By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — UVa’s football team did the unthinkable on Oct. 15, 1990, rising to No. 1 in the polls. The Cavaliers’ stay at the top was brief, but a sense of optimism pervaded the program in those days.
Two decates later, the Cavaliers are seen not as national-championship contenders, but as also-rans in the ACC.
UVa hired Mike London to change that. Five games into his first season as head coach, his team is still seeking its first win over an opponent from the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision. But London sees better days coming.
“You’re discouraged, but you can’t let those feelings last very long, because you start to develop that defeatist‑type attitude and mentality,” London said Monday at John Paul Jones Arena.
That may have been an issue in 2009, when the Cavaliers dropped the final six games of Al Groh’s tenure, but the current players and coaches aren’t “feeling sorry for themselves or down or anything like that,” London said.
“We’re a work in progress, and we said that at the beginning when we first started … Our players are together. We’re all on the same page. Coaches are with each other, and the attitude and atmosphere around the McCue Center is high. And that’s the way it should be, because of the way things are changing.”
UVa (0-2, 2-3) hosts ACC rival North Carolina (1-1, 3-2) at 6 p.m. Saturday, and this much is certain: One streak will end at Scott Stadium.
The Cavaliers have dropped eight straight ACC games since winning at Maryland on Oct. 17, 2009.
The Tar Heels have lost 14 straight games to UVa in Charlottesville since winning at Scott Stadium in 1981.
Butch Davis is 0-3 against UVa as UNC’s coach, but only one of those losses was at Scott Stadium. Like London, Davis has no easy explanation for the Wahoos’ improbable run in this series. Overall, Virginia has won 10 of its past 12 meetings with Carolina.
“Some years you don’t win because you don’t have enough talent,” Davis said. “Some years you don’t win because maybe you make mistakes or whatever. I’m not privileged [to know] the entire history. But what transpired 10 years ago really shouldn’t have any relevance on the game you’re going to play this particular Saturday.”
An ongoing NCAA investigation has kept many of UNC’s projected starters off the field this season, including defensive end Marvin Austin, defensive end Robert Quinn, cornerbacks Charles Brown and Kendric Burney, and wideout Greg Little.
Burney will return next weekend against ACC foe Miami, however, and Houston was cleared Thursday to face UVa.
Even short-handed, the Tar Heels have been impressive this season. They’ve won three in a row since losing by six points to unbeaten LSU and then by six points to Georgia Tech.
The Cavaliers weren’t nearly as competitive against the defending ACC champion Yellow Jackets. Georgia Tech overhelmed the ‘Hoos with its triple-option offense, totaling 477 yards on the ground and 536 overall in a 33-21 win last weekend in Atlanta.
After such a humbling defeat, London said Monday, a player “can respond in a couple of ways. You can respond and let it get to you, or you can [say], ‘Coach, next opportunity I want to do well.’ ”
Junior defensive tackle Nick Jenkins, a team captain, said the players returned to practice with the proper attitude.
“I think that happens any time you come off a loss,” Jenkins said Tuesday night. “You got a little chip on your shoulder, whether it be to go out and prove everybody wrong or to go out and say, ‘Screw what happened last week, we’re on a new page here.’ Everybody’s got a little pep in their step.”
UVa’s defense, no doubt, is happy to be preparing for a more conventional offense. The ‘Hoos tackled better against Georgia Tech than they had a week earlier versus Florida State, but the defense broke down in other areas at Bobby Doddy Stadium.
The Jackets’ “big-yardage plays came from [defenders] just not being in the right gaps and not having the right run responsibility,” linebackers coach Vincent Brown said.
Of UVa’s starting ‘backers against Georgia Tech, two (LaRoy Reynolds and Ausar Walcott) are sophomores who were reserve safeties in 2009. In the middle was junior Aaron Taliaferro, who was in for five plays at linebacker last year, all in the opener.
For such an inexperienced group, the Jackets’ attack presented an enormous challenge.
“Yes, it was very difficult,” Brown said. “We got young guys. Even the older guys that have been here a while had never really played and faced that kind of offense. Not making excuses for them, but until you see it first-hand and understand the tempo at which they operate and the exactness that we need to operate in order to be proficient in stopping the run, you end up getting what we got.”
The Heels run a pro-style offense that will look more familiar to UVa. Even so, stopping Carolina won’t be easy. Senior tailback Johnny White is a superb runner and receiver, and senior quarterback T.J. Yates has thrown only one interception in 160 passes this season.
A season ago, Yates had only three games in which he did not throw a pick.
“I think probably the one single biggest factor [in Yates’ improvement] is certainly his experience and poise of having been in big, meaningful games,” Davis said. “I think that every quarterback goes through a certain period of time where they’re young, they’re inexperienced, they’re a little bit cautious.”
Virginia’s quarterback, fifth-year senior Marc Verica, has cut down on his interceptions this season, but he has struggled recently with his accuracy and consistency, especially in the first half.
In each of the Cavaliers’ past two games, they padded their stats with a long fourth-quarter touchdown drive that came after the outcome had been decided. If the ‘Hoos are going to break their ACC losing streak, their offense must perform better early.
“It’s just about execution and coming out ready to play and understanding what is your assignment and what is your execution,” Vercia said. “We have to do a better job in the first half, because the trend is that we’re getting in holes now, so when we come out in the second half the hole might be too deep to dig ourselves out of.”
The problem is not, Verica said, that the offense lacks a sense of urgency in the first half.
“I think what it really comes down to is just execution,” he said. “We just have to make sure that from the first play of the game, we know what our assignment is, and we know how to go about executing it, so we can get first downs and keep our defense off the field and put points on the board.”
They won’t get any sympathy from UNC, but the Cavaliers are missing several key players on offense. Tackle Landon Bradley, tight end Joe Torchia and wideout Tim Smith are sidelined with injuries. (Torchia and Smith are out for the season). Moreover, wideout Dontrelle Inman, the team’s second-leading receiver, is questionable Saturday because of an ankle injury.
All of which means London’s first season is getting no easier. He remains unfazed.
“I think we’re doing it the right way,” London said. “And I know people want us to win, and that will come. But right now you’re looking at a guy that is extremely confident in his players and coaches and, that’s the way I’m going to remain, because I have to be. I can’t look at it any other way.”