By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Periodically during Al Groh’s tenure as UVa’s football coach, his teams have produced victories so improbably one-sided as to inspire disbelief.
Remember the 48-13 rout of No. 18 Maryland in 2002?
The 48-22 pounding of No. 15 West Virginia in the Continental Tire Bowl that year?
The 30-10 win at Georgia Tech in ’04?
The romps over Pittsburgh (44-14) and the Miami Hurricanes (48-0) in ’07?
The 31-0 whipping of Maryland in ’08?
To that list add Saturday’s Homecomings game at Scott Stadum: Virginia 47, Indiana 7.
Groh’s team was coming off a win over North Carolina and entered as a touchdown favorite, but only the most optimistic Wahoo fan would have predicted this.
The Cavaliers led 30-0 at halftime and 44-0 after three quarters. Their lead grew to 47 points before Indiana scored a touchdown against a defense that by that point included few starters.
The attendance Saturday — 45,371 — was the lowest since Scott Stadium was expanded to 61,500 seats before the 2000 season. The thousands of fans who chose to stay home missed one of Virginia’s most impressive performances under Groh.
“UVa is a very good football team and much better than people think,” said Indiana coach Bill Lynch, whose team nearly upset Michigan in Ann Arbor two weeks ago.
The Cavaliers (2-3) amassed 536 yards of offense Saturday, their highest total since Sept. 11, 2004, and held Indiana (3-2) to 272. UVa rushed for 231 yards, 100 more than its previous season high.
“Our team clearly has taken another step down the road of progress,” Groh said.
This is a team that opened with a loss to William and Mary, which competes in the NCAA’s Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA). Then came a lackluster loss at home to TCU, followed by a defeat at Southern Mississippi in which Virginia collapsed in the final 22 minutes.
Since that 0-3 start, however, the ‘Hoos have won two straight, and they’ll head to College Park, Md., next weekend with a growing belief in themselves.
“Everything from top to bottom our team is better from the beginning of the year,” Vic Hall said Saturday night.
Hall, who’s competing as a graduate student, was one of UVa’s many heroes against the Hoosiers. He began the season as a quarterback and, in fact, started there against W&M, but he’s now at wide receiver.
He had six catches for 85 yards — both career highs — and one touchdown Saturday. Hall also played defensive back in passing situations and was credited with a tackle.
“Pretty good day’s work for him,” Groh said.
The TD reception was his first as a Cavalier for Hall, who also has scored on an interception return (against Richmond in 2008) and on carries (versus Virginia Tech in 2008 and W&M this year).
“What hasn’t Vic done where he looked pretty athletic?” Groh said. “He’s just a great competitor and loves the game of football, loves playing for his teammates.”
Fifth-year senior Jameel Sewell threw the TD pass to Hall, one of his closest friends, and also completed throws to seven other targets, including tailbacks Mikell Simpson (four receptions, 66 yards) and Rashawn Jackson (three catches, 45 yards).
Sewell finished 20 for 30 passing for 308 yards and no interceptions, another reminder of how effective he can be when he avoids turnovers.
The Cavaliers’ starter in 2007, when they won nine games, Sewell was out of school serving an academic suspension in ’08.
“I think it shows how badly we missed him last year and how important he has been to our team during the now two-plus seasons that we’ve been able to get a lot of plays out of him,” Groh said.
Sewell was sacked twice, but overall Virginia’s blockers shut down Indiana’s vaunted pass rush. They also opened huge holes for Simpson (83 yards rushing), Jackson (73) and Torrey Mack (40).
“The offensive line is just stepping up so much,” Sewell said. “I barely got touched today.”
If not for the injury suffered by Simpson, it might been a perfect day for the ‘Hoos. The fifth-year senior rushed for four touchdowns, the most by an ACC player in nearly a year. With 6:38 left in the third quarter, however, Simpson stayed down after a 2-yard gain.
Medical personnel rushed to his side, and after several minutes, Simpson was placed on a backboard and carted off the field. Flat on his back, he didn’t raise his head, but he gaves a thumbs-up that drew a roar from the crowd.
Simpson was treated for a neck injury at UVa Medical Center and then released Saturday night. A team physician will evaluate Simpson more this week.
Before Simpson was taken off the field, Sewell approached him.
“I just told him, ‘Man, we got you. We’re going to pray for you. We’re going to seal the deal. Just take your time and get right,'” Sewell said.
On a day in which former UVa safety Anthony Poindexter’s jersey was retired, his charges, led by junior cornerback Ras-I Dowling, made him proud.
Poindexter now coaches the Cavaliers’ secondary, and he saw Dowling force a fumble, intercept a pass, record his first career sack and make a team-high nine tackles.
“Dex means a lot to the DBs and throughout the team and the Wahoo Nation,” Dowling said. “That was a big day for him, a big day for all of us.”
On the game’s opening series, Dowling stripped the ball loose from an Indiana wideout. Safety Rodney McLeod recovered for UVa and returned the fumble 32 yards to the Indiana 38.
An 18-yard completion from Sewell to sophomore wideout Kris Burd, who made a diving catch, moved the Cavaliers to the 16. Simpson ran for 11 yards and then 5 to put Virginia ahead to stay.
The turnover that Dowling forced “did two things,” Groh said. “It established for the defensive players that this was going to be another good physical game for us. And it obviously created the type of momentum play and field position that let us get on top.”
In Dowling and Chris Cook, Virginia entered with the season with what many considered to be the ACC’s top set of starting cornerbacks. Dowling struggled against W&M and TCU, but he’s elevated his play in every succeeding game.
“This kid has really prepared diligently, literally since the last day of the season last year, and probably didn’t get off with as big a bang as he had hoped for or perhaps his preparation would lead us to expect,” Groh said.
“And he took that challenge pretty strong. He was mentally strong enough to deal with that and to say, ‘Hey, I’m going to do better.’ And he really has. He really prepares hard, as does Chris, and those two guys are on their game pretty good right now.”
Of his performance against Indiana, Dowling said, “It was OK. I still got things to work on. I’ll go look at the film and see what I can do better.”
For the second straight game, Virginia didn’t turn the ball over. Through its first three games, UVa had 10 turnovers.
“Clearly that’s a very big plus for us,” Groh said. “I think our players have really become very aware of the impact that that has on games. It certainly had an impact on some of our early games, and going in the wrong direction. It’s really been beneficial to us these two games. It certainly helps the defense out a great deal.
“It’s all about players buying in and being acutely aware of the impact [ball security] has on the game.”