By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The goal next weekend is for a raucous crowd to pack Scott Stadium, with fans wearing white to show their support for UVa’s football team in its ACC opener against Florida State.
The scene Saturday at Scott Stadium was less electric, though Virginia Military Institute’s Corps of Cadets was an impressive sight in the crowd of 43,592.
The first football game between UVa and VMI since 1991 unfolded as expected. On an unseasonably hot afternoon, the Keydets fought gamely but didn’t have the size or talent to keep pace with the Cavaliers, who romped 48-7.
“I think it was a good win,” said senior Marc Verica, one of three quarterbacks to throw at least one touchdown pass for Virginia (2-1) versus VMI (1-2).
“We hadn’t played in a couple weeks, so to come back and get a win on our field, I think that was a nice start. And now we’re heading into ACC play. We did some good things, but we’re going to have to make some improvements.”
UVa’s victories have come against teams (Richmond and VMI) that compete in the NCAA’s Football Championship Subdivision. The Wahoos’ loss — by three points — was to unbeaten Southern California in Los Angeles. Like USC, Florida State has been a power in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
The Cavaliers will host the Seminoles (1-0 ACC, 3-1 overall) at noon Saturday.
“This next game is a big game for us,” said Mike London, UVa’s first-year coach. “We’ll find out which team we are, but we’re all looking forward to that challenge and answering that question.”
On its first drive Saturday, Virginia started at VMI’s 42, thanks to a 20-yard punt return by junior Chase Minnifield. From there, the ‘Hoos needed only five plays to reach the end zone, the final 25 yards coming on a pass from Verica to senior wide receiver Dontrelle Inman.
But two long completions by quarterback Cameron Jones highlighted a VMI drive that ended with his 1-yard touchdown pass to tight end Robbie White, and the teams were tied 7-7 with 2:35 left in the first quarter.
To that point, London said, his team had looked lethargic. “Then we just kind of came to life there a little bit and started doing the things I thought we needed to do to win this game.”
The turning point was easy to identify.
“I think Raynard Horne’s touchdown return kind of sparked things,” London said.
Horne is a fifth-year senior from Baltimore who, after a strong training camp, has struggled to crack the rotation at tailback. His role on special teams is more prominent. After VMI pulled even, Horne fielded Cameron Murray’s kick and, 87 yards later, became the first Cavalier since Marquis Weeks in 2004 to return a kickoff for a TD.
“Definitely there was a sense of relief [personally],” Horne said, “but it’s even better that we’re off to a winning start, and we have something to show for it now.”
The Cavaliers were playing for the first time since their Sept. 11 loss at USC. By halftime, UVa led 31-7, after two more TD passes by Verica — one to junior wideout Kris Burd and another to Inman — and Robert Randolph’s 33-yard field goal. Randolph, who had been 0 for 3 this season before Saturday, added a 44-yarder early in the third quarter.
Verica, who played only one series in the second half, pierced VMI’s defense, completing 16 of 23 passes for 224 yards and a career-high 3 TDs. Virginia finished with more runs (36) than passes (34), but most of its yardage came through the air.
“I would have liked to have run the ball better today, more effectively,” offensive coordinator Bill Lazor said, “but part of what it appeared [the Keydets] decided to do was not allow us to run. So we had to take advantage of that in the passing game.”
Redshirt freshman Ross Metheny replaced Verica at quarterback in the third quarter. After two series, the second of which ended with his 15-yard TD pass to junior wideout Jared Green, Metheny gave way to Michael Rocco, who became the third true freshman to play for UVa this season.
Rocco’s first series included completions of 11 and 29 yards to junior wideout Matt Snyder. The drive ended with an ill-advised pass by Rocco that VMI safety Trae Watkins intercepted, but the nephew of Liberty University coach Danny Rocco proved a quick learner.
On Rocco’s second series, he completed passes of 7 and 17 yards to Colter Phillips, and the second produced the sophomore tight end’s first touchdown as a Cavalier.
Until Saturday, Verica was the only quarterback on UVa’s roster who had taken a snap in a college game. Asked about the decision to play both Metheny and Rocco against VMI, London said there was not a clear No. 2 behind Verica.
“So the next best thing was to put them in a venue, put them in a game and see how they managed the game,” London said.
Rocco completed 4 of 6 passes for 64 yards; Metheny, 4 of 5 for 53.
“I think they did a tremendous job,” Verica said. “They handled themselves with poise, they were executing, and they were able to throw touchdown passes. That’s always exciting as a young guy. I was happy for them, and I was proud of them.”
In the third quarter, with the outcome effectively settled, Lazor told Metheny and Rocco that each would play.
The coaching staff had “decided going into this game,” Lazor later said, “that if we had the opportunity to play our backup quarterback, and we felt like two guys at least were vying for that position, then the right thing to do for the team was to prepare them both for future play.
“And there will be competition. They both had some production. I think they both did a good job running the huddle. They both did a good job getting the plays called and getting us in the right checks when necessary, so I thought overall it was positive. I’m sure when I watch the film, I’ll be able to help them get better by finding what needs to be done a little bit better. But I thought overall it was positive that they got in the game, and usually once a player plays in the game, especially the first time he plays at the college level, he’s going to become a better player, and I expect that from both of them.”
London said the staff will “look at this and we’ll see if there is somebody who has emerged as a clear-cut No. 2, or two guys that have played in a game now still battling.”
The long list of Cavaliers who distinguished themselves Saturday include Verica, Horne, Randolph, Burd (8 catches for 119 yards and 1 TD), Inman (5 catches for 72 yards and 2 TDs), Green (4 catches for 63 yards and 1 TD), Snyder (3 catches for 45 yards), sophomore tailback Perry Jones (9 carries for 57 yards), Minnifield (2 interceptions at cornerback) and junior defensive end Cam Johnson (3½ tackles for loss, including 2½ sacks).
Tailback Keith Payne netted only 46 yards on 12 carries, but the 6-3, 255-pound senior had one of his signature move-the-pile runs late in the second quarter, dragging a host of Keydets for most of a 15-yard gain.
“I’m very happy for the team to get a victory, and to put some points on the board and to get some turnovers,” London said. “I thought the [interceptions] Chase Minnifield made were very, very athletic plays.”
And now comes Florida State, which pounded Wake Forest 31-0 on Saturday. Are the ‘Hoos ready for ACC play?
“I think so,” Verica said. “We did a lot of good things in this first month, and I think we’re building every week. We still have a long way to go. We still have a lot of improvements to make, but we can definitely play.”
The “white-out” at Scott Stadium next weekend figures to inspire the Cavaliers. Fans will receive white UVa Football T-shirts — for free — when they enter the stadium.
“I expect all of our supporters and fans to come out and be ready to support us,” Verica said. “It’ll be a crazy environment.
“I heard about the ‘white-out,’ so hopefully we can get everybody to buy into that. And I think that’ll be a pretty cool scene and a pretty nice environment if we can accomplish that.”
London agreed. “If our students and fans are game for that, then let’s go. Let’s do it. I believe it’ll be a TV game, maybe a national game, and it’ll be a great atmosphere.
“It’s something that will be different.” London paused for a moment. “So far this year there have been a lot of things that have been different.”
BACK IN THE MIX: Neither started, but senior cornerback Ras-I Dowling and junior safety Rodney McLeod played against VMI, the first appearance of the season for each.
Dowling has been out with a hamstring injury; McLeod, with a bad knee. Dowling missed most of training camp, too, and he struggled at times Saturday, giving up a long completion on his first play and later being called for pass interference. But the experience should benefit both players, London said.
“I thought it was important that they had a chance to get into a game and play and be out there making calls and competing and taking a hit,” London said, “so their bodies are subject to the normal aches and pains that happen to guys that play in the game. I didn’t want the Florida State game to be that first game.”
They were a “little rusty, we saw,” London said, “but now they’ve got a game behind them, and I look forward to them playing and participating a whole lot next week.”
STEPPING UP: That Inman and Burd are the Cavaliers’ top two receivers is undeniable. Between them, they’ve caught 33 passes for 474 yards and 5 TDs this season.
Tim Smith is UVa’s No. 3 wideout, but the sophomore from Chesapeake missed the VMI game with an ankle injury and may end up redshirting this season. Green and Snyder showed Saturday that they’re capable of contributing in Smith’s absence.
“A lot of teams talk about the next-man-up mentality, and much was made about Timmy and his situation,” London said, “and you have to have guys that are capable and ready and able to step up … It was good to see those two guys have some success, and so now there’s a little bit more depth at that wide receiver position.”
Burd said: “We knew going in that [Virginia’s reserves] had a possibility of playing, and me personally I wanted to see those guys go out there and play, especially in the wide-receiver corps. Jared Green stepped up. He had a few nice catches and a touchdown. Matt Snyder had a few catches. [Ray] Keys got a lot of playing time. It’s just exciting to see, because we all do the same thing in practice, and just seeing them do that was definitely a beautiful thing.”
The TD reception was the first since 2008 for Green, whose father is Pro Football Hall of Famer Darrell Green.
“It’s basically the next-man-up mentality,” the younger Green said. “Whenever someone goes down, or even if someone is not going down, you get your name called, and you gotta do what you gotta do.
‘My dad calls it the ‘right-now moment.’ When is right now? Right now. So as soon as they said, ‘No. 2, go in,’ I’ve got to be ready to go in and make a big play. It’s for my team. I did it for them, because these are my brothers. I’m with them 25/7.”
SPECIAL MOMENT: His teammates and coaches were thrilled when Phillips came down with his fourth-quarter touchdown catch. His father was killed in a plane crash in Alaska last month, and Phillips’ youngest brother was seriously injured in the crash.
“He’s gone through a tough time,” London said of Phillips. “God bless him. I encourage people to continue to have thoughts and prayers for him, because he’s adjusting, he’s going through a hard time. It was great to see him have some success. That touchdown I’m sure meant a lot to him in a lot of ways.”
IT’S ALL GOOD: Rocco said he had no problems with Lazor’s decision to play him. The former Liberty Christian Academy star came to UVa determined to prepare as if he would play this season.
If the coaches had opted to redshirt him, Rocco said, that would have been fine. “But if they decided to play me, I was ready to play. I had no reservations going into the game, saying to myself that it was the wrong decision to put me in. I just said, ‘This is my opportunity and I’ve got to make the most of it.’ ”