By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Two games into Mike London’s first season as UVa’s football coach, positive signs abound.
The Cavaliers, picked to finish last in the ACC’s Coastal Division, have played much better than prognosticators expected. They whipped FCS power Richmond 34-13 in the opener. Then, in a 17-14 loss last weekend, UVa outgained heavily favored Southern California.
“This is something we can build on,” junior defensive tackle Matt Conrath said afterward at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
The Wahoos’ offense no longer looks horribly out of sync, and running the ball is again a legitimate option. The defense now lines up in a 4-3 scheme and no longer can be described as plodding. UVa fans — a group worn down by the program’s slide into mediocrity late in Al Groh’s tenure — appear re-energized. So do the players.
“We’re just excited that we stuck together the whole game,” senior tailback Keith Payne said at the Coliseum. “We didn’t give up at all. We learned that we can all stick together the whole way through.”
London is upbeat, too. He’s also realistic. To say his team has arrived, London said Tuesday afternoon, would be ridiculous. The journey is only beginning.
“In order to be in games and win games, you can’t have over 100 yards in penalties,” London said. “You can’t go 4 for 15 on third downs. You can’t drop the ball in crucial situations.”
The ‘Hoos did all of those things against then-No. 16 USC. They also missed two field goals at the Coliseum and turned the ball over inside the Trojans’ 10-yard line.
“My biggest thing is just looking for improvement one game at a time,” London said. “There were levels of improvement, but still enough of a gap that says, ‘Listen, before we get to the point where we need to be, we need to take care of some things.’
“It’s good to know that you can travel on the road, because you’re going to have to be a good road team in order to do well, but there’s no moral victory for us. This is a football game that you’re competing in, and you’re competing to win, no matter where you play.
“It’s not enough. You look at the W and L, and it came out as an L. We’re in it to try to win games.”
In the Cavaliers’ final four seasons under Groh, they finished with a winning record only once — in 2007. They haven’t been to a bowl game since then, and the ‘Hoos are coming off a season in which they went 3-9 — their fewest victories since 1986 and most losses since ’82.
Memories of Virginia’s recent struggles are still fresh in many players’ minds, junior punter Jimmy Howell said, and that should help the team stay grounded.
“It’s sort of interesting, because last year and my first year there were a lot of first-years that played,” Howell said, “but this year it’s not really the case.”
Groh played five true freshmen, including Howell, in 2008. Groh played 14 last season.
Only two true freshmen have played so far this season: offensive tackle Morgan Moses and cornerback Rijo Walker. Which means the overwhelmingly majority of the players actually on the field for UVa vividly recall, Howell said, what happened in 2008 and ’09.
“So I don’t think there’s a sense of us really arriving, because we haven’t really done much yet,” Howell said. “We always say we should win every game. We played fantastic the first game and played fantastic the second game, but we didn’t win both of them.”
As the Cavaliers’ first-ever game in California approached, much was made of the Trojans’ talent and “the venue, the crowd and the travel, all those things like that,” London said.
“You know what? It boils down to execution, whether you’re at home or away, and I just think the players saw that if you can execute the game plan then you put yourself in position to win a game and have a chance. That was probably the main thing we got out of that.”
UVa is off this weekend, then hosts Virginia Military Institute on Sept. 25 at Scott Stadium. The Cavaliers have plenty to work on before then, but London acknowledges that he likes a lot of what he’s seen from his team so far.
“We all know this is going to be a building process,” he said. “We all know that you’ve got to get pieces in place, but I think we do see that we play with a different type of attitude and a different type of aggressiveness, and that’s a positive thing. But you still have to surround that with catching the ball, throwing the ball, tackling, doing all those things.”
There were more positives than negatives for UVa against USC. Given the “caliber of talent that we played against, I think our guys rose to the challenge in that regard, playing in that atmosphere,” London said. “But we’re still a work in progress.”
POINT OF EMPHASIS: UVa was 0 for 2 on field-goal attempts versus Richmond and 0 for 2 against USC. Robert Randolph is 0 for 3 this season, and Chris Hinkebein missed the other one.
London and his staff have reviewed videotape of the USC game, analyzing how Danny Aiken, a four-year starter at long-snapper, and Jacob Hodges, the new holder, worked with Randolph, who was 17 for 19 on field goals last season.
“Everybody wants to scrutinize it to the nth degree, but I think where [the problem] lies is in all three,” London said Wednesday morning on the weekly ACC coaches’ teleconference.
“The snap has got to be direct to the holder. A couple snaps were up and high and tight and inside, so it required the holder to raise his hands up and kind of disrupt the rhythm of the kicker when he’s getting ready to kick the ball. And there was one when the holder brought the ball down so that it kind of brushed against his thigh, and so he had to adjust the ball a little bit, and it disrupted the kicker. So I think all three phases have to work together. It’s not just one individual that is the culprit here.”
At practice Wednesday afternoon, the Cavaliers devoted considerable time to field goals, and they will continue to do so.
It’s impossible in practice to completely simulate a game atmosphere, “with the crowd yelling and people rushing over you,” London said. “But we’re going to try to do all we can to make it that way with a live rush, with noise, with timeouts right before the guy gets ready to kick it. Just different things, different techniques that I’ve used in the past. But we’ve got get that squared away, and hopefully this week will be the one that we can get it done.”
RISING TO THE OCCASION: With the team’s top cornerback, senior Ras-I Dowling, out with a hamstring injury for the second straight game, sophomore Devin Wallace, junior Chase Minnifield and senior Michael Parker split time at that position in Los Angeles.
Virginia could have used Dowling against USC’s high-powered passing game, but “I tell you what,” London said, “I was pleased with the way that Devin Wallace and Minnifield and Michael Parker played. We played a lot of bump coverage, man-up coverage, and basically kind of dared them to throw it deep. Now, they threw deep a couple times and overthrew their receivers.
“But you’ve just got to have a mindset. Our guys have the mindset that we’re going to try to disrupt the receivers at the line of scrimmage. And that’s kind of the style that we’re going to play.”
London expects Dowling and another returning starter in the secondary, safety Rodney McLeod, to be available against VMI. McLeod, a junior, missed the first two games with a knee injury,
WELCOME BACK: Jared Detrick, who went into the spring game in April as a starter at outside linebacker, missed UVa’s opener with a high-ankle sprain.
But Detrick, a redshirt junior from Newport News, played in a reserve role against USC, and he’s back at full speed.
“I envision him having an opportunity to compete for linebacker play, but also being involved with our special teams,” London said. “He’s a run-and-hit guy, as we like to designate guys like himself who can run and hit and make plays. So he’s got a role that he can come in and help us right away. We’re happy to have him back.”
In each of the first two games, UVa’s starters at outside linebacker were sophomores LaRoy Reynolds and Ausar Walcott. Fifth-year senior Darnell Carter is also in the rotation at that spot and has supplied a strong pass rush.