By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The University of North Carolina is nearing the midpoint of a football season like none other in Chapel Hill.
Because of an ongoing NCAA investigation, UNC has been without many of its top players this season, including defensive end Robert Quinn, defensive tackle Marvin Austin, cornerbacks Charles Brown and Kendric Burney, wideout Greg Little and tailback Ryan Houston.
Burney has been cleared to return Oct. 23 to face the Miami Hurricanes, but Quinn, Austin and Little won’t play for the Tar Heels again. Quinn and Little have been ruled permanently ineligible, UNC announced Monday, and Austin has been dismissed from the football program.
Had the Heels folded amid all these distractions, few around the ACC would have been shocked. But embattled coach Butch Davis’ eligible players have proved to be resilient — and talented.
After losing its first two games — to unbeaten LSU and defending ACC champion Georgia Tech, by six points each time — Carolina has won three straight. UNC edged Rutgers 17-13, pounded East Carolina 42-17 and, most recently, stunned Clemson 21-16.
“When you have people that are attacking your football family, sometimes you rally the troops and you circle up and you say, ‘All right, listen, we are the only ones that care about you, the ones that are inside the room, inside that family,’ ” Virginia coach Mike London said Monday during his weekly press conference at John Paul Jones Arena.
“You appeal to the players’ competitiveness and their pride, and they’re really the only ones that know what is exactly going on. Butch has done a nice job of rallying his troops, and guys are stepping up in place of those guys that aren’t playing.”
Can a short-handed UNC team beat UVa at Scott Stadium? We’ll find out Saturday night. Many times over the past three decades UNC has come to Charlottesville with a full complement of players. Not since 1981, however, have the Heels left town victorious.
“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t familiar with it. I get asked about it all the time,” senior quarterback Marc Verica said of UVa’s remarkable streak in a series that dates to 1892.
“But that’s really secondary to what is our priority here, and that’s just to win a football game. We’re trying to win an ACC football game, and our opponent just happens to be UNC, and it just happens to be at home.”
Virginia (0-2, 2-3) hosts North Carolina (1-1, 3-2) at 6 p.m. Saturday. For Verica, it will be his second start against the Tar Heels. In the first, on Oct. 18, 2008, the ‘Hoos trailed 10-3 when they got the ball back with 2:18 left in the fourth quarter.
Verica, ineffective to that point, began to dissect Carolina’s soft coverage, passing to wideout Kevin Ogletree for gains of 27, 17 and 9, to wideout Cary Koch for a 16-yard completion and to tight end John Phillips for 7- and 6-yard pickups.
In 95 seconds, UVa went 82 yards to tie the game and force overtime. In the extra period, tailback Cedric Peerman’s 2-yard TD run lifted the Cavaliers to a 16-13 victory — their 14th straight win over UNC at Scott Stadium.
“I definitely have good memories of that game,” Verica said Monday. “It was a win, and we won in pretty dramatic fashion. But at the same time you have to understand that that game truly has no bearing or effect on this week. Although it was a nice game and a nice experience, this is a whole completely different challenge and a brand-new game.”
The NCAA’s investigation of UNC’s program has generated headlines for months, but Verica said he hasn’t “followed it as closely as some people might have. Really the extent of my awareness of it is what [goes] across the ticker on ESPN. I might catch something here or there, but that’s about it, because I have too much on my plate, too much that I need to focus on and worry about. So I’m not exactly sure who’s playing, who’s not, how many weeks this guy is going to be out, stuff like that. I’m just trying to focus on what we can do to beat UNC.”
HOLES TO FILL: Virginia’s starter at left offensive tackle, Landon Bradley, had surgery Monday to repair the broken hand he suffered two days earlier against Georgia Tech.
The 6-7, 280-pound junior will miss the UNC game. Taking over for Bradley will be redshirt freshman Sean Cascarano or sophomore Oday Aboushi, who has been starting at right tackle.
Bradley is likely to return this month. Out for the season are UVa’s No. 3 wideout, Tim Smith (ankle), and No. 1 tight end, Joe Torchia (shoulder).
“The next guy just has to be prepared to step up,” Verica said. “The next guy just has to embrace that challenge. It’s time for him to fill in that void. He’s got to produce. We can’t just stick bodies in there and just say, ‘All right, we have 11 people on the field now.’ We have to stick that guy in there, and he’s got to produce, so we can win the game.
“It’s always a next-man-up mentality. That’ll never change. It’s unfortunate that we’re losing some key guys at this point of the season, but there’s nothing we can do about that.”
Torchia, like Verica, is a fifth-year senior. To see his close friend’s college career end prematurely is “extremely disappointing,” Verica said.
“He’s been through it all with me these past four or five years, and I know we were both really excited for him to have this opportunity and this experience for him as a senior. That experience was cut short, and it’s unfortunate, but I think when we look back on it, and he looks back on it, he’ll be very proud of the times that he played as a Cavalier. He always conducted himself in a very professional manner, and he was a great player and a great teammate, and I think those things will go a long way.”
MIXED FEELINGS: In Smith’s absence, junior Matt Snyder is establishing himself as the team’s No. 3 option at wideout, behind senior Dontrelle Inman and junior Kris Burd.
Snyder, a former walk-on, had career highs in catches (4) and receiving yards (96) in UVa’s 33-21 loss to Georgia Tech.
“Timmy’s one of my best friends here at the University, and it was terrible news to hear that he’s done, and nobody likes to hear that,” Snyder said. “But with that comes a little bit of opportunity for me, and I’m just trying to fill in his role to the best of my ability and do the best I can.
“In playing well, I feel like I honor him. He’s out, and I can do my best to pay homage to him almost.”
Snyder, listed at 6-4, 205 pounds, has sure hands and made two leaping catches against the Yellow Jackets. But he’s also known for his blocking ability.
“If you call half runs and half passes, there’s only 50 percent of the plays where the wide receiver would even be able to catch a ball,” Snyder said. “I think blocking’s a way you can really make your mark as a wide receiver and really show your toughness and get after a defensive back …. I’ve tried to make my niche there, yes.”
OH, BROTHER: Most of the playing time on UVa’s defensive line has gone to five players this season — juniors Zane Parr (end), Cameron Johnson (end), Nick Jenkins (tackle) and Matt Conrath (tackle) and senior John-Kevin Dolce (tackle).
London said Monday that two reserve linemen, sophomore tackle Will Hill and redshirt freshman end Jake Snyder, “deserve to go in the game, so we’re going to give them some opportunities to do that.”
Jake is one of Matt’s younger brothers. Unlike Matt, Jake was a highly regarded college prospect at Deep Run High and accepted a scholarship offer from UVa.
He’s listed at 6-4, 255 pounds. That’s light for a defensive end in the 3-4, the scheme UVa ran under London’s predecessor, Al Groh. For the 4-3, though, that fits the model.
“Jake’s a guy that when you tell him something to do, he’s going to do it, and he’s not going to complain about it,” Matt said. “So [although] the 3-4 might have not have been his niche, he was going to try to put on weight and do that to the best of his ability. But with that being said, I think he is a great 4-3 player, and I think he can rush the passer with the best of them.
“Now, I might be a little biased, because he is my brother, and I’ve played with him, and I think very highly of him, but I think he’s a great player, and I think he’ll do great things.”
The brothers, not surprisingly, are close.
“We always talk, and if he has things he wants to ask or he needs to talk about, he knows he can always come to me,” Matt said, “and I can always tell him things that I can’t tell anybody else, that he understands that nobody else really will. And that’s something that I really value, having a brother on the team, which not many people get to say they can do.”
ROLE MODEL: Verica, one of the team captains, has struggled for long stretches in the past two games. In those situations, he knows, his teammates watch how he’s handling himself.
“When things aren’t going well or in any adverse situations, the members of a group are going to look to their leader to see how he’s going to respond,” Verica said. “If they see that their leader is tucking his tail or he’s embarrassed or he’s humiliated or he’s discouraged, that’s probably going to permeate throughout the group.
“So it’s important to just kind of stay strong and say, ‘All right, we have another opportunity here, let’s focus on what our job is and let’s keep going.’ And my approach is, I’ll never stop and I’ll never quit.”