By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Eighteen consecutive times, Eastern Michigan’s football players trudged off the field in defeat. That weighed heavily on their coach, who knew how hard they practiced and saw the toll that losing took on them.
The story had a happier ending for the Eagles on Saturday afternoon. On the road, against Mid-American Conference rival Ball State, Eastern Michigan produced the biggest comeback in school history and won 41-38 in overtime, snapping a losing streak that spanned a season and a half.
The team belted out the EMU fight song on the field afterward and again in the locker room. English, the Eagles’ second-year coach, happily took it all in.
“It’s just gratifying for me to see the kids have some success,” English said on the MAC coaches’ teleconference Monday.
“Of course, as you can imagine, the players were jubilant and really happy, and some of them were relieved. It was fun to sit back and watch it all.”
At UVa, first-year coach Mike London’s team is dealing with a modest three-game losing streak. But the Cavaliers have yet to beat a team from the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision this season and, dating back to 2009, have dropped nine straight ACC games.
Boos were aimed at senior quarterback Marc Verica during Virginia’s 44-10 loss to North Carolina — the Tar Heels’ first victory in Charlottesville since 1981 — and attendance is dropping at home games.
All of which makes UVa’s next game significant. The Wahoos (2-4) host the Eagles (1-6) in a non-conference game Saturday night at Scott Stadium.
“I look at this as an opportunity to play well and win a game,” London said Monday at John Paul Jones Arena. “We need to win a game. You lose a game, and it’s a long week of answering questions. You think about what you could have done better, while the guys are going to class all week going through all of that.
“The only way you take care of that is by playing well and giving them a chance to win a game.”
Among the players who fielded questions Monday at JPJ was Trevor Grywatch, a walk-on linebacker from Ashburn. Grywatch recently donated bone marrow — as London did in 2003 — and will be the subject of a VirginiaSports.com article later this week.
Verica, a fifth-year senior from outside Philadelphia, did not make it to the press conference, but his name came up many times. Verica threw three interceptions against UNC, the last of which was returned for a touchdown.
Offensive coordinator Bill Lazor tried two other quarterbacks Saturday night — redshirt freshman Ross Metheny and true freshman Michael Rocco — and each threw a red-zone interception.
“There is no quarterback controversy,” London said Monday. “Marc Verica is our quarterback and gives us the best opportunity to win any games right now until he proves otherwise. But we will continue to keep trying to find moments to put Michael and Ross in the game to find out how much they can close the gap [on Verica] or how much they’ll widen the gap between each other.”
Sophomore tight end Colter Phillips said Verica is “going to play his role in helping us become a better team, whatever that is. Marc’s working hard right now, and I really respect him.
“I know he’s getting a lot of criticism and all that, but all the guys on the team have a lot of confidence in Marc, and we know Marc is going to do his job, and he’s going to play well.”
The Wahoos have entered what appears to be a more forgiving stretch of their schedule. The opponents UVa has lost to this season — Southern California, Florida State, Georgia Tech and UNC — are a combined 20-7.
The next four teams on Virginia’s schedule — Eastern Michigan, Miami (Fla.), Duke and Maryland — are a combined 10-15.
“The season is long from being over,” London said. “Maybe a lot of people have written us off in terms of opportunities to do anything with the season, but these guys, with the way they lift, the way they prepare, talking to [strength-and-conditioning coach Brandon] Hourigan and people that are around them, they’re upbeat, they’re excited.
“The mindset is different than what it was [last season]. That’s half the battle right there. Because you can get into a defeatist attitude and hang your head. There is no hanging of the head.”
The UNC game fell during UVa’s Homecomings weekend, yet drew only 50,830 fans to Scott Stadium, whose capacity is 61,500. The crowd for the EMU game is likely to be considerably smaller.
“Obviously, I’d love to have [60,000 or 65,000], with the fire marshal closing the gates,” London said. “But again, it’s what we do on the field. I understand the frustration people have sometimes. Seeing the game with five turnovers you get disappointed. We all are.”
To UVa students, fans and the Charlottesville community, London had this message: Come along for the ride, “so that when this thing does get turned around, they’ll remember.”
When the UNC game ended, London kept his players on the field. Those who had already entered the locker room were summoned back to hear London’s address the team.
“It was a reality check for everyone,” sophomore linebacker LaRoy Reynolds recalled Monday. “It really hit me hard.”
“I said, ‘I don’t want you to forget this,’ ” London said. “This is your homecoming. We got embarrassed. I don’t want you to forget what it felt like.”