By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Thaddeus Lewis was a true freshman when he first faced UVa’s football team, and the experience was not a pleasant one for the young quarterback from Opa-Locka, Fla.
On Sept. 30, 2006, Lewis threw three interceptions and was sacked seven times in Duke’s 37-0 loss to Virginia at Wallace Wade Stadium.
The Cavaliers beat the Blue Devils again in 2007, but Lewis got a measure of revenge last year. He threw two touchdown passes to help the Devils stun UVa 31-3 in Durham, ending their 25-game losing streak in ACC play.
Lewis’ final encounter with the Wahoos comes Saturday, and he bears no resemblance to the shell-shocked kid they tormented on that autumn afternoon in ’06.
“He’s showing the value of being a four-year starter,” Virginia coach Al Groh said.
Lewis, who’s second in the ACC in passing yards per game (281.7), has completed 164 of 256 attempts for 14 touchdowns and only three interceptions. Along the way, he’s had some remarkable performances.
He threw for 359 yards in an eight-point loss to Virginia Tech. A week later, he completed 40 of 50 passes for 459 yards and five TDs — with no picks — in a rout of N.C. State.
“I’ll probably upset a couple of my quarterbacks, but I believe that was the finest game I’ve had a quarterback have in college,” Duke’s second-year coach, David Cutcliffe, whose other pupils have included the Manning brothers, Eli and Peyton, told reporters after the game.
UVa saw another premier quarterback last weekend: Georgia Tech’s Josh Nesbitt, who hurts opponents primarily with his feet, not his arm.
The Yellow Jackets, who lead the ACC in rushing, attempted only eight passes against UVa. They ran the ball 71 times — that’s not a misprint — in a 34-9 win at Scott Stadium.
“You’re never bored in a game, but they were kind of putting me to sleep there,” said UVa cornerback Chris Cook.
That won’t be an issue against Duke, which leads the ACC in passing (396.3 yards per game). The ‘Hoos lead the league in pass defense (151.3 yards), in large part because of a superb secondary that includes Cook, Ras-I Dowling, Rodney McLeod, Chase Minnifield and Dom Joseph.
“On every team — here, there, everywhere — [defensive backs] are always saying that they wished they got more action,” Groh said. “Well, now they’re going to get their wish. They’ll be challenged on every play.”
Cook said: “It’s a big adjustment, but I like [to face] teams that throw the ball.”
Virginia (2-1, 3-4) and Duke (2-1, 4-3) kick off at 3:30 p.m. Saturday, a couple of hours before trick-or-treaters come out in force on Halloween.
The game’s winner will remain in contention for the Coastal Division crown. UVa was in the hunt for that title in 2007 but faltered against Virginia Tech in the regular-season finale.
The Cavaliers finished 5-7 in 2006 and again in ’08, and with games against such ACC foes as Miami, Clemson and Virginia Tech still to come, Groh’s team needs a strong finish to avoid another losing season.
Cook is a co-captain, and he said he’s working to keep his teammates’ spirits high as the ‘Hoos enter the final month of the regular season.
“It’s a difficult thing, but I like being challenged, so I just try to keep everybody up and tell them we’re going to win the rest of these games,” said Cook, a fifth-year senior. “We have five games left, and everything that happened in the past is in the past, and we can’t dwell on it.
“I feel like everyone’s listening. I hope everyone’s listening and buying in to what I’m telling them to do.”
Virginia’s visit to Durham last year ended with one of the most embarrassing losses of Groh’s tenure at his alma mater. If his players want to use that defeat as motivation, that’s fine with Groh. He hasn’t forgotten, either.
“Coach did bring it up,” inside linebacker Steve Greer said Monday. “He touched on it real quickly, but at the same time it’s really not talked about. It’s in the back of our heads. We don’t really need to talk about it. We know it’s there.”
Groh’s message to his players?
“He just said, ‘We don’t want a performance like last year. It was not our best football at all,'” Greer recalled.
Cook was out of school serving an academic suspension last season, but he saw what unfolded at Duke.
“You never like to see to see your team lose,” he said. “Even though I wasn’t part of the team officially, I was part of the team, and that ate me up as much as anybody.”
Greer said: “We definitely don’t want to come out and play like we did last year and put a performance like that up. So it’s definitely motivation to play better, but at the same time, we have enough motivation game to game, trying to get a win.”
Like his classmate Cook, UVa’s Jameel Sewell was suspended from school for academic reasons last year. The Wahoos’ quarterback in the loss at Duke was Marc Verica, who threw four interceptions.
Sewell, who’s expected to start Saturday, attempted 32 passes against Georgia Tech last weekend. Virginia ran the ball only 12 times in that game. Look for more balance Saturday from the Wahoos.
From the Blue Devils? Look for the ball in the air, again and again and again.