By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Over the past two decades, Scott Stadium has become the place where Georgia Tech’s football team goes to lose.
That apparently was news to outside linebacker Denzel Burrell, a fifth-year senior at UVa. Informed Monday that Georgia Tech hasn’t won in this town since 1990, Burrell looked amazed.
“Wow,” he said. “The pressure’s on.”
The Cavaliers may not know much about The Streak, but they know they don’t want it to end Saturday afternoon. That’s when Virginia (2-0, 3-3) hosts 11th-ranked Georgia Tech (4-1, 6-1) in an ACC game whose winner will go to bed that night atop the Coastal Division.
In Atlanta, second-year coach Paul Johnson hasn’t hesitated to bring up the Yellow Jackets’ history of failure in Charlottesville.
“Anything we can we use to motivate the players,” Johnson said Sunday night.
Asked if such a tactic works, Johnson said, “I don’t know if it does or not. It’s like you throw enough against the wall and see what sticks.”
Don’t expect Al Groh to spend much time, if any, talking to his players about the Wahoos’ home winning streak — eight games — in this series.
“As we have said, there’s a reason why God put eyes in the front of our heads and not in the back,” Groh said Monday at John Paul Jones Arena. “So you can make progress by looking forward.”
The Cavaliers are the only ACC team without a conference loss. As a result, they lead the Coastal, though Groh and Burrell said they haven’t paid attention to the standings.
“Honestly, to me, it doesn’t really matter at this point,” Burrell said. “It really just matters how we finish the season, how we go from here on out. We still have a lot of season left, and a lot of opportunity [in the Coastal]. But there’s a lot of opportunities for other people as well.”
Injuries are part of college football, and the ‘Hoos are dealing with several as they head into the second half of a 12-game regular season. Tailback Mikell Simpson didn’t play this past weekend at Maryland, where UVa rallied to win 20-9, and neither quarterback Jameel Sewell nor defensive end Matt Conrath was able to finish the game.
Conrath’s sprained ankle is more severe than that of Sewell, and the 6-7, 275-pound sophomore’s return doesn’t appear imminent. The Cavaliers’ other starting defensive end, Nate Collins, acknowledged as much Monday.
“I just think as a whole we understand that Conrath, he’s hurt, he might be out for a couple weeks, and everyone just has to pick up their game,” Collins said. “Coach Groh always talks about the next-man-up mentality, and I think that’s going to be big, to see our young guys, or a guy who hasn’t really been in there a lot, do that.”
Zane Parr, a 6-6, 275-pound sophomore, played the second half in Conrath’s spot at Byrd Stadium and turned in another in a recent string of strong efforts.
“Conrath’s a great player,” Collins said. “There’s no really replacing a 6-7 big guy who does a great job two-gapping. But I think as a whole we have enough confidence in our backups that they can step in and not really miss a beat. And I think that Zane did a great job with that in Maryland and is going to continue to do that this week.”
Until Conrath got hurt, Parr had played primarily in passing situations. He has two sacks this season, as well as a quarterback hurry and a pass breakup.
“I think Zane overall is elevating his game every single week,” said Collins, who called Parr “probably the best pure pass rusher on our team. He has a lot of speed. He sort of has the outside linebacker’s mentality, so that makes pass-rushing come second nature to him.”
Conrath, who has started 18 consecutive games, was injured in the final minute of the first half. What seemed a routine play — Maryland quarterback Chris Turner took the snap and then kneeled — ended with Conrath on the ground, writhing in pain.
“During the game, I know the whole defense, we thought that maybe he got cheap-shotted,” Collins said. “But after watching tape, it wasn’t a cheap shot. It was like a freak accident. He stepped on the tight end’s foot, and it just rolled his ankle. He ended up just falling backwards, and his ankle twisted the wrong way.”
Collins started at nose tackle last season in Virginia’s 24-17 win over No. 21 Georgia Tech at Bobby Dodd Stadium. He played superbly, making six tackles and recovering a fumble.
The 6-2, 290-pound senior has made a seamless transition to end in UVa’s 3-4 defense. Against Maryland, Collins led the Cavaliers with nine tackles, including a crucial sack late in the game, and returned an interception 32 yards for his first TD as a Cavalier.
For that performance, he was named ACC defensive lineman of the week. Even better for Collins is his enhanced status with housemates Ras-I Dowling, Trey Womack, Dom Joseph and Dontrelle Inman.
Dowling, Womack and Joseph play in the secondary. Dowling and Joseph have one interception apiece this season. Their 290-pound roommate can match that.
“Now I can joke around with them and say I got the same amount of picks as them,” Collins said. “And now I kind of have one up on them, because no one [else] in the house has a touchdown yet, so I can brag about that for a while.”
Give inside linebacker Darren Childs an assist on Collins’ interception. Childs leaped and deflected a Turner pass, and Collins was there waiting to catch the ball.
“I really didn’t have to work too hard for the pick,” Collins said. “The ball just found me, and when it found me, I just had to make sure I got in the end zone. My roommates wouldn’t have let me live it down if I didn’t score that. That’s just how we are.”