By Jeff White
LOS ANGELES — Not until a sure-handed Trojan recovered an onside kick by UVa with 4 seconds showing on the clock could the home fans in the crowd of 81,375 at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum completely relax.
The Cavaliers’ failed attempt meant 16th-ranked Southern California would escape with a 17-14 victory.
“First of all, I’m proud of those guys in that locker room right there,” Mike London said after a penalty-marred game that ended around 1:50 a.m. Sunday, Eastern time.
“It’s a great effort to come into a venue like this, travel, and play, go toe to toe with those guys.”
Two years ago, when these teams met at Scott Stadium, USC embarrassed UVa 52-7. That game was effectively decided in the first quarter. The rematch showcased two teams in transition, each with a new coach: London for the Wahoos and Lane Kiffin for the Trojans.
The ‘Hoos (1-1) lost, but they like the direction they’re headed.
“I think we sent a message tonight that this is a new team now,” senior quarterback Marc Verica. “This is definitely not who we used to be. I think we can play with anybody. We’ll definitely be able to play with anybody remaining on our schedule.
“This one hurts a lot — we definitely had our chances — but we’ll try and take what we can from it, and one of those is definitely that we were a pretty good team.”
A drive that began at UVa’s 22, with 2:35 left, ended with Verica’s 3-yard touchdown pass to junior wide receiver Kris Burd. That pulled Virginia to 17-13, and junior Robert Randolph’s PAT made it a three-point game and set the stage for classmate Chris Hinkebein’s onside-kick try.
Little else went right for Randolph in this game. A season ago, he made 17 of 19 field-goal attempts. He’s 0 for 3 this year, with two misses against USC (2-0).
Throw in a first-quarter drive that ended when Verica, on second-and-goal from the Trojans’ 4, had an ill-advised pass intercepted in the end zone, and it’s no wonder the ‘Hoos left L.A. ruing their lost opportunities.
“Coulda, woulda, shoulda,” London said. “But in the end, they made more plays than we did, and they got the win.”
The Trojans got some help early in the second quarter. On fourth-and-5, UVa punter Jimmy Howell took the snap, hesitated for a moment and then dumped a short pass to tight end Colter Phillips, who rumbled 36 yards for an apparent first down at the USC 24.
The play was nullified, however, when an official called Virginia for an illegal block below the waist. UVa was forced to punt, and the Trojans took over at their 16.
When the Cavaliers came out for the second half, London said, an official told him the call was incorrect and that the block had indeed been legal.
“And that’s a shame,” London said. “It’s a crying shame. We practice that, and we’ve had officials at our practices, and it’s too bad. That was one of those momentum-killers and an opportunity.
“Who knows if we would have scored or not, but we would have been in the red-zone territory again. But that’s what happens sometimes in games. You get calls that go for you, you get calls that go against you. It’s unfortunate that they recognize it after the fact.”
Sophomore quarterback Matt Barkley threw two first-half touchdown passes — the second with only a second left — but overall the Cavaliers played inspired defense in their first-ever game in California.
The Trojans, remember, had scored 49 points and totaled 524 yards in a season-opening win at Hawaii. They managed only a field goal in the second half against UVa. For the second straight game, the ‘Hoos played without their top two defensive backs — senior cornerback Ras-I Dowling (hamstring) and junior safety Rodney McLeod (knee) — but made USC earn its points.
UVa limited Southern California’s high-powered offense to 329 yards.
“We knew what we needed to do,” junior cornerback Chase Minnifield said. “We studied film a lot, and we laid it on the line. We realized that we were going to play a 60-minute ball game as hard as we can, trust each other and just know that everybody’s going to do their 1/11th.”
Virginia’s pass rush was ineffective for much of the final 2½ quarters, and Barkley completed several long throws against a depleted secondary. Even so, this was a performance of which London and defensive coordinator Jim Reid could be proud.
“It’s not going to be a perfect game out there,” Minnifield said. “We’re not going to go out there and execute everything perfect. We’ve just got to keep on battling.”
Verica said: “The defense was tremendous. They played their hearts out, with guys stepping up for guys who are injured. I can’t say enough about them. They did everything they could to keep us in the game.”
The ‘Hoos, who never led, had two excellent opportunities to do so. Virginia’s first possession stalled at the USC 28, and Randolph missed a 45-yard attempt. Moments later, however, defensive tackle Matt Conrath and outside linebacker Darnell Carter teamed on a sack of Barkley that jarred the ball loose. Defensive end Cameron Johnson recovered for UVa at the Trojans’ 31.
After a Verica incompletion, sophomore tailback Perry Jones ran for 25 yards, and then senior tailback Keith Payne moved the ‘Hoos 2 yards closer to the end zone. Alas, the drive ended when Verica underthrew a pass intended for Payne in the back of the end zone, resulting in his first interception of the season.
“It was a stupid play,” Verica said, but he didn’t dwell on his mistake.
“I know exactly what I have to do and what’s expected of me on every single play,” he said. “Because of that, you can’t let something rattle you. You know exactly what your job is, so you’ve got to execute and move on to the next play. It was a really bad mistake, a costly decision, but I had to put it behind me, so that’s what I did.”
Indeed, Verica was 3 for 3 passing, for 55 yards, on UVa’s first scoring drive. That ended with a 6-yard run from the 6-3, 255-pound Payne — his fifth TD of the season — and Randolph’s extra point pulled Virginia to 7-7 with 74 seconds left in the half.
Verica finished 17 for 36 passing for 190 yards and showed the resiliency that London hoped to see after the red-zone blunder.
“That’s the maturity and the experience of a guy that’s been in games, and that’s what we said we had to have from him if we were going to have a chance,” London said. “He probably made some ill-advised throws, but overall I thought he directed the team well and managed the team well, had poise, did some things that kept the ball moving.
“So I’m proud of Marc for his efforts. This was a big game for him … I don’t know what rank [the Trojans] are, but that’s a top-20 team in the country right there, and it’s a must-needed boost of confidence for him.”
On a night when UVa outgained USC, Jones rushed 14 times for a game-high 77 yards, and Payne added 57 yards on 12 carries. Jones also had 3 receptions for 36 yards and a 31-yard kickoff return.
Senior tight end Joe Torchia caught 5 passes for 73 yards — both career highs — and senior wideout Dontrelle Inman sparkled for the second straight, with 54 yards on 3 receptions.
“I think USC, they were tired at times,” Verica said. “We came at them with a lot of different looks, a lot of different motions. I think it was hard for them at times to kind of key on what we were doing. So we just tried to keep the pedal to the metal and try and maintain a fast tempo out there and just boom boom boom right down the field.
“It wasn’t always like that, but at times we were able to execute pretty consistently on certain drives. Moving forward, we just have to set the standard higher so that we can do that on more drives.”
USC was penalized 13 times for 140 yards. Virginia wasn’t much better, with 9 penalties for 101 yards. One, a late hit by senior safety Trey Womack, added 15 yards to a 20-yard run by Barkley and set up the Trojans’ second TD.
Another penalty, called when UVa’s Brian Oden ran into punt returner Ronald Johnson, gave the Trojans a first down at the Cavaliers’ 35. Six plays later, Joe Houston booted a 34-yard field goal to make it 17-14, and those proved to be the winning points.
On their final drive, punting wasn’t an option for the ‘Hoos, and they twice converted on fourth down. The situation was difference in the second quarter, when Virginia faced fourth-and-1 from the USC 45.
London didn’t hesitate to go for it. But a quarterback sneak — a play that had worked in the opener against Richmond and in the first quarter Saturday night — gained nothing this time, and the Trojans took over. Three plays later, it was 7-0.
“Again, it’s one of those things,” London said. “We didn’t get it on the fourth-and-short, so that kind of turned it around a little bit for them. That’s the momentum part of it, but we came to play to win. We didn’t come to play to just feel good about staying close with them. The fake punt, the going for it on fourth down, we came to play to win, and like I said, I’m proud of the effort of my team and the coaches and the game plan they put together.”
His players felt the same way.
“I never say a loss is a good loss,” Minnifield said, “but I think we all played together and we laid it out there on the line and we realized that we can be a pretty good team.”