Oct. 17, 2010

By Jeff White (jwhite@virginia.edu)

CHARLOTTESVILLE — It’s not unusual to see a college football team linger on its home field after a victory to soak up the fans’ applause and celebrate with the student body.

Mike London kept his players on the field at Scott Stadium after the worst loss of his short tenure as UVa’s head coach. Some of the Cavaliers had already gone to the locker room Saturday night, but they were summoned back to join the rest of the team at midfield.

The scoreboard still showed the final score: North Carolina 44, Virginia 10. The loss was the Wahoos’ first against UNC at Scott Stadium since 1981. Not since 1946 had Carolina scored so many points in Charlottesville.

“I wanted them to feel what it feels like to get beat like we did on your homecoming, with the other team’s fans cheering them on, and then never, ever, ever forget that feeling,” London said later. “To never forget a feeling when somebody else comes in your house and hands it to you like they did.

“We’re going to win around here. And I told them we’re going to win around here … This is a learning process for us, but the mindset of the team that I’m going to coach is not going to forget something like that.”

Exactly one year has now passed since Virginia last won an ACC game. That was against Maryland. Overall, the ‘Hoos have won only twice since that rainy night in College Park, and those victories, both on London’s watch, came against teams from the NCAA’s Football Championship Subdivision, Richmond and VMI.

And so UVa (0-3, 2-4) came into the UNC game looking to make something positive happen early. Instead, the Cavaliers surrendered an 81-yard touchdown pass on the game’s first play.

“It’s the simplest of plays,” Carolina quarterback T.J. Yates said.

On a crossing pattern, wideout Dwight Jones caught a short pass from Yates. Cornerback Chase Minnifield missed a tackle, linebacker Ausar Walcott couldn’t get off a block, and Jones raced untouched along the UVa sideline for a TD that stunned the Homecomings crowd of 50,830.

Such a play “takes the wind out of your sail a little bit,” London acknowledged. “But you know what? Things happen in the game like that, and your ability to respond back to that is [where] you find out what your team is made of.”

The Cavaliers’ response was tepid, especially on defense. Senior cornerback Ras-I Dowling, who was expected to anchor UVa’s secondary, was a late scratch because of a knee injury and missed his third game of the season.

Without Dowling, the secondary looked lost at times. UNC (2-1, 4-2) didn’t punt until about a minute remained in the second quarter. In addition to the Yates-to-Jones 81-yarder, Carolina also had gains of 54, 46, 20, 19 and 15 yards in the first half.

“We’ve got to respond better,” London said. “Adversity is going to happen in a lot of things. It happens in life. But it’s how you choose to respond to those things that makes a difference.”

Jones, a 6-4, 220-pound junior, had totaled 12 catches for 104 yards and 1 touchdown in Carolina’s first five games. Against UVa, he had 7 receptions for 198 yards and 2 TDs.

Yates, a senior, finished 17 of 22 passing for 325 yards and 3 TDs. He threw no interceptions and wasn’t sacked.

Virginia’s starting quarterback, meanwhile, suffered through one of the worst games of his college career. Fifth-year senior Marc Verica threw three interceptions, the last of which linebacker Kevin Reddick returned 22 yards for a touchdown with 9:12 remaining in the third quarter.

That was enough for offensive coordinator Bill Lazor, who replaced Verica with redshirt freshman Ross Metheny on UVa’s next possession.

Verica’s first turnover came with UVa trailing 10-3 late in the first quarter. In the face of a fierce pass rush, Verica tried to throw the ball out of bounds, but his pass didn’t make it to the sideline.

UNC took over at its 49-yard line. Seven plays later, the Heels had their second touchdown and led 17-3.

“The play was doomed from the start,” Verica said. “It was a bad snap, and I compounded the mistake by turning the ball over. I was trying to get rid of it, but when you get rid of it, you have to get rid of it, obviously, get it out of bounds, so the defense can’t make a play on it. Which they did. So that one’s on me.”

Verica threw his second interception early in the second quarter, on third-and-13 from the Heels’ 16. He tried to force the ball into an area swarming with UNC defenders, and linebacker Zach Brown returned the interception 70 yards to the Virginia 25.

“He’s got to do better,” London said when asked about Verica’s performance. “Your fifth-year quarterback has got to do better, but we’ve got to do a lot of things better. I’m sure he’s not satisfied with his performance also.”

Verica said: “It was a disappointing thing. We were moving the ball. We were definitely getting a push at the line of scrimmage. We were running it well, throwing it well. But we weren’t capitalizing on those drives in the red zone, and obviously the turnovers, the interceptions, are killers.”

The ‘Hoos punted only twice, totaled 335 yards and picked up 19 first downs Saturday. But they turned the ball over five times, all on interceptions. The quarterbacks who followed Verica — Metheny and true freshman Michael Rocco — each threw a red-zone pick too.

“There’s one common thread in the five interceptions, and that’s the quarterback coach,” Lazor said. “So you’ve got to put those on me. It’s amazing to have a day with that many, but when three different quarterbacks throw five, then you’ve got to certainly put that burden on my shoulders. I didn’t do a good enough job getting them ready.”

For his career, Verica has now thrown 23 interceptions, to 14 touchdown passes.

Asked if Verica would remain the starter, London said, “Marc’s the quarterback right now. But every player is and will be evaluated based on their performance, and that’s the way it’s supposed to be. But we’ll see [Sunday night] where things are with that.”

Asked the same question, Lazor said, “I hadn’t thought about it till you asked it, so I guess I’m not prepared to answer that. In my mind, [Verica is still the starter], and he gives us the best chance to win, but I’m sure that’s something we’ll discuss as a staff. And sometimes when you watch the video, your opinion changes a little bit … We’ll watch it [Sunday], and we’ll talk to Coach London, and we’ll figure it out.”

At halftime, UVa had 15 first downs, to UNC’s 9. Yet the Wahoos trailed 27-10. For the game, tailbacks Keith Payne (107 yards and 1 TD rushing) and Perry Jones (53 yards) averaged 4.7 and 4.8 yards per carry, respectively. Yet UVa failed to score at least 14 points for the first time this season.

“I think we’ll watch the video and we’ll be encouraged by the play of some of our guys,” Lazor said. “We’ll be encouraged by some of the things that our offense did well. But there will never be a time when you can turn it over like that and hope to win the game. It was not a consolation. It’s just the reality of where we are as an offense. We’re finding things we can do well. It’s unfortunate we’re doing it while we’re losing. And so we want to change that. We want to continue finding out more about ourselves, but do it with wins.”

Of the players who were expected to figure prominently for UVa this season, four didn’t play Saturday night: Dowling (knee), tight end Joe Torchia (shoulder), wideout Tim Smith (ankle) and offensive tackle Landon Bradley (hand). A fifth regular, senior wideout Dontrelle Inman, who’s averaging 16.2 yards per reception this season, tested his sore ankle early in the game but couldn’t continue.

In the absence of Dowling, who was a second-team all-ACC pick last year, sophomore Devin Wallace started at cornerback and was victimized several times.

“It really wasn’t [Wallace’s fault] all the time, but it appeared that way,” defensive coordinator Jim Reid said. “I understand. One time [Wallace should have been] getting a little bit of help. We really had a couple of major breakdowns that we hadn’t had all year. That’s what was kind of surprising. So I know that we can fix it.”

UVa forced one turnover, a fumble that defensive tackle Matt Conrath recovered at UNC’s 16-yard line with 3:27 left in the third quarter.

The possession that followed was Metheny’s second. His first had ended when his ill-advised pass, on second-and-goal from UNC’s 3, was intercepted.

This series went no better. On first-and-goal from the 5, Metheny fumbled the snap and lost 3 yards. The next three plays, runs by Payne, netted only 4 yards, and UVa turned the ball over on downs.

“You can move the ball up and down the field, but when you have turnovers like that, and it keeps you out of the end zone, or you can’t score in the red zone, then it does you no good,” London said.

And so the Cavaliers, who wore orange jerseys and orange pants in a game for the first time since 1986, saw their streak of 14 straight home victories over UNC snapped.

“Opportunities that slipped away were evident tonight, but you know, we’re not going to tuck our heads, we’re not going to turn tail,” London said. “That’s my team, and I gotta coach ’em up. There’s nobody else to go to. We’ve got to do a better job of coaching from all aspects.

“Again, I apologize to our fans and the people that come and support us. That wasn’t a very good showing. That rests with me. I’ve got to get the team prepared better in order to play and be representative of the team I think we can be.

“It’s frustrating, and you can point fingers here and there, but it’s my responsibility to make sure these guys do what they’re supposed to do and then execute … That’s a hurting locker room in there, and we should be.”

UVa plays the second of three straight home games next weekend. Eastern Michigan, which snapped an 18-game losing streak this weekend, visits Scott Stadium at 6 p.m. Saturday.

“We’re not there yet, but we’ll get there,” London said. “We’ll get there.”

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