By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Its official name is Clemson Memorial Stadium, but it’s better known in college football circles as Death Valley. In that supercharged atmosphere UVa will play Saturday for the first time since 2003.
That was the Cavaliers’ third season under Al Groh, and they lost 30-27 to the Tigers in overtime. The players from that UVa team are long gone, but Groh vividly remembers Death Valley, the site of his first significant win as coach at his alma mater.
On Sept. 22, 2001, wide receiver Billy McMullen caught a touchdown pass from quarterback Bryson Spinner with 1 second left as Virginia stunned Clemson 26-24.
“When you go down there, you know a couple of things,” Groh said Monday. “It’s going to be loud, it’s going to be challenging, and it’s going to be fun.
“It’s a great atmosphere in which to play in … There’s a real football fever. It’s not just a Saturday afternoon activity. There is a real passion and a real fever for Clemson football. So I’ve always enjoyed going in there.”
This trip may not be as enjoyable for Groh. The talent gap between his team and Clemson coach Dabo Swinney’s appears enormous.
The Wahoos (2-4, 3-7) are last in the ACC’s Coastal Division and have lost four games in a row. The 23rd-ranked Tigers (5-2, 7-3) have won five straight and lead the Atlantic Division.
At noon Saturday, Boston College (4-2, 7-3) hosts North Carolina (3-3, 7-3) in Chestnut Hill, Mass. A BC loss would clinch the Atlantic title — and a spot in the the ACC championship game — for Clemson.
Even if the Eagles win, however, the Tigers can take the Atlantic by defeating the ‘Hoos. Clemson beat BC in September and so owns the tiebreaker.
“We won’t have the TV going in our locker room or anything like that,” Swinney said, but he realizes his players are likely to know the BC-UNC result before they take the field against UVa.
“Lord, the world we live in nowadays, if somebody sneezes in California, you hear about it in Alabama,” Swinney said. “That’s just the way it is … It really doesn’t matter. That’s never really been a focus of ours, sitting around worrying about somebody else.”
As if the Tigers don’t have enough to play for Saturday, this is their final home game. Among those to be recognized on Senior Day is C.J. Spiller, who has emerged as a Heisman Trophy candidate and whom Groh called “one of the more dynamic players to have played in this conference.”
Spiller, whose primary position is tailback, leads the ACC in all-purpose yards (195.2 per game). He’s gained 836 rushing, 543 on kickoff returns, 382 receiving and 191 on punt returns. He’s returned three kickoffs and one punt for touchdowns this season.
“Once he gets one on one,” said N.C. State coach Tom O’Brien, a former UVa assistant, “he’s going to win 90 percent of the time.”
A season ago at Scott Stadium, Spiller showed off yet another talent, throwing a 15-yard touchdown pass on an option in the first quarter. Clemson went on to win 13-3.
“God was in a real good mood when he made C.J. Spiller,” Swinney said. “That’s how he got to be who he is. He’s just gifted. He’s got everything that you could possibly want if you were going to create a football player.
“He’s fast, he’s explosive, he’s quick. He’s strong and powerful. He’s tough. He has great work ethic. He has great character. He’s humble. He’s all these great things rolled into one.”
Spiller isn’t Clemson’s only weapon. His fellow seniors include game-breaking wideout Jacoby Ford, a former UVa recruiting target who has 39 catches for 548 yards and four TDs.
Clemson quarterback Kyle Parker, also an all-ACC baseball player, is only a redshirt freshman, but he’s passed for 1,848 yards and 16 touchdowns.
On the injury report UVa released Thursday night, backup quarterback Marc Verica (concussion) was ruled out for the second straight game. Fifth-year senior Jameel Sewell is expected to start, but he’s nursing a shoulder injury. If Sewell had to leave the game, the next man up at quarterback probably would be redshirt freshman Riko Smalls, who has yet to play in a college game.
Given the Cavaliers’ struggles with the ball this season — Virginia ranks 106th nationally in scoring offense — Groh’s defense probably can’t afford many lapses Saturday.
Still, senior cornerback Chris Cook said, “I think we’re all looking forward to this challenge. We’re definitely not panicking about it.”
The Wahoos’ shrinking hopes of becoming bowl-eligible evaporated last weekend when they lost 14-10 to Boston College at Scott Stadium. That means UVa’s season will end Nov. 28 against Virginia Tech in Charlottesville.
“There’s not too much to say,” Cook said. “All we can do is just our play our hardest, just like we always do, and just give it all we’ve got. It’s the last two weeks that all of us are going to be together on the same team, trying to achieve the same goals.”
Underclassmen such as sophomore defensive end Matt Conrath can look forward to next season. For UVa’s seniors, this is it.
“It’s something that we’re all aware of,” Conrath said, “and we’re going to go out there these last two games and really play for those guys.”
Conrath said he’ll have no trouble getting motivated for the final two games.
“I love to play football,” he said. “We work so hard for an entire year just to play 12 games, so you really gotta go out there and enjoy the opportunities you get.”