By Jeff White
LOS ANGELES — His players did all their gawking the night before their first game in California. At least Mike London hopes so.
UVa’s football team visited Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for a walk-through that lasted about a half-hour Friday night. Like many first-time visitors, the Cavaliers looked around in wonder at the storied home of University of Southern California football, a stadium that seats nearly 100,000.
The Coliseum hosted the 1932 Summer Olympics, as well as the opening and closing ceremonies, and track events, at the 1984 Summer Games. Over the years, teams such as the Rams, the Raiders and the Dodgers have played at the Coliseum, which opened in 1923.
“Get your pictures out of the way,” UVa cornerback Chase Minnifield shouted to his teammates, some of whom were capturing shots of the Coliseum on their cell phones after emerging from the tunnel to the field.
London figured that might happen, which is one reason he wanted his team to see the Coliseum on Friday night. All by itself, 16th-ranked USC (1-0) poses a formidable challenge Saturday night — kickoff is set for 10:30 Eastern time — and the Cavaliers can’t afford to be awe-struck by their surroundings.
“I think they understand that this is a historic place and the team we’re getting ready to play is amongst the best in the country,” London said Friday at the team hotel, which looks out on the Pacific Ocean near the Santa Monica Pier.
“But here you have an opportunity, five hours from home, playing in front of, hopefully, a handful of screaming Cavalier fans. This is what you play college football for.
“Our guys know that all that matters right now is how we prepare for this game, and when we run out of the tunnel, we can’t lose sight of the fact that that’s a 100-yard field out there, just like back at Scott Stadium.”
From Charlottesville to Los Angeles, it’s a five-hour trip by plane, not by car, of course. This will be only the second football game on the West Coast for UVa, which lost at Washington on Sept. 11, 1976.
“A lot of guys have never been west of the Mississippi [River],” London said.
The Trojans never had played in Virginia until 2008, when they opened the season by humbling UVa 52-7 at Scott Stadium.
“I try not to think about that,” said junior Aaron Taliaferro, who’s expected to start at middle linebacker for the Wahoos on Saturday night.
Much has changed in each program since that game. London replaced Al Groh, now defensive coordinator at Georgia Tech, after Virginia finished 3-9 last year. USC also has a new coach, Lane Kiffin, who was hired after Pete Carroll left to become the Seattle Seahawks’ head man.
NCAA sanctions will keep the Trojans from playing in a bowl this season, but Kiffin still has a roster stocked with players who entered college as heralded recruits, quarterback Matt Barkley, tailback Marc Tyler and wideout Ronald Johnson among them.
“The challenges are obviously that they always have, year in and year out, one of the top recruiting classes in the country,” London said. “They have documented success with the national championships and recruiting classes. That always presents a challenge, as far as you doing the right things, being in the right gap, making the right throws, making the right reads.”
Virginia opened with a 34-13 win over Richmond, whose starting quarterback, coincidentally, is a transfer from USC, Aaron Corp. He passed for 189 yards against a defense missing its top two defensive backs — senior cornerback Ras-I Dowling (hamstring) and junior safety Rodney McLeod (knee).
McLeod is doubtful for the USC game, but Dowling may be cleared to play. If neither is available, London said, he has confidence in cornerbacks Devin Wallace and Mike Parker and safeties Trey Womack and Dom Joseph. All four played extensively against UR with Dowling and McLeod out.
“We’ll be ready to play,” London said, “regardless of who’s out there.”
The team flew west on Thursday to give body clocks more time to adjust to the three-hour difference between Virginia and California. The players have stayed up — and then awakened — later than usual during their stay on the West Coast, and the extra day has “been well worth it,” London said. “I think our guys will be fine.”
If the ‘Hoos can come close to duplicating the success they had in the running game against UR, their prospects will improve significantly. Virginia rushed for 205 yards, averaging 5.9 per carry, in the opener.
The Trojans are “clearly a different opponent than Richmond,” UVa quarterback Marc Verica said. “But in any game, if you can win the battle at the line of scrimmage, then your chances of being successful go way up. I think we’ll aim to move people off the ball again and establish a good ground game so we can mix in some of the other stuff we do in the air.”
Virginia’s opener offered a myriad of compelling storylines. It was London’s debut at UVa, and the opponent was his alma mater. He had coached the Spiders in 2008 and ’09, winning a national title in his first season, and Virginia had not opened with a victory since ’05.
So the game was a big deal, and the ‘Hoos celebrated an important win Saturday night. Then they shifted their focus to USC.
“It’s a great opportunity to go on the road and play a very prestigious program [that is] very storied in their tradition,” Verica said Tuesday. “And it’s in the Coliseum, and it doesn’t get that much better than that. Everybody’s definitely excited, but we also understand it’s going to be a great challenge. But I think we’re ready to embrace that.”
London believes so too. The USC game, he said, is the “next step in the process of building a program.”