By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The rain has moved on at last, clearing the way for sunny skies Saturday at Scott Stadium.
On a crisp fall afternoon, in front of fans taking part in a school-sponsored “white out,” UVa’s football team will try to continue its resurgence under Mike London.
“It’s going to be a great atmosphere,” London said as his first ACC game as Virginia’s head coach approached.
Trying to spoil the Cavaliers’ day will be Florida State, playing at Scott Stadium for the first time without the legendary Bobby Bowden. Kickoff is set for noon.
Like UVa (2-1), FSU has a new coach. And like London, Jimbo Fisher is working to rebuild a program that declined markedly late in his predecessor’s tenure.
A season ago, the Cavaliers’ last under Al Groh, they finished 3-9, their fewest wins since 1986. The Seminoles went 7-6 in 2009, the fourth time in five seasons that they lost at least five games.
Bowden retired after the season, and Fisher took over. His team comes to town tied for the Atlantic Division lead, with a 1-0 conference record, and stands 3-1 overall. The loss was a 47-17 debacle at Oklahoma, but FSU has outscored opponents 65-10 since.
If these ‘Noles do not appear as formidable as the Bowden-led teams that once dominated college football, some things haven’t changed. “They are athletic and they are fast,” London said. “They have skill position players all over the place.”
UVa cornerback Chase Minnifield said: “It’s what you expect from Florida State.”
In senior Christian Ponder, the Seminoles have one of the most productive quarterbacks (5,500 career passing yards) in their program’s storied history. There’s talent on defense, too. FSU leads the nation with 19 sacks. Sophomore end Brandon Jenkins, with 4.5, has the most of any Seminole.
“They don’t really blitz that much,” Virginia quarterback Marc Verica said. “They get a lot of pressure with their front four. A lot of people who don’t really know what’s going on, they’re thinking, ‘Wow, Florida State has all these sacks, they must be blitzing a ton.’
“But that’s not it at all. They create pressure with their four down linemen, with a lot of twists and stunts and stuff like that, and they play a zone behind it. So we’ll have our opportunities to do some things, but they’re a fast, quick defense, and overall they’re pretty good. We definitely have a good challenge.”
These teams haven’t met since 2006, when FSU romped 33-0 in Tallahassee. The Seminoles lead the series 13-2, with both defeats coming in Scott Stadium. The first, of course, was in 1995, when the Wahoos handed Florida State its first-ever ACC loss.
Anthony Poindexter, now UVa’s special-teams coordinator and safeties coach, was one of the many standouts on coach George Welsh’s 1995 team. Ten years later, quarterback Marques Hagans led Groh’s Cavaliers to a 26-21 upset of No. 4 FSU.
It’s been a while since Virginia has earned such a signature victory, but “things are changing around here,” Minnifield said, “and we’re going to walk around like teams that used to play here, like when Dex was here and Marques Hagans was here.”
Junior wideout Kris Burd said: “We’ve been a bottom-tier team in the ACC, and we’re ready to make a statement this year. Florida State’s a good team. They have a pretty solid program. It’s a good measuring stick for us to see where we are right now.”
Virginia, which opened with a 34-13 win over Richmond, clobbered VMI 48-7 last weekend. In its only game against a fellow member of the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision, UVa lost 17-14 to then-No. 16 Southern California in Los Angeles.
“The challenge was there, and we stepped up to a certain extent,” Virginia outside linebacker LaRoy Reynolds said. “But we made a lot of mistakes, and we need to fix those mistakes.”
Two of UVa’s starting defensive backs — cornerback Ras-I Dowling and safety Rodney McLeod — missed the USC game with injuries. Both made their 2010 debuts last weekend. Dowling struggled at times against VMI, but his hamstring injury had caused him miss almost all of training camp, too, so it was no surprise that he appeared out of sync.
Dowling and McLeod practiced well this week, “and they’re going to play [Saturday],” London said. “And that was the plan all along, to make sure they had a chance to come back and play when they were feeling healthy and getting them in the game, getting them acclimated to the game and all.”
The Cavaliers lead the ACC in scoring defense (12.3 ppg), in part, it should be noted, because they have faced two FCS teams. UVa ranks seventh in scoring offense (32 ppg) and third in total offense (431.3 yards).
Against a Florida State defense that has allowed only 87.2 rushing yards per game, the ‘Hoos believe they must run the ball effectively if they are to claim a third win in the series.
“That’s going to be the case for all our games this year,” Verica said. “It really doesn’t matter who the opponent is. It’s going to be important for us to be physical at the line of scrimmage and try to run the ball. Because we are a balanced offense, so we try to attack a defense in a number of different ways, and the run is obviously a huge part of that, because it sets up the pass.”
London is well aware of the Seminoles’ prowess against the run. Even so, look for UVa to give the ball often to tailbacks Perry Jones and Keith Payne, the first of whom is listed at 5-8, 185 pounds, and the second at 6-3, 255.
“I think that you have to be able to run the ball or at least create running lanes or cracks or crevices that hopefully a guy like Perry Jones can slip through,” London said. “I don’t know if Keith Payne is going to slip through any crack or crevice. He’ll have to be more of a power game.
“But as I’ve said before, the running game sets up your play-action passes and stuff off of that, and if you’re one-dimensional it could make for a long day. If we can’t run the ball, it’ll be difficult for us.”
Virginia’s offensive players have faith in themselves and, above all, in their new coordinator, Bill Lazor. After four consecutive seasons in which the Cavaliers’ offense ranked among the nation’s worst, it’s been more than respectable this year.
“It’s a great feeling,” said Burd, UVa’s leading receiver. “There’s nothing better than seeing Keith Payne run into the end zone, Perry Jones break a big run, wide receivers make a play. It’s a beautiful thing.”
In 2005, Burd was a junior at Matoaca High School. But he was at Scott Stadium, on an unofficial visit, on the October night when the ‘Hoos stunned the Seminoles.
“I was on the field for that game, and the atmosphere for that game was electric,” Burd recalled this week. “So hopefully the fans, with the ‘white out’ we got going on this weekend, will provide that same kind of environment.”