage team, particularly on third down, you have to be proficient on both ends.”
Between them, Indiana tailbacks Willis and Demetrius McCray have rushed for 474 yards, and each averages more than 5.1 yards per carry. Willis’ 85-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter at Michigan gave the Hoosiers a lead they didn’t relinquish until the final three minutes.
Willis and McCray work behind a line that includes three players who weigh at least 311 pounds apiece, led by 6-8, 331-pound tackle James Brewer.
“They’re going to try to run the ball, and again I feel it’s going to be on our front seven,” Conrath said.
The Hoosiers like to play smash-mouth football — they are from the Big Ten, after all — but have a well-developing passing game, too, Groh said.
“It’s very apparent that they have a real philosophy and system in place, and we’re going to have to do a lot of things really well in all three phases of the game to be able to compete,” he said. “And based on their style and how we hope to play, we think this will be a very physical game.”