By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The players bounded into the home locker room at Scott Stadium, some shouting with joy, others content simply to smile as they savored the scene.
For the first time since 2005, UVa’s football team had won its season-opener. For the first time in nearly 11 months, the Cavaliers were able to celebrate a victory at home. And when Mike London entered the locker room, the players’ affection for their new coach was obvious as they swarmed around him.
“This game means a lot. It means a lot to everyone,” fifth-year senior tailback Keith Payne said after Virginia whipped Richmond 34-13 on Saturday night.
“We’ve all been through struggles. We didn’t have a good season last year, so everyone’s happy about what’s going on.”
In late November, after the Cavaliers finished with a losing record for the third time in four seasons, the University dismissed Al Groh. Not long after, UVa turned to London and charged him with rebuilding a program that once consistently ranked among the ACC’s best.
For more than nine months, UVa’s coaches and players have been working to win back a fan base that had tired of Groh and grown weary of the losing. That London’s message resonated with fans, students and alumni was clear from the better-than-expected turnout for the opener: 54,146.
To make sure those fans will return, Virginia needed to show it wasn’t the same team that finished 2009 with six straight losses. The Wahoos succeeded, pulling away for a convincing victory over the Spiders, who had won their previous 12 road games.
As has been well-chronicled — and then chronicled some more — London was UR’s head coach in 2008 and ’09. He went 24-5 and won a Football Championship Subdivision national title at his alma mater, and London knew the Spiders would not be pushovers in the opener.
“For the first game, first opportunity, after spending spring practice and early camp trying to find out who we were, there’s some things that we’ve got to work on,” London said, “but for the most part, I was satisfied with having an opportunity to score 34 points and giving up 13.”
By the time Payne ran for his third touchdown, with 13:36 to play, it was clear London’s debut would have a happy ending. By the time Payne scored his fourth, with 6:30 remaining, many fans had headed off into the night, eager to beat the traffic.
But UVa’s students remained, their section full. And when the game ended, the players ran over to the student section, where the band joined them in what London wants to establish as a new tradition.
“It was awesome, wasn’t it?” London said of the students’ support. “It’s very, very important to have the students as a large part of our fan base to cheer the guys on. After the game, win or lose, we were going to go over to their section, to where they were, and just show our appreciation of what they do.”
A UVa victory was not assured early in the third quarter, when Wil Kamin’s 41-yard field goal pulled Richmond to 14-13. But the ‘Hoos responded with an authoritative drive that smashed the Spiders.
It began with a 13-yard run from sophomore tailback Perry Jones. Then came three straight carries by Payne, who at 6-3, 255, is seven inches taller and 70 pounds heavier than Jones.
On the first, Payne gained 15 yards. On the second, he smashed his way for 13, dragging several Spiders with him. That brought the crowd to its feet and had teammates pumping their fists and jumping up and down on the sideline.
Payne wasn’t finished. On the next play, he took a handoff from Marc Verica and again bulled through UR’s defense, moving the pile on a 15-yard gain.
“Keith is big,” said Richmond coach Latrell Scott, who was a UVa assistant last year, “and they wore us down and Keith just kept on churning.”
Verica said: “There were some plays there where he was just really enforcing his will. It was truly special to watch. I was just standing back there, just kind of watching it and really enjoying it all, just to see the line get that movement and Keith running the way he was. It was really fun.”
Bill Lazor loved it too. Virginia’s new offensive coordinator wants a powerful running game, something missing from the program in recent years, and it was very much in evidence Saturday night.
Payne, one of several players rejuvenated by the coaching change, finished with 114 yards and four TDs on 16 carries. Jones added 73 yards on 9 carries.
“No matter how many times you decide you’re going to throw it or run it in the game — and sometimes you know ahead of time and sometimes you don’t — you’ve got to be physical,” Lazor said, “and we’ve said that from the first day. I know I’ve used that word probably too many times.
“The easiest way, and the way people think about it the most, is running the ball. And when you have a situation where you’re being successful running it, then there’s no reason to stop calling them. And I believe that it is an attitude that builds for your whole team. I’m hoping offensively we can help affect the way the whole team plays when we have games like that.”
Payne arrived at UVa as a heralded recruit from Oakton High, but academic problems and what his coaches considered a lack of commitment had kept him from becoming the impact player many envisioned. When London took over, in fact, Payne wasn’t officially part of the program, having quit the team on the eve of Virginia’s 2009 opener.
Of Payne’s performance against UR, London said, “I know it’s been a long time coming for him. He wasn’t always my most favorite player, but he’s done the things that I’ve asked him to do and gotten himself back into playing shape and did a great job out there today.”
On a night when minor injuries sidelined their top two defensive backs, senior cornerback Ras-I Dowling and junior safety Rodney McLeod, the Cavaliers gave up more big plays than London or defensive coordinator Jim Reid would have preferred. But UVa, in its new 4-3 scheme, also flashed the aggressiveness and speed that Reid is seeking.
Particularly impressive was outside linebacker LaRoy Reynolds. In his first start, the converted safety led Virginia with 8 tackles, three of them for loss. As a true freshman in 2009, Reynolds played only on special teams.
“He’s a fast player, and you can see it on game film,” junior defensive tackle Nick Jenkins said. “You saw it tonight. He’s flying around the field. He’s everywhere on the field.”
Junior defensive end Cam Johnson, a converted outside linebacker, had 2 tackles for loss, including a sack of UR quarterback Aaron Corp, a poised and talented transfer from the University of Southern California. Junior cornerback Chase Minnifield added 7 tackles and returned an interception 65 yards, a play that had London sprinting along the sideline with him.
Solid defense is nothing new at UVa. For the past four years, however, the Cavaliers’ offense has ranked among the worst in the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision. So that unit’s performance Saturday night was particularly significant.
In 2009, Virginia scored more than 21 points in only two games. Against Richmond, the ‘Hoos totaled 22 first downs and 488 yards.
“We didn’t want it to be a low-scoring game,” said junior wide receiver Kris Burd, who had 7 catches for 122 yards and a TD.
“We wanted to put up points and make the other team match. We just went out and performed today.”
Lazor wants balance in his pro-style offense, and he got it Saturday night. UVa ran 70 plays: 35 runs and 35 passes.
Verica, a fifth-year senior who had become an afterthought by the end of Groh’s tenure, completed 24 of 35 passes for a career-high 283 yards and a TD. Equally important, he avoided the turnovers that have plagued his college career.
London praised Verica for “not trying to win the game by doing something heroic. Just hand the ball off to guys like Keith Payne and Perry Jones and just stay within yourself and try to throw [high-percentage] completions and just move the chains that way. If he can do that, then he can help us. And I was pleased to see throughout most of the game that he was able to that.”
Lazor said: “The things that Marc did really well were, No. 1, he was poised. He ran the offense in the huddle, he ran the offense at the line of scrimmage. He seemed very much in control of any situations we had to deal with on the sideline.”
Verica’s favorite targets were Burd and senior Dontrelle Inman, each of whom had career games. Inman finished with 7 catches for 88 yards.
“I’m very proud of Dontrelle,” London said. “Hopefully this is the beginning of him becoming a really good player.”
Likewise, London hopes this was the start of something special for Virginia. The ‘Hoos aren’t “world-beaters or anything,” as London put it, and tougher tests await them, starting next weekend against USC at the Los Angeles Coliseum.
Saturday night, though, there was more good than bad for UVa.
“It was really important to come out and at least be representative of a team that’s trying to improve,” said London, the first coach since Bill Elias in 1961 to win his debut with the Cavaliers.
The team’s first goal was to win its opener. Done. “We’re just going to keep pressing forward and hopefully satisfying more goals as we go along,” London said.