By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — On the football field where Mikell Simpson emerged from obscurity in 2007 and, with an ESPN2 audience watching, delivered a performance straight out of Hollywood, the senior tailback is likely to be in street clothes for UVa’s return engagement there.
Simpson hurt his neck last weekend against Indiana — though not before rushing for four touchdowns — and he was listed as doubtful on the injury report released Thursday night.
UVa takes prides in its next-man-up mentality, though, and no one in the program is panicking. If Simpson isn’t available Saturday at Byrd Stadium, fifth-year senior Rashawn Jackson and redshirt freshman Torrey Mack will assume greater roles against ACC foe Maryland (1-1, 2-4).
An injury to Jackson, coincidentally, helped clear the way for Simpson’s break-out game against the Terrapins in 2007. With several of UVa’s other tailbacks slowed or sidelined by injuries, Simpson was thrust into the rotation at Byrd Stadium. He hadn’t figured prominently in Maryland’s scouting report — if at all — but totaled 271 all-purpose yards and scored the winning touchdown with 16 seconds left as the Wahoos rallied for an 18-17 victory.
“I didn’t even go on the trip, because I hurt my hamstring the week before,” Jackson recalled Wednesday night, “so I really couldn’t tell you much from the sideline perspective.
“But watching it on TV, it was really painful, because those are my guys out there, and I couldn’t be there. So I took it in the best way I could. I sat down, put the game on and I cheered at home.”
A year ago, at Scott Stadium, Virginia beat Maryland again. This time it wasn’t close. The Cavaliers pounded the Terrapins 31-0, with Simpson contributing a season-high 77 yards on 14 carries.
Jackson rushed five times for 12 yards in that game. In his college career, he’s never carried more than 14 times in a game, in part because he primarily played fullback in 2007 and ’08.
But the 6-1 245-pounder is coming off a game in which he gained 73 yards rushing (on eight carries) and added 45 receiving (on three catches), and Virginia coach Al Groh would be comfortable if Jackson carried 15 or 20 times in College Park.
“Very definitely,” Groh said. “The only reason he hasn’t is because there have been other guys to carry the ball.”
When these teams met in 2008, Virginia was 1-3 and coming off an embarrassing loss to Duke, which had dropped its previous 25 ACC games.
Maryland, meanwhile, was 4-1. The Terps had upset Clemson at Death Valley a week earlier, and they entered Scott Stadium as clear favorites.
They left humbled. And that’s one reason Virginia’s players and coaches believe what happened at Byrd Stadium in 2007 will have little bearing on Saturday’s game.
“In getting ready for a game like this, I don’t think you can focus on the past too much, or even the recent past, like this past week,” senior linebacker Aaron Clark said. “You can’t draw too much from how we’ve played against them or how we’ve played recently. You have to prepare for the game like it’s a one-game season. You have to re-focus your energy and really keep grinding.”
The 2007 victory in College Park “was pretty electrifying,” Jackson said. “It was a pretty special moment. But that really means nothing. That’s just proof we can win in the past, and the past isn’t going to help on us Saturday.”
What should help the ‘Hoos (1-0, 2-3) is the confidence they’ve gained over the past month. A blowout loss to TCU on Sept. 12 dropped UVa to 0-2, and it seemed reasonable to wonder if Groh’s team would be competitive this season.
A week later, however, the Cavaliers scored 34 points at Southern Mississippi. They gave up 37 and so left Hattiesburg with an 0-3 record, but the progress they’d made, particularly on offense, continued during their bye week.
When the Wahoos took the field again, Oct. 3 in Chapel Hill, they surprised North Carolina 16-3. A 47-7 rout of Indiana followed at Scott Stadium.
“We’ve had two decent performances back to back here now, and a fair one before,” Groh said Wednesday. “So we’re seeing some progress.”
The Cavaliers’ confidence level is “much higher than it was after week 3, I’ll say that,” said Clark, a team captain. “But it’s something that you gotta build on every week. You can’t ride that confidence from the week before and think that you’re just going to walk in and win a game.
“One of Coach’s sayings that I love is, ‘The bull doesn’t care what you did last week.’ … When a cowboy’s riding a bull, the bull doesn’t know who’s on his back. He doesn’t know if you rode the last 100 bulls before him. All he knows is he’s trying to get you off.
“So you gotta come out and prepare and keep fighting and be hungry every week. You can’t get complacent. You know the ACC, it’s a crazy place. You can lose any week..”
At 4 p.m. Saturday, in a game ESPNU will televise, Virginia takes on a Maryland team that appears headed in the opposite direction. The Terrapins, 1-1 in the ACC, are 2-4 overall and rank last in the conference in scoring defense.
But strange things tend to happen when these rivals clash. You know about the past two meetings. In 2006, Virginia led Maryland 20-0 at halftime and lost 28-26 at Scott Stadium.
“This will be a really critical challenge for us to find out just how much consistency we’re developing,” said Groh, who’s 4-4 against his Maryland counterpart, Ralph Friedgen. “I think if it starts to show up fairly repeatedly, game after game, we can tell that we’re really going down that road. Otherwise it’s just a sporadic start-and-sputter thing.”
Virginia’s roster includes nine Maryland residents, including starters Rodney McLeod (Oxon Hill), Cameron Johnson (Greenbelt) and Nick Jenkins (Westminster). Johnson’s home, in fact, is about a 10-minute drive from the Maryland campus.
Jackson is from New Jersey, but he knows several Terps, including linebacker Alex Wujciak, who’s also a Garden State native. Wujciak, based on his comments to reporters in College Park this week, has little use for UVa.
“It’s two different schools, two different atmospheres,” Wujciak said. “It’s two different types of kids. It’s definitely a serious rivalry … [Friedgen] said they’re shirt-and-tie, khaki-type of guys. I guarantee you won’t see any of us wearing that around here.”
Stoking the rivalry, of course, is this: Groh is a UVa alumnus, and Friedgen is a Maryland graduate. Each played football at his alma mater, and neither enjoys losing to the other. The same is true for their players.
“It’s a tremendous rivalry,” Jackson said. “Our guys, we take it personally. Their guys, I’m sure they take it personally too.”
Clark said: “It’s not just, ‘OK, this is a football game. This is Maryland, it’s a team on our schedule.’ No, this is backyard football, you could call it. You feel like you could go out and play a game in the streets and play these same guys. It’s a different level of intensity.”