By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — As the end of the season draws ever nearer, there’s little new to add about UVa’s struggles in football.
Nine games in, the Cavaliers’ offense once again ranks among the nation’s least productive, their defense continues to spend a disproportionate amount of time on the field, and breakdowns still outnumber highlights on special teams.
Virginia absorbed another blow Saturday, losing 52-17 to the 16th-ranked Miami Hurricanes before a homecoming crowd of 48,350 at Land Shark Stadium. To think the Wahoos (2-3, 3-6) actually led this ACC game 10-3 late in the first quarter.
Not since opening the 2008 season with a 52-7 loss to Southern California had UVa allowed so many points in a game.
“Miami’s got a lot of playmakers in all three phases of the game, and we had a lot of difficulty controlling those playmakers and matching those playmakers,” Al Groh said.
Those game-changers include sophomore Thearon Collier, who had a SportsCenter-worthy punt return. Seemingly hemmed in by six Cavaliers at one point, Collier reversed field and broke free on an electrifying 60-yard return for a touchdown that put Miami ahead for good with 1:17 to play in the first quarter.
“Just a great individual return,” Groh said. “We had plenty of guys there.”
UVa has lost three straight since winning in the rain Oct. 17 at Maryland. The challenge facing the ‘Hoos now is daunting. They must win their final three regular-season games to become bowl-eligible, and their remaining opponents — Boston College, Clemson and Virginia Tech — have a combined record of 18-9.
Another loss would assure the Cavaliers of finishing below .500 for the third time in four seasons. Virginia has not won fewer than five games in a season since 1986.
“This is a crucial time for the core leadership of the team to really try to bring in the reins and keep the team together,” said senior linebacker Aaron Clark, one of of Virginia’s captains. “There’s going to be a lot of people trying to pull us apart from the outside, so we gotta tighten up our ship and keep our family close-knit.”
Two years after embarrassing Miami 48-0 at the Orange Bowl, the Wahoos returned to South Florida, seeking another triumph. Their starting quarterback in 2007 was Jameel Sewell. Now a fifth-year senior, Sewell suffered a shoulder injury last weekend and wasn’t available Saturday.
In stepped junior Marc Verica, who’s no rookie. Verica started nine games last season, including UVa’s overtime loss time to Miami. In that game, Verica completed 27 of 41 passes for 240 yards and one touchdown.
In his second start against the ‘Canes (4-2, 7-2), however, Verica rarely looked in sync. He had few open receivers and little time to pass. He finished 11 for 29, for 75 yards and one interception.
Miami’s defensive backs “did a good job of locking down the receivers,” Groh said. “We didn’t have very many guys open. They’ve got some very good pass-rushers, and it was one of those circumstances where pass rush and pass coverage combine to put a lot of pressure on the quarterback. He had a lot of plays where he didn’t have really very many good options.”
Groh added: “The better your pass rush, the better your coverage. The better your coverage, the more ferocious your pass rush. If you can put those things together, you’ve got quite a defense.”
This was the same Miami defense, it should be noted, that surrendered 33 first downs and 555 yards of total offense last weekend in a one-point win over Wake Forest.
The Cavaliers finished with 149 yards Saturday, a season low. Asked about the Demon Deacons’ production against Miami, Groh said simply, “They got Riley Skinner.”
Skinner, a senior, is one of the ACC’s top quarterbacks. Miami has an elite QB, too: sophomore Jacory Harris, the hero of the 2008 game at Scott Stadium. This time, Harris completed 18 of 31 passes for 232 yards and two TDs.
He wasn’t perfect — Harris threw a first-quarter interception that UVa cornerback Ras-I Dowling returned 49 yards to the Miami 19 — but his poise in the pocket allowed him to torment a tiring defense.
“A critical part of the game was that their pass protection enabled the quarterback to have all the time that he needed to get the speed receivers down the field on vertical routes,” Groh said. “And their pass rush made it difficult for us to have enough time to get free for the quarterback to do much. Certainly it took more than that, but those are two particularly significant parts of the game.”
The Hurricanes’ offensive line also cleared the way for tailback Graig Cooper, who rushed for a career-high 152 yards. The ‘Canes totaled 515 yards of offense.
As so often has been the case for the Wahoos this season, they ran far fewer plays than their opponent. In all, Miami had 83 plays, to 53 for UVa.
“You definitely feel the amount of plays that you play, but that’s the life of a football player,” Clark said. “Sometimes you’re out there a long time, sometimes you’re not. You gotta be ready to go no matter what the situation.”
Groh applauds Clark’s spirit, but the Cavaliers’ ninth-year coach knows the discrepancy in plays is contributing to the team’s woes.
“We’re very aware of that,” Groh said. “We have been for weeks. We came in with a very specific plan to try to keep that from being the case. Clearly, we missed the mark on that. I think we had [faced] 70 plays by the end of the third quarter.
“Part of that is not getting off the field on third down. We had some opportunities to do that in which we let the quarterback out of the pocket. Which was the No. 1 thing coming into the game: Keep the quarterback in the pocket.”
Groh brought up a pivotal third-quarter play several times. Miami, leading 24-17, faced third-and-6 from its 25. Harris dropped back to pass. Outside linebacker Cameron Johnson, who in the first half had recorded his first career sack, closed in on No. 2, but Harris avoided the pressure at the last moment. He spotted a receiver downfield and completed a 29-yard pass.
The drive ended with Miami’s fourth touchdown, and the rout was on.
“I can understand why somebody would say, ‘Well, look, the score was [52-17] and you’re picking on this one play,'” Groh said. “But given that set of circumstances, that’s why that third-down play stays really big with me.
“I thought that really swung things downhill for us at that stage. Then we had the next drive with the controversial plays on it, and with that now all of the sudden the thing was getting out of reach.”
Johnson, who added a second sack later in the third quarter, was asked about Harris’ escape.
“I was trying to get him down but unfortunately missed,” Johnson said. “We worked on containing him, and I feel like I let the team down.”
Virginia’s biggest problems came on special teams. The performance wasn’t all bad. Robert Randolph made his only field-goal attempt — a 34-yarder set up by Dowling’s interception return — and the Cavaliers blocked two punts in a game for the first time in 13 years, running the second back for a TD.
Overall, though, the kicking game was a disaster. After UVa went up 10-3 on a 34-yard touchdown run by senior tailback Rashawn Jackson (77 yards on eight carries), Chris Hinkebein was instructed to squib the kickoff.
The ‘Canes returned it to their 49-yard line and capitalized on their field position. Two plays later, they scored the tying touchdown, and things continued to deteriorate for UVa.
A three-and-out series ended with the Nathan Rathjen punt that Collier returned for a TD. The next series failed to produce a first down either, and Miami called time out with two seconds left in the first quarter, forcing Rathjen to punt again into a stiff wind.
His kick went 12 yards before sailing out of bounds at the UVa 25. Moments later, the ‘Canes had another touchdown.
Rathjen averaged 25.8 yards on four punts before being replaced by Jimmy Howell, who’d started UVa’s first seven games.
Of those special-teams plays, “whether it was wind-caused or performance-caused or whatever, against a powerful team like this, that was exactly what we couldn’t have,” Groh said.
BLOCK PARTY: UVa blocked two punts in a game for the first time since its 62-14 rout of N.C. State on Oct. 19, 1996. Backup linebacker Terence Fells-Danzer deflected a Matt Bosher punt in the first quarter, and Virginia took over at the Miami 45.
With Miami facing fourth-and-2 from its 35, reserve safety Trey Womack raced untouched up the middle and smothered another Bosher punt late in the second quarter. Outside linebacker Billy Schautz, a redshirt freshman, collected the ball on the bounce and ran 20 yards for a touchdown.
Schautz said he and Womack, who’s a junior, “attacked the left wedge of the shield. I blew him up, he came right inside, just made a great play on the ball and blocked it. I was running after it, I was trying to see which way it was going to bounce, and luckily it went right into my arms, and I just took off. It was great.”
When the Cavaliers started practice in early August, the coaching staff expected Schautz to play a key role on the defense this fall. But a knee injury set him back, and he entered the Miami game with only one tackle.
“During spring training and summer camp, I had a lot more responsibilities, but then I tore my MCL and it took me out for a long time, and I’ve just started really geting back into it this past week or two,” Schautz said. “This is a big boost for my confidence.”
The Cavaliers hadn’t blocked a punt for a touchdown since 2002, Groh’s second season as coach. That came against Akron. Alex Seals got the block, and Darryl Blackstock returned the ball for a TD.
DRAMATIC REVERSAL: Outside linebacker Cameron Johnson’s second sack of Jacory Harris, with the score 31-10 late in the third quarter, appeared to be for a 13-yard loss.
The on-field officials weren’t sure, however, so they turned to their colleague in the video booth for assistance.
“We will have to go to replay to determine the spot of the ball when he was down,” an official announced over the stadium’s P.A. system. “We do have an offsetting dead-ball foul.”
As the minutes dragged on, with no ruling, Raycom’s play-by-play announcer, Tim Brant, told color analyst Doc Walker that “the delay right here is the official review as to where the spot will be. Not anything to do with the other penalties. It was offsetting, so they’re just looking for the spot.”
The Cavaliers were stunned, then, to hear an official announce that Johnson, whose hand had grabbed the back of Harris’ helmet, knocking it off the quarterback’s head, was being penalized for a facemask. That moved the ball to UVa’s 13, and the ‘Canes scored four plays later.
“If they called it, I guess it was there,” Johnson said.
Neither Groh nor many other observers could remember another instance when an action that supposedly was not under review had been ruled a penalty.
“It’s a new one on me, too,” he said. “A new one on me.”
Did he receive an explanation from the officiating crew?
“Not a satisfactory one, no,” Groh said.
UP NEXT: UVa returns home to face ACC rival Boston College (3-2, 6-3). The game will start at 3:30 p.m. Saturday. The Eagles were off this weekend.
BC’s head coach is former UVa defensive coordinator Frank Spaziani.
The Eagles have never played football in Charlottesville. BC leads the series 3-0. The teams haven’t met since 2005, when Virginia lost 28-17 at Chestnut Hill, Mass.