By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
MIAMI — Passengers on the jet that left Charlottesville on Friday morning and landed in sunny South Florida that afternoon included Jameel Sewell.
The University of Miami football team isn’t likely, however, to face a Sewell-led Virginia offense for the third and final time. Instead, the Hurricanes figure to get their second look at Marc Verica.
Two of Sewell’s better games as a college quarterback have come against the ‘Canes — UVa victories in 2006 and ’07 — but the fifth-year senior has a hurt shoulder, as well as a slow-to-heal ankle injury, and Verica is expected to start Saturday at Land Shark Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla.
Asked Thursday morning about Sewell, whose health has been an issue in recent weeks, Cavaliers coach Al Groh said, “He’s doing all right. He’s got a few things here that he’s working through. He’s another of those players I think we’ll have a better sense of here at the end of the day.”
The news at the end of the day wasn’t encouraging for Sewell. On Virginia’s injury report, he was listed as questionable, which means there’s at least a 75-percent chance he won’t play against 16th-ranked Miami (3-2 ACC, 6-2 overall).
Unbeknownst to those outside the program, Sewell sustained the shoulder injury last weekend against Duke. Groh said not a word about it publicly ahead of the Miami game, and unsuspecting reporters asked no questions about Verica, a junior from the Philadelphia area.
Verica has played little for UVa (2-2, 3-5) this season, completing 17 of 34 passes for 81 yards in five games, but he’s not untested. In 2008, with Sewell out of school serving an academic suspension, Verica started nine games and finished with season with 2,037 yards passing.
Against Miami, he completed 27 of 41 passes for 240 yards and one touchdown at Scott Stadium. Interceptions were a problem for Verica last year — he threw 16 — but the Hurricanes didn’t pick off any of his passes. He lost a key fumble, though, in the final minute of the fourth quarter, a turnover that kept Virginia from attempting what might have been the game-winning field goal.
The ‘Canes eventually won 24-17 in overtime, but the game was more about plays that Jacory Harris made than those Verica failed to make.
At the time, Miami coach Randy Shannon was splitting his quarterback reps between freshmen Harris and Robert Marve. That Harris was the better option became apparent during the dramatic final minutes in Charlottesville.
Trailing 17-10, the Hurricanes took over at their 5-yard line with 8:01 left in the fourth quarter. On third-and-13 from the 2, Harris threw a 13-yard completion. Later, on second-and-14 from Miami’s 49, he threw an 18-yard completion.
Finally, on third-and-15 from the UVa 26, Harris threw a touchdown pass with 55 seconds to play, and the extra point tied the game.
He wasn’t finished. In overtime, on third-and-5, Harris threw a 9-yard touchdown pass that proved to be the game-winner.
“To win a lot of games during the course of a season,” Groh said this week, “a team needs a quarterback who can elevate them in certain games like that, and he really stepped up and did that.”
Harris’ tour de force ended the Cavaliers’ four-game winning streak and sent them into a slide they never pulled out of. Virginia closed the 2008 season with four straight losses to finish 5-7 for the second time in three years.
Marve transferred after last season, and Harris is now the unquestioned leader of an explosive offense. He’s completed 144 of 232 passes — 62.1 percent — for 2,104 yards and 16 TDs, with 11 interceptions, and he usually appears absolutely unflappable on the field.
“Jacory don’t get frustrated,” Shannon said.
Case in point: Miami’s game at Wake Forest last weekend. Harris threw three TD passes to help the ‘Canes rally for a 28-27 win.
They didn’t take the lead until 1:08 remained. Harris’ 13-yard touchdown pass to Travis Benjamin capped an 82-yard drive and made it 27-27, and Matt Bosher added the PAT.
“We witnessed one of those with our own eyes, unfortunately, last year,” Groh said. “We could kind of see a little bit of déjà vu, what Miami was doing and most particularly what Jacory Harris did. There’s a lot of players that made good plays last year against us, but it was a Jacory Harris drive that did it. It was his plays, and it was certainly that last week.”
The Cavaliers had a brief walk-through at Land Shark Stadium on Friday afternoon. The ‘Hoos haven’t played in that venue, which has had other names, including Joe Robbie Stadium, since the 1999 Micronpc.com Bowl, in which they lost 63-21 to Illinois.
Virginia never had won a football game in the Sunshine State, in fact, until 2007. That’s when UVa embarrassed the ‘Canes 48-0 in their last game at the Orange Bowl, which has since been torn down.
“That was a special night the way the players responded to that whole environment,” Groh said. “You know, it wasn’t just the last game in the Orange Bowl, but it was quite the big dog-and-pony show, and all the [former Miami greats] were being brought in to make this quite the celebration. And that particular team really took that challenge and played about as well as we could possibly play, as well as we’ve ever played against a really quality opponent.”
Since that historic victory, however, the ‘Hoos have gone 8-14. Groh said Monday that he hadn’t spent much time reflecting on that game at the Orange Bowl — “There will be plenty of time in the future to pull those books out and look at ’em,” he said — but clearly it was a magical night for him.
“You know what I remember most about it?” Groh said. “What I remember most about it was the players in the locker room after the game.”
Three of those players — Allen Billyk, Nate Lyles and Chris Long, who were seniors in 2007 — made the trip to Miami for Saturday’s game.