By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Tyrod Taylor’s pass floated into the end zone, where University of Virginia cornerback Chris Cook leaped to make the interception.
The home fans in the crowd of 58,555 at Scott Stadium roared. It was just past the midpoint of the third quarter, and UVa took possession trailing 14th-ranked Virginia Tech by only a single point: 14-13.
“I’m thinking we’re going to win the game,” senior quarterback Jameel Sewell said afterward. “As simple as that. We’re going to go down there and take the lead. The defense is going to continue to do what they do — hold ’em, stop ’em — and we’re just going to maintain that lead and win the game.”
Instead, the Wahoos self-destructed, as they have so often this season.
Two plays after Cook’s pick, tailback Mikell Simpson fumbled an option pitch from Sewell, and Hokies safety Kam Chancellor returned the fumble 15 yards to the UVa 10.
“The ball was a little bit behind [Simpson on the pitch],” said Sewell, a stand-up guy to the end.
Two plays later, freshman phenom Ryan Williams scored his third touchdown, and the rout was on. The final was 42-13, and only a smattering of UVa fans stayed to see the conclusion of Tech’s sixth straight victory in the series.
The Cavaliers (2-6 ACC, 3-9 overall) closed the season with six consecutive defeats. They finished with a losing record for the third time in four seasons.
“It’s been a roller-coaster,” said outside linebacker Aaron Clark, one of 30 players honored in UVa’s Senior Day ceremony before the game. “A lot more drops in this roller-coaster than climbs. I don’t know. You try to learn from your experiences, let it make you a better person and use it in life to be successful in something else.”
The scene late in the game Saturday could have been described as Lane Stadium North. Maroon dominated the stands, and merry Tech fans chanted, “Keep Al Groh! Keep Al Groh!” as the final seconds ticked off.
UVa is unlikely to follow their advice. Barring an unforeseen turn of events, Groh’s 112th game as coach at his alma mater — his record is 59-53 — will be remembered as his last with the Wahoos.
His record against the Hokies as Virginia’s coach fell to 1-8. Moreover, UVa finished with its fewest wins since 1986 and its most losses since 1982.
Groh is the only coach in UVa history to have lost at least as many as five consecutive games to the Hokies. The six-game skid matches the Cavaliers’ longest in a series that dates to 1895.
Tech (6-2, 9-3) has won 10 of the past 11 games in this series, and another UVa class now departs without having beaten Frank Beamer’s team.
“I feel very badly for the senior players in particular who had some very moving testimonies to their teammates yesterday about what this program has meant to them, about what this game meant to them,” Groh said, “and for awhile there it looked like we might be able to give them the type of positive sendoff that we all would have felt gratified by.”
Near the end of his postgame press conference, Groh was asked if the game might have been his final one at UVa. He responded by unfolding a sheet of paper, on which was written “The Guy in the Glass,” a poem that former Virginia star Chris Long loved to recite.
Groh had read the poem to his players in the locker room after the game. Now he read it to the reporters and others in the room, including wife Anne, daughter Ashley Anne and grandsons Cameron and Connor.
The poem, by Dale Winbrow, reads in part:
The fellow whose verdict counts most in your life
Is the guy staring back from the glass.
He’s the fellow to please, never mind all the rest
For he’s with you clear to the end
And you’ve passed your most dangerous, difficult test
If the guy in the glass is your friend.
If this is the end, Groh seemed to be saying, he will leave with his head high.
“When I visited the guy in the glass, I saw that he’s a guy of commitment, of integrity, of dependability and accountability,” Groh said. “He’s loyal. His spirit is indomitable. And he is caring and loving. I’m sure I will always call the guy in the glass a friend.”
The atmosphere in the locker room when Groh read the poem “was very emotional,” Sewell said.
“You could see it in his face. He’s having a tough time, just like we’re having a tough time, but we got each other’s back. We’re a real team. No matter what it is, we’re going to stick it out together, all of us.”
For nearly 40 minutes, an elusive victory over Tech seemed within reach of UVa. The ‘Hoos scored on the game’s opening possession, covering 73 yards on a drive that ended with Sewell’s 15-yard touchdown run.
Tech pulled even on the first of Williams’ four TDs, but sophomore Robert Randolph’s 33-yard field goal sent UVa into the second quarter with a 10-7 lead.
The Hokies regained the lead on Williams’ second TD, but a 41-yard field goal by Randolph, who finished the season 17 for 19, pulled UVa to 14-13 in the final minute of the first half.
Through two quarters, UVa dominated time of possession and rushed for 151 yards. Sewell accounted for 99 of them — then a career best — on 10 carries.
“We tried to frame the game in a particular way to get it to a particular point in the game where we would have our best opportunity, and actually it was rolling in that direction,” Groh said.
Then came Simpson’s fumble, and the touchdown (and PAT) that put the Hokies ahead 21-13.
“Very unfortunate circumstance right there that gave them one of those cheap scores that in this type of game it’s very hard to overcome,” Groh said.
“That one score seemed to pull all the dominoes out of the pile. After that, it just all fell down. Then the scrambles followed that, and the big plays.”
Taylor (34 yards on six carries), a junior from Hampton, supplied the scrambles. Williams, a tailback who redshirted last season, supplied most of the big plays.
He finished with a career-high 183 yards, and his 20 touchdowns are an ACC record for a freshman. Williams finished the regular season with 1,537 yards rushing.
“He’s a great back, and he’s going to have a great career,” Clark said. “A guy like him, you gotta take away the lanes, and we didn’t do a good enough job of doing that.”
As for Taylor, he’s “the same class as Williams,” Clark said.
The Hokies’ other offensive hero was sophomore wide receiver Danny Coale, whose older brother, Kevin, played lacrosse at UVa. That connection notwithstanding, Groh did not offer Danny Coale a football scholarship, a decision the Cavaliers should now rue.
Coale had a career-high 135 yards receiving Saturday, on six catches. Most came against junior cornerback Ras-I Dowling, an all-ACC candidate.
In the first half, Coale had three receptions for 93 yards.
“We didn’t win that matchup,” Groh said, “but still it’s 14-13 till we fumble the option pitch. So we overcame it. They were difficult things to overcome, but we fought back. We overcame those particular things, and those are the kind of things that usually crack the game open.”
Sewell finished with a career-high 104 yards on 17 carries. He completed 12 of 22 passes for 120 yards and wasn’t intercepted.
“The players put a lot into it,” Groh said. “I’m very appreciative of their efforts. Jameel in particular was outstanding. His heart and his competitiveness showed why he’s been the player his teammates have enthusiastically followed throughout the course of his career.”
Sewell is the ninth UVa quarterback to have rushed for more than 100 yards in a game. Preceding him were Bill Dudley (1941), Ray Brown (1946), Bob Davis (1964), Gene Arnette (1967), Scott Gardner (1975), Shawn Moore (1989), Marques Hagans (2005) and Vic Hall (2008).
The 6-3, 225-pound left-hander, who redshirted in 2005 and was out of school on academic suspension in ’08, will leave with 5,366 yards passing, third-most in UVa history. He ranks fourth in total offense, with 6,012 career yards.
“I feel like I gave it my all,” Sewell said. “Not just this game, but all the time.”
Sewell and the Cavaliers’ other seniors talked during the week after wanting to win the finale for their embattled coach. That was one of many goals that eluded them this fall.
“It’s just tough,” defensive end Nate Collins said Saturday night. “I hope the best for Coach Groh. I love Coach Groh like he’s a father.”
Clark echoed Collins’ comments and described a devastated locker room.
“Pretty raw,” Clark said. “This is a tough one to deal with …. A lot of the seniors are pretty heartbroken.”