By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — It seems an eternity ago, at least to those associated with the University of Virginia football program.
Nov. 29, 2003.
On that day, UVa whipped No. 21 Virginia Tech 35-21 at Scott Stadium. The Hokies’ home then was the Big East, not the ACC. It was Al Groh’s third season back at his alma mater, and his program was ascending. There was no reason to believe then that his first victory over the Hokies as the Cavaliers’ coach might also be his last.
But that’s likely to be the case unless Virginia (2-5 ACC, 3-8 overall) upsets 14th-ranked Tech (5-2, 8-3) in the regular-season finale for both teams Saturday (3:30 p.m.) at Scott Stadium.
The Wahoos will finish with a losing record for the third time in four seasons, and a coaching change appears imminent in Charlottesville no matter which team walks away with the Commonwealth Cup.
This is the first season since 1986, when they went 3-8, that the ‘Hoos will win fewer than five games. A victory Saturday would not erase the pain of a frustrating year for the Cavaliers, but it would help.
Only once in a series that dates to 1895 has UVa lost six in a row — 1958 to ’63. That’s a record the current team has no interest in matching.
“This is our last go-round, and regardless of whether it’s going to be our fourth win or our 12th win, you’ve got to approach it the same way,” said linebacker Aaron Clark, a team captain. “It’s got to be the biggest game of the season.”
Many of his players have voiced their support for Groh, whose record at UVa is 59-52. For his part, he has consistently deflected questions about his future at Virginia.
“No, it’s not really about me,” Groh told reporters Monday at John Paul Jones Arena. “It’s about the team and it’s about the players.”
Those players include quarterback Jameel Sewell, a fifth-year senior who, like his teammates, never has beaten the Hokies. For a native Virginian such as Sewell, who was born in Richmond, that’s tough to take.
“That’s the thing that’s pushing us,” said Sewell, who ranks No. 3 in career passing yards at UVa.
“Right now we don’t have a bowl game, we don’t have a winning season, but we do have an opportunity to come out and compete and execute and try to beat Tech.
“None of us have done it, and we would love to be able to do it and get this Commonwealth Cup. It’d be a great feeling and a great way to go out on your last day of college football.”
It won’t be easy. As usual, the Hokies’ defense ranks among the ACC’s finest. And in quarterback Tyrod Taylor and tailback Ryan Williams, Tech has two of the nation’s most explosive playmakers.
Taylor, a junior, leads the ACC in passing efficiency. He’s thrown 13 touchdown passes and only three interceptions, and his scrambling ability is the stuff of legend.
Williams, a freshman, leads the ACC in rushing (123.2-yard average) and has run for 15 touchdowns.
UVa’s coaching staff has “a lot of ideas” about how to limit Taylor’s effectiveness, Groh said, “but then again, everybody’s had ideas against him. His talent and his competitiveness have risen above those ideas. Schemes only count for so much. Mostly it’s about the talent that’s executing those ideas. But we certainly have some ideas. We had a fairly successful day last year. We’ll have to change some things up, but we’ll probably go down the same track.”
Taylor’s passing — 12 for 18 for 137 yards and one touchdown — wasn’t the story in Tech’s 17-14 win over UVa in Blacksburg last year. He hurt the ‘Hoos more with his legs. Taylor ran for 137 yards, with 73 coming on a third-quarter run that set up the TD that pulled the Hokies to 14-14.
Williams redshirted last season and so didn’t play in the game at Lane Stadium. He wasn’t expected to assume such a prominent role this year, but the season-ending knee injury suffered by Darren Evans, the Hokies’ No. 1 tailback in 2008, changed that.
A week after facing Clemson’s C.J. Spiller, UVa has to try to slow another tailback who figures to play in the NFL one day. Williams has five runs of at least 44 yards this season.
“He’s a tremendous talent,” Hokies coach Frank Beamer said.
Groh, who’s also Virginia’s defensive coordinator, may be without one of his starting inside linebackers Saturday. Senior Darren Childs is doubtful with an ankle injury. His backup, Tucker Windle, is a true freshman who hasn’t played much from scrimmage.
No matter who’s out there for the Cavaliers, the objective will be same against Williams.
“No creases,” Groh said. “We’ve said for years to our players that all running backs run the same when there’s no hole. You don’t stop the runner when you play against a runner like that. What you have to do is stop the blockers. If the blockers are unsuccessful, there are not many creases for the runner. If the blockers are successful, then the runner can go any place that he wants.”
Before the game, UVa will recognize 30 fourth- and fifth-year seniors, a group that includes Sewell, wide receiver Vic Hall, running backs Rashawn Jackson and Mikell Simpson, offensive tackle Will Barker, defensive lineman Nate Collins, linebackers Denzel Burrell, Clark and Childs, cornerback Chris Cook and safety Brandon Woods.
“It’s one of those games where it’s going to be highly emotional,” Jackson said.
Hall said: “This is it. There’s nothing after this as far as college football for us, so this is a bowl game for us. It’s the biggest game of our careers.”
For the Cavaliers to win Saturday, they’ll need many of those seniors to shine, especially Sewell. Inconsistency has marked his career, but no one has questioned his effort on the field.
“Jameel’s an intense competitor and one of the players on our team to whom this team means a great deal,” Groh said. “That’s the type of personality that players respond to in the huddle. They know they’re going to get everything he’s got on every play. Whether that turns out perfectly or not, they’re going to get the very best that he’s got or that he can give.”
The Senior Day ceremony figures to be emotional for Groh, too, but “the time for nostalgia is after the game,” he said. “I think most players, they understand that for some of them it will be their last time in this stadium and wearing this uniform that’s been so important for them. At the same time, it’s really the competition that provides the major motivation in a game like this.”
That won’t be the Cavaliers’ only motivation Saturday. They know this could be Groh’s final game at UVa.
“I’m sure it could light a lot of sparks in the players,” Tech’s Williams told reporters in Blacksburg. “I know it’s going to be an emotional game, a very intense game, and I’m sure all those guys love Coach Groh, and are going to play their hearts out for [him].”
Groh can’t promise that UVa will win Saturday. He’s confident, though, that if the ‘Hoos lose, it won’t be for lack of effort.
“Anybody who’s watched our team play over the last nine years knows that not every pass is completed, and not every kick is made, and not every play is stopped,” Groh said. “But I’d say pretty much every time out our teams have played hard, they’ve played with energy and they’ve played with purpose.
“So this one’s easy. All we have to do is be ourselves.”