By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Florida State played like the Florida State of old, the football team that for years reigned over the ACC.
UVa looked like a team that wasn’t ready to perform on such a stage.
Never the mind that the Cavaliers, on the road, had scared unbeaten Southern California last month. Against the Seminoles, whose speed and athleticism are similar to those of USC, the Cavaliers were outmatched Saturday afternoon at Scott Stadium.
“We learned a lot of lessons today,” Mike London said afterward.
The ‘Noles went into the break ahead 27-0, and some fans in the crowd of 47,096 didn’t bother to return for the second half. The final score was 34-14, and only a UVa touchdown with 99 seconds left made it that close.
“Obviously I’m disappointed for the players, I’m disappointed for our fans, for our supporters,” London, Virginia’s first-year coach. “That’s not the type of effort that’s indicative of the type of team I think we have here.”
Atlantic Division leader Florida State improved to 2-0 in ACC play and 4-1 overall. The Wahoos, who compete in the ACC’s Coastal Division, are 0-1, 2-2.
“We’ll go back and look at the tape, look and see what we need to do better,” London said. “It’s easy to get discouraged and throw players and coaches under the bus, but we’re not going to do that. It’s early in the season for us. You’re not as good as you think you are sometimes, and we’re not as bad as what people think sometimes.”
The Seminoles’ commanding halftime lead withstanding, the fourth quarter might have included some drama had UVa been able to cut its deficit to 13 points late in the third.
“It would have been more fun,” Virginia offensive coordinator Bill Lazor said.
Trailling 27-7, the ‘Hoos had moved 63 yards to the FSU 30. After an awful first half, Marc Verica had thrown a 76-yard touchdown pass to wideout Kris Burd on Virginia’s first drive of the third quarter, and the senior quarterback appeared to be in rhythm.
On first-and-10 from the 30, however, Verica dropped back and threw a long pass. Its target was Dontrelle Inman, but the senior wideout cut inside on a post pattern. The ball followed another path, straight into the arms of FSU cornerback Greg Reid in the end zone.
Verica and Inman “just weren’t together,” Lazor said, “and there’s no faster, easier way to throw an interception than for the QB and receiver not to be together.”
Lazor declined to say who was responsible for the miscommunication, but Verica, a team captain, took the blame for the interception.
“On that play it wasn’t the clearest picture, so I think the best thing to do in that situation is not throw it and not force it,” said Verica, who finished 14 of 30 passing for 211 yards, with 2 interceptions and 1 TD.
He would have been better off throwing a short pass to another target, Verica said, to “generate something positive and maybe not compound a bad play with something worse.”
The ‘Noles pounced on UVa’s mistake. Florida State needed only six plays to cover 80 yards, the final 14 coming on a run by reserve tailback Chris Thompson. The drive included a 38-yard completion from Christian Ponder to wideout Willie Haulstead, who beat Virginia’s Devin Wallace. The sophomore cornerback then made a bad situation worse by grabbing Haulstead’s face mask, an infraction that moved the ball to the Cavaliers’ 14.
In the first quarter, Wallace had missed a tackle on tailback Jermaine Thomas’ 70-yard touchdown run down the Seminoles’ sideline.
“I needed to make that play,” Wallace said.
Thomas’ long TD run shook a UVa team that’s coming off a 3-9 season and does not have an unlimited supply of confidence. No seniors started on defense against FSU.
“That 70-yarder was a tough one,” London said. “But when you become a good team, and plays like every once in a while happen, you just have to regroup, and you’ve just got to play the next play.”
Wallace wasn’t the only UVa defender who struggled Saturday. In all, the Cavaliers allowed 428 yards, including 256 rushing. Missed tackles plagued UVa as it struggled to deal with FSU’s superior speed.
“That’s a very, very good team that we played,” London said. “They’re going to win a lot of games.”
Tackling was not an issue for UVa in its first three games, so the breakdowns were “a little surprising,” junior cornerback Chase Minnifield said. “But we’ve just got to keep working at it, trust our techniques and just hit like we’re supposed to hit and do what Coach wants us to do.”
Between them, Thomas and Thompson rushed for 198 yards and 3 TDs. Ponder, a senior, completed 17 of 29 passes for 172 yards and 1 TD, a 15-yarder to Haulstead. Junior defensive end Cameron Johnson recorded Virginia’s only sack.
“I had all the time in the world,” Ponder said. “I took a few hits, but most of the time, [FSU’s offensive linemen] kept them off me.”
On offense, Virginia totaled 304 yards, but 262 came after FSU built its huge halftime lead. The Cavaliers eventually were able to move the ball through the air, but they finished with only 25 yards rushing.
The Cavaliers’ first possession started on their 39-yard line; the second, on their 40. Neither produced a first down. At halftime, UVa had 4 first downs.
“You can’t go three-and-out that many times and expect to score enough points to win,” Lazor said.
Virginia’s inability to establish its running game made it difficult for the offense, Verica said, “because then the defense can just kind of key in on the pass a little bit. But we weren’t throwing the ball well either. It’s a two-way street. Throwing the ball well helps the running game, and the running game helps the passing game. So when you’re not doing either one right, you’re not generating much, so we have a lot of work to do.”
Burd, a junior, had 4 catches for 118 yards and a touchdown. The 76-yarder was the longest reception of Burd’s career and the longest completion of Verica’s.
The team “wasn’t happy with our first-half performance,” said Burd, who has caught at least one TD pass in every game this season.
“At halftime we came out and said we’re a family and we’re going to stick together, and we’re not going to leave any man behind. We came out in the second half with the mentality that we weren’t going to quit. We just had to execute a little better. Things didn’t go our way at first, but we turned it around a little bit.”
Indeed, on an afternoon when most fans took part in the school-sponsored “white out,” wearing the T-shirts they received upon entering the stadium, the ‘Hoos refused to wave the white flag.
“I’m not really looking for things positive out of the game, because obviously a loss is a loss, but we didn’t lay down,” Minnifield said. “We didn’t quit. I don’t think you’re going to see that out of our team. That’s one of the qualities we’ve got as a team.”
Neither redshirt freshman Ross Metheny nor true freshman Michael Rocco has established himself as a clear No. 2 behind Verica at quarterback, London said, and the coaching staff hoped to play both Saturday after the outcome was decided. But if “there’s a week where one outperforms the other [in practice], then that guy should go in the game first,” Lazor said.
This week, that guy apparently was Metheny, because he took over for Verica with 6:58 to play. The 6-2 left-hander completed 7 of 9 passes for 68 yards and 1 touchdown, an 11-yarder to sophomore tight end Colter Phillips.
Asked to assess Metheny’s performance, Lazor said, “Not bad. The production was good. It’s important for us that the ball comes out on time, but the No. 1 thing is production. He produced, and so that was real positive. I got some thoughts on some of the plays, but hey, the quarterback in the end is going to be judged on if he moves the team.”
Had Virginia gotten the ball back, Rocco would have entered the game, London said, but FSU ran out the final 1:39 to end the teams’ first meeting since 2006.
“We’ll see what happens here next week as we prepare for our next game,” London said.
That comes next Saturday against Georgia Tech (2-1, 3-2) in Atlanta. The Yellow Jackets’ defensive coordinator, of course, is Al Groh, who was fired as UVa’s head coach after last season.
London’s immediate concern is keeping his team together.
“I think the biggest thing is, where do you go from here when you experience a loss like that?” he said. “It’s easy to point fingers and throw people under the bus and this and that, but we talked about being a family, and a family has to circle around and support each other and be around each other. It’s game 4, and we got a lot of games to play. We don’t want to play that poorly … We’ve got to do a better job, and I think the players realize that.
“But I think we’ll be OK. As a matter of fact, I know we’ll be OK.”
EARLY EXIT: Rodney McLeod, who missed Virginia’s first two games with a knee injury, returned to the starting lineup Saturday. But the junior safety left the game with 3:14 left in the first quarter after getting hit in the head while making a tackle.
McLeod stayed on the field for a few minutes before walking to the sideline with team doctors. He didn’t return.
“I don’t have an update [on McLeod’s health],” London said. “He did take a pretty good shot there, but he was up on the sideline and talking and everything like that. We’ll find out what his status is here [soon].”
OPPORTUNISTIC: On the play that produced Virginia’s first touchdown, Burd wasn’t Verica’s primary target.
“I saw him out of the corner of my eye,” Verica said, “and they busted a coverage.”
And so Burd found himself uncovered in the secondary. He hauled in Verica’s pass at the Seminoles’ 45 and raced untouched to the end zone.
“Everybody’s human. I guess the defense got a little lost,” Burd said.
“We needed a spark at that time. Coming out at halftime, we said the offense has got to make plays, and once the ball was in my hands, I figured this was the time.”
TURNING UP THE HEAT: Florida State came in leading the nation in sacks, with 19, and added six to their season’s total Saturday. The ‘Noles got to Verica four times and to Metheny twice.
FSU’s pass rush contributed to Verica’s accuracy problems.
“It’s a whole different ball game sometimes when you got pressure in your face and you’re scrambling back there,” London said. “But he’s got to make good decisions, receivers have got to run better routes, and then obviously and definitely we’ve got to protect better and longer for him if we’re going to drop back and throw the ball down the field.”
Asked about Verica’s sacks, Lazor said, “We don’t want him back there holding the football. If they covered us up, then sometimes that will happen. If he isn’t going to the right spot, then sometimes that will happen. But if he’s back there holding the ball, then you know I’m not happy. And that’s what happens. That’s the quarterback’s part in protecting himself, getting the ball off on time.”