By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — With three regular-season football games left, UVa’s margin for error has vanished.
However unlikely the scenario might be, Virginia (2-3 ACC, 3-6 overall) can still become bowl-eligible. To do so, however, the Cavaliers must close with wins over Boston College (3-2, 6-3), No. 24 Clemson (4-2, 6-3) and No. 20 Virginia Tech (3-2, 6-3).
The Wahoos have dropped three in a row since winning in the rain Oct. 17 at Maryland. Another defeat would assure them of their third losing season in four years.
“Right now we got one-game playoffs, basically,” senior defensive lineman Nate Collins said. “You gotta go one game at a time.”
The first comes Saturday against visiting BC. The Eagles never have played at Scott Stadium, but two members of their coaching staff know their way around town.
BC’s first-year head coach, Frank Spaziani, is a former UVa defensive coordinator. BC’s offensive coordinator, Gary Tranquill, formerly held that post at UVa, where he’d also been quarterbacks coach.
“I hate to be trite about it, but it’s another game,” Spaziani said. “We’re going back to Charlottesville. That was a place where I lived and worked, but it doesn’t have any bearing on this game.”
What may affect the game’s outcome is the health of UVa’s quarterbacks. The top two players at that position were listed as questionable on the injury report Virginia released Thursday night.
If neither senior Jameel Sewell (shoulder) nor junior Marc Verica (head) is available Saturday, we could see the college debut of Riko Smalls. A redshirt freshman from Texas, Smalls worked at wideout during training camp but shifted back to quarterback, his original position at UVa, early in the season after Vic Hall moved from quarterback to wideout.
Hall would be another option for Al Groh if Sewell and Verica are out. The 5-9 graduate student from Gretna started at quarterback in last year’s regular-season finale at Virginia Tech and in this year’s opener against William and Mary.
BC’s quarterback situation is more settled, but it’s still noteworthy. The Eagles’ starter is a 25-year-old true freshman.
Dave Shinskie played pro baseball for seven years before enrolling at BC. He became the Eagles’ starter in late September and has played better than most people would have expected.
“While he may be an older player,” Groh said, “he is doing a remarkable job for a player in his first year of college football and has made some plays and made some throws in games that have elevated his team, as all really good quarterbacks have to do.”
In sophomore tailback Montel Harris (103.3 yards per game), Boston College has the ACC’s third-leading rusher. Harris rushed for 264 yards and five touchdowns — both single-game records for a BC player — in an Oct. 17 rout of N.C. State.
“Terrific player. Very dangerous,” Groh said. “Really slithery. Got really good vision. While he’s moving, he’s got a chance to wait and see where it is, and when he kicks it down a gear, he just shoots through the hole.”
These teams haven’t met since 2005, when BC won 28-17 at Chestnut Hill, Mass. Four years later, the Eagles are contending for the ACC’s Atlantic Division crown. The Cavaliers are fighting for survival.
“The motivation for this team is our back is against the wall, and everybody else has quit on us,” sophomore wide receiver Jared Green said. “People don’t believe in us, but we believe in us, and we’re the same family that’s been in this building since the beginning.”
Asked Monday what the ‘Hoos are playing for, senior linebacker Aaron Clark answered quickly.
“Pride,” he said. “You’re playing to win games, obviously, but a sense of pride. Nobody expects the season to go the way it’s gone, and you just try to turn it around every week, and you’ve got to look within yourselves and within your team to find that energy to re-establish some sort of respect.
“I think in our situation it’s not beneficial to look at the overall record or the situation we’re in. You gotta try to get rid of some of those distractions, and not listen to what everybody’s saying, and just play football for your family — your family meaning the football team.
“These are guys that you’re with more than your mom and your dad, your girlfriend. You’re with these guys all the time, working out, hanging out, playing, meetings, all that stuff. I think it’s really important to remember what you’re playing for and make that a focus.”
That this season could be Groh’s last as Virginia’s coach is not lost on his players. They’ve seen the empty seats at Scott Stadium. They’re heard the criticism. They know the losing seasons are mounting for a program that once ranked among the ACC’s best.
“I think we’re all aware that wins and losses don’t just affect us emotionally and personally,” Clark said. “There’s a bigger picture out there … There’s an organization here that’s looking for wins as well. We’re all conscious of that and we all understand that what we do on the field is going to affect lives other than our own.”
Clark and the team’s other seniors are conscious, too, of the fact that their college football careers are winding down. Some may move on to the NFL, but for others, their last game for UVa will be their last game, period.
“Guys are motivated,” said another fifth-year senior, running back Rashawn Jackson. “That’s not a question.”
Attendance at 61,500-seat Scott Stadium has declined dramatically this season, and another less-than-capacity crowd is expected Saturday. Many UVa fans have given up on the team and, in particular, on Groh. Clark wishes that weren’t the case.
“We really love and cherish our fans, and we need their support,” he said. “It’s extremely beneficial to come out there and to see fans excited about football and excited to watch us play football, regardless of how the season has gone or what may be happening at that specific moment. We need fan support, always.”
Through a tumultous season, Groh has remained locked in on the next game, the next opponent. If he’s concerned about his job security, the Cavaliers’ ninth-year coach hasn’t let on to his players.
“He’s Coach Groh doing what he does,” Jackson said. “He’s focusing on winning. He’s not worried about anything in the future or whatever the record is, he’s worried about the next win.
“That’s what I thank him for, because it keeps us on the right track.
“He’s our head coach, and he represents us, and we represent him, and we don’t believe he deserves this. Unfortunately, some things happened …. and people may believe differently, but we trust him and we admire that he’s focused on winning.”