By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — After one of the earliest bye weeks in program history, UVa’s football team returns to the field Saturday for a game that may turn into a mismatch.
The Cavaliers (1-1) compete in the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision. The team Virginia will meet at Scott Stadium, Virginia Military Institute (1-1), competes in the Football Championship Subdivision, whose members have fewer scholarships to offer and generally attract less-talented players.
This will be the 82nd game in a series that dates to 1893, but UVa and VMI haven’t met since 1991.
It would not be unprecedented for an FCS team to beat an FBS foe — see William and Mary-UVa last year or JMU-Virginia Tech this month — but the Keydets haven’t had a winning season since 1981 and face long odds Saturday afternoon.
For the game to be competitive, VMI coach Sparky Woods said, his team must execute well in all three phases: offense, defense and special teams.
“A team as talented as [the Cavaliers] will certainly identify anywhere you fail to do that in your execution,” said Woods, a former UVa offensive coordinator.
“Sometimes a catastrophe can happen as a result of that, so I’d like to avoid that. I’d like to be sound in what we do, sound in how we go about executing and go in there and play our very best football. We do that, and I’ll feel good about what our team does.”
Woods’ counterpart, Mike London, knows the FCS well. London spent two seasons as head coach at the University of Richmond before returning to Charlottesville to replace Al Groh in December. The Wahoos, picked to finish last in the ACC’s Coastal Division, “haven’t done anything yet,” London said, so they’re in no position to take VMI lightly.
“We’re still trying to find out who we are, and every game to us is a must-win game,” London said. “Every game to us is a game that you have to improve on. So we’re in the process of trying to build that type of attitude, where you expect winning to occur on a weekly basis.
“Basically, we’re trying to play to a certain standard of what we expect: not having turnovers, converting on third downs, limiting the penalties and things like that. That’s kind of our whole thought process, irregardless of who the opponent is. If we can continue to try to take care of those things, then we may have a chance to win games.”
The ‘Hoos haven’t played since Sept. 11, when they lost 17-14 to then-No. 16 Southern California at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
The game was much closer than virtually everyone outside the McCue Center expected. The Cavaliers outgained USC and showed that their success in the ground game Sept. 4 against Richmond was no fluke.
Among ACC players, senior Keith Payne (85.5) and sophomore Perry Jones (75) rank fourth and seventh, respectively, in rushing yards per game.
UVa’s No. 3 tailback, senior Raynard Horne, has been much less productive, with 19 yards on seven carries. But running backs coach Mike Faragalli said there’s “really nothing keeping him from getting traction.”
Against USC, Faragalli said, Jones and Payne were running so well that “I just felt like not mixing it up as much at that point in time. But I’m very comfortable with Ray at the tailback position. He’s our best pass-protector, so he’ll have a role for certain in blitz situations, third-down situations, in the passing game.”
Before the UR game, Horne and Jones shared the top line at tailback on the depth chart. Payne, however, finished the opener with 16 carries (for 114 yards and 4 touchdowns). Jones had nine carries and Horne five.
“It’s kind of going with the hot hand,” Faragalli said. “When you have three guys like that, you’re comfortable with all three of them, but if somebody shows that they’re in a groove and feeling good and seeing things, then you kind of ride with those guys a little bit.”
Through two games, the Cavaliers are averaging 5 yards per carry in new offensive coordinator Bill Lazor’s pro-style system.
“The offensive line’s been blocking their butts off, so it’s a lot easier for us to get some running yards,” Payne said. “Coach Lazor has been doing a great job calling plays, and it just seems like everyone’s just flowing with it.”
At 6-3, 255 pounds, Payne is bigger than most of the Keydets who’ll be trying to tackle him Saturday. He’s more than a bruiser, though.
“He’s just got a lot of vision,” Faragalli said. “Sees things. Understands the blocking schemes.
“He’s really quick in a short area. When he sees it, he gets through it fast. He might not be fast in a 40- or 50-yard run, but in a 5- or 10-yard run, he’s as quick and as fast as anybody, and his vision is kind of what sets him apart.”
Jones is seven inches shorter and 70 pounds lighter than Payne. Those numbers, Faragalli said, aren’t what matter.
“The bottom line, Perry Jones is a football player,” Faragalli said. “He’s physical, he’s tough, he’s one of the strongest guys on the team. He always gives his best. You can count on him in any situation — run, pass, it’s irrelevant. Off the field, you can count on him to do the exact right thing and be a leader. So he’s just a pleasure to have around, and he’s as good as I’ve been around.”
Faragalli’s options at tailback Saturday will not include Dominique Wallace. London announced Monday that Wallace, a redshirt freshman from Fredericksburg, has left the football program for personal reasons.
“It’s a hard situation,” Faragalli said. “He’s a great person. It’s just sad when it doesn’t work out in his mind, for whatever reason. My thing to him was that you’re at the University of Virginia, one of the finest academic schools in the country, playing for Mike London, the best head coach in the country, who loves his players off the field more than he does on the field. You’re just not going to find that anywhere else. So I don’t know that it was a football decision as much as it was some personal things.”
UVa also will be without wide receiver Tim Smith against VMI. Smith, a sophomore, has an ankle injury that may force him to redshirt this season. In Smith’s absence, juniors Matt Snyder and Jared Green are likely to get more playing time.
“They have a mindset that ‘I need to do more. I need to elevate my game,’ in order to play more in this next upcoming game and the rest of the season,” senior wideout Dontrelle Inman said. “The window is open, and I guess when you see a window open, you want to climb through it.”
Before UVa’s players started preparations for this game, VMI was not a team about which they knew much. London was more familiar with the Keydets.
A graduate of Hampton’s Bethel High, he played at UR. In addition to his two seasons as the Spiders’ head coach, London had two stints as an assistant at his alma mater.
Moreover, the man London hired to be his defensive coordinator at UVa, Jim Reid, was VMI’s head coach in 2006 and ’07.
“Having played [the Keydets] during my time at Richmond, and having been in the state for a long time, I have respect for the school itself and the type of young men they produce,” London said. “There’s a never-quit attitude in those young men.”
Reid spoke at length Monday about his experience at VMI and the Lexington’s school culture. His message was one he also shared with the team.
“These [VMI] players, these cadets, are conditioned to the positive,” Reid told reporters at John Paul Jones Arena. “They’re conditioned to the positive with energy and enthusiasm. They will never, ever, ever quit on anything.”