By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
COLLEGE PARK, Md. — The rain and cold and gloom kept thousands of Maryland fans away on homecoming Saturday, and thousands more, resigned to another loss to an opponent they dislike, left Byrd Stadium early.
By the end of this ACC football game, almost all of the noise in the stands was coming from a hardy group of orange-clad fans who chanted, “UVa! UVa!”
On the field, Cavaliers cornerback Ras-I Dowling danced along with the chants, and who could blame him? Virginia, which trailed 9-3 late in the third quarter, rallied to win 20-9, extending its recent mastery of Maryland.
“That’s one of the great wins you’ll ever be a part of,” Al Groh told his jubilant players after the Wahoos’ third straight victory in this series.
The night got better for UVa (2-0, 3-3). A couple of hours later in Atlanta, Virginia Tech lost to Georgia Tech, and suddenly a Virginia team that had opened the season with three consecutive losses found itself alone atop the Coastal Division.
“I have nothing but the highest level of admiration for what these kids gave tonight and how they’ve stuck together and been unified and kept believing and working,” Groh said. “And as a result, we got a little something going now.”
As expected, Virginia played without its top tailback, Mikell Simpson, who hurt his neck in last weekend’s 47-7 rout of Indiana. But by the end of the third quarter, the ‘Hoos also were without two other starters — quarterback Jameel Sewell and defensive Matt Conrath, each of whom hurt an ankle.
Junior Marc Verica replaced Sewell, and sophomore Zane Parr took over for Conrath, and Virginia didn’t falter.
And then there was Rashawn Jackson. The fifth-year senior from Jersey City, N.J., knew going in that his role would grow in Simpson’s absence, and Jackson capitalized on the opportunity.
More of a bruiser than Simpson, who has game-breaking speed, the 6-1, 245-pound Jackson rushed 19 times for 90 yards, both career highs. He also got his first rushing touchdown as a Cavalier, a 2-yard plunge with 1:43 left that effectively sealed the victory.
“This is my kind of weather,” Jackson said. “I’m a big back. I kind of look forward to these days.”
With conditions deteriorating and UVa’s offensive line struggling to protect Sewell, Groh decided at halftime to commit to a power-running game. Jackson, who had been ill during the week, was getting an IV at the break and was unaware of the strategy shift, but that didn’t matter.
Jackson punished the Terrapins (1-2, 2-5) in the half, rushing for 73 yards.
“Rashawn was magnificent,” Groh said.
And Nate Collins?
“Nate was pretty good himself,” Groh conceded with a smile, “but that whole defensive team, they did it collectively. Even on that play, Darren Childs came through on the scheme that we had devised for the situation, tipped the ball, and as a result of that, Nate was there.”
Groh was referring to the third-quarter sequence that swung the game in Virginia’s direction.
With 3:16 left in the quarter, Sewell had been helped off the field after spraining his right ankle on a 2-yard run that gave UVa a first down at the Maryland 19.
The drive didn’t produce the TD that Virginia wanted, but sophomore Robert Randolph’s 31-yard field goal made it 9-6. Moments later, in the stadium where Chris Long had boosted with All-America credentials with a dominating performance in 2007, another UVa defensive end had a SportsCenter moment.
On second-and-10, Maryland quarterback Chris Turner dropped back to pass. As Turner threw, Childs, one of Virginia’s inside linebackers, leaped and deflected the ball to Collins.
The 6-2, 290-pound senior did the rest, sprinting 32 yards to the end zone to put the ‘Hoos ahead for good. Terrapins wide receiver Ronnie Tyler caught Collins inside the 5 but didn’t come close to bringing him down.
“Nate played a little quarterback and tailback and whatnot in high school, and seemed to feel his oats after he got started,” Groh said.
Collins also had a team-high nine tackles, including UVa’s only sack, but his first college touchdown overshadowed his other contributions.
“It just fell in my lap. I saw green and just took off running, and thank God it wasn’t more yards than it was, because I probably would have got caught,” Collins said with a laugh. “I actually heard [safety] Rodney McLeod screaming, ‘Watch out! Watch out!’ and I figured somebody was going to catch up to me.”
Maryland answered by driving to the UVa 20, but Nick Ferrara, who had made a career-high three field goals, missed from 37 yards.
The next Maryland possession ended in similar fashion. The Terps had a first down on the Virginia 18, but a bad snap got past Turner, who had to fall on the ball for a 9-yard loss. He threw an incompletion on second down, and then wideout Kerry Boykins, a high school teammate of UVa true freshmen Tim Smith and Perry Jones, dropped an on-target pass from Turner.
On came Ferrara again, and this time he left a 44-yard attempt short.
With 5:52 remaining and the ball on its 27-yard line, Virginia turned to Jackson. He carried on six consecutive plays, gaining 37 yards and gobbling up valuable seconds. The Terps used two of their three second-half timeouts on that series.
“We knew we had to run the ball, and they knew we had to run the ball,” Verica said, “so it was really just a matter of the offensive line enforcing their will upon the defense.
“Everybody knew we were going to run it, and the offensive line did a tremendous job, and Rashawn played really tough down the stretch. I’m really proud of that. It was really special.”
The drive eventually stalled, and Jimmy Howell came on to punt. But Collins sacked Turner for a 7-yard loss on the next series, which ended with an incompletion on fourth-and-17 from the Maryland 2.
On the ensuing play, Verica took a shotgun snap and handed the ball to Jackson, who did the rest.
“That’ll give him something to remember,” Groh said of Jackson’s first rushing TD.
For all the Cavaliers, this was a game they won’t soon forget.
“Coach Groh always talks about being a 60-minute road team,” Collins said, and the Wahoos were just that Saturday at Byrd Stadium.
“That was a magnificent effort by our players, to deal with everything that we encountered today,” Groh said. “Whether it was guys having to step up in the next-man principle, or circumstances within the ball game, they refused to be distracted by any issues.
“We had a target for what the mission was today, and they took dead aim on the target. They weren’t going to be distracted by anything.”
A season ago, after a 1-3 start, Virginia rallied to win its next four games. Asked about the perseverance his team showed against Maryland, Groh said, ‘That’s one of our cultural values. You don’t develop that during the course of the game like, ‘Fellas, you need to persevere.’
“You do that as you build the philosophy and the culture into which players come. Amongst the things that these players and their predecessors have proven is that they’ve got a tough shell. They’re pretty hard to crack.”
A MONTH TO REMEMBER: UVa has won the past seven games it’s played in October, and 12 of the past 13.
“As I said earlier this week, I’m German, and it’s Octoberfest,” Groh quipped afterward.
RIGHT PLACE AT THE RIGHT TIME: Collins’ interception return wasn’t the only big play that involved a deflection.
Late in the third quarter, on third-and-eight from Virginia’s 31, Sewell heaved a pass toward wide receiver Kris Burd along the left sideline. The ball bounced off a Maryland defender and into the hands of Burd, who was on his back, barely inbounds.
After a video review, the 28-yard completion was upheld, and the drive continued. It ended with the Randolph field goal that pulled UVa to 9-6.
“Sometimes there is a little bit of good fortune there,” Groh said, but those things happen to you when you lose games, too, so we’re not about to send it back.”
BIG D: In its past three games — all victories — UVa has allowed four field goals and one touchdown. The TD, by Indiana, came after the Cavaliers built a 47-point lead and had most of their starters out of the game.
“This is a group that really understands the scheme as we’re trying to present it to them,” said Groh, who’s also Virginia’s defensive coordinator.
“They operate very well collectively. We have some players of note that have gotten a little bit of a name, [cornerbacks Chris Cook and Dowling] in particular, but those guys are out on the edge, and there’s a lot of plays that they’re not involved in. So this is very much, as much as any defensive team that we’ve had, this is really about the sum of the parts.
“Perhaps the player who was having the best year on our defensive team this year was Matt Conrath, and that was an awesome job for Zane Parr to go in, not only to go in for Matt, but to go in on the side opposite from which he usually plays, and to be able to hold up over there.”
On a wet, raw day, Virginia forced four turnovers at Byrd Stadium.
“We did emphasize that perhaps the elements might increase our opportunities to do so,” Groh said. “The guys were on it. They get all the credit for doing it. Coaches can talk about it, but coaches don’t strip the ball. The players do it solely on their own, so they deserve all the credit for making that happen.”
ON SECOND THOUGHT: After Turner’s fourth-down incompletion with 1:47 to play, Virginia took over at the Terps’ 2-yard line. Maryland had only one timeout left.
On first down, Jackson ran 2 yards for a touchdown. Drew Jarrett’s extra point made it 20-9, but that allowed Maryland to get the ball back with 96 seconds left.
“Probably if I was doing it again, we would have knelt twice and then run the ball,” Groh said. “I was a little premature there, but I thought that the points would pretty much guarantee it. Now a case could be made to take a knee three times there and run the clock out, certainly a case could be made for that, maybe a better case, but I just thought there’s nothing like points to put you in a good shape. But I probably should have knelt once, caused Maryland to take a timeout, knelt again and maybe [have Jackton try to] run it in on the next play.”
INJURY UPDATE: Conrath’s ankle injury might be more serious than that of Sewell, who told reporters afterward, “I’m fine.”
The Terps were familiar with Sewell’s backup, junior Marc Verica. A year ago at Scott Stadium, Verica completed 25 of 34 passes for 226 yards and one touchdown in UVa’s 31-0 rout of Maryland.
At Byrd Stadium, Verica’s role was difference.
“I didn’t have to make any really hard throws or anything like that,” said Verica, who was 1 for 3 passing, for 1 yard. “I really just had to manage the game, take care of the ball and things like that.
“My job was pretty simple. The guys who really did the dirty work and who really deserve all the credit are the line and the running backs, particularly Rashawn. I was just trying to take care of the ball and manage the game, and those guys did the rest.”
Groh, however, praised Verica’s contribution.
“Marc’s been out there before,” Groh said. “He was our man for October last year, so he’s been in a number of these games and conducted himself like a veteran. Did a very nice job and brought his team home a winner.”
WORK IN PROGRESS: Virginia’s offensive line, so effective against Indiana, allowed five sacks at Byrd Stadium. That was a season high for the Terps, who got No. 5 early in the third quarter.
“We didn’t handle it real well, and they did a real nice job with it,” Groh said. “But the good thing about it is, as a team and offensively, that’s like taking a lot of body punches there in the first half. We don’t crack.”
DROUGHT ENDS: At King & Low-Heywood Thomas School in Connecticut, Collins played a variety of positions on offense, including tight end, wideout, tailback, fullback and quarterback, and it wasn’t uncommon for him to score.
His interception return Saturday, however, was his first touchdown since the final game of the 12th-grade season, when he played quarterback.
Sewell was in the training room, having his ankle checked, when Collins scored.
“They told me he ran one back, which was crazy,” Sewell said. “All I could think about was Jeffrey Fitzgerald, how he used to always get a pick and take it to the crib.”
Fitzgerald, who played with Sewell at Hermitage High, was a two-year starter at defensive end for UVa. (He’s now at Kansas State). Collins’ interception for a TD was the first by a Virginia defensive lineman since Fitzgerald’s 25-yard return against Georgia Tech in September 2007.
UP NEXT: UVa (2-0, 3-3) returns home to play Coastal Division rival Georgia Tech (4-1, 6-1) in what is suddenly a huge game.
The teams meet at noon Saturday, and Raycom will televise the game.
Virginia has won two straight over Georgia Tech and five of their past six meetings. The Yellow Jackets haven’t won at Scott Stadium since 1990.