By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Last Saturday’s football game at Scott Stadium matched ACC rivals whose series dates to 1892.
This Saturday’s game at Scott Stadium has no such historical significance. UVa and Eastern Michigan are meeting for the first time. This will not be the start of a long, storied rivalry, and the crowd figures to be among the smallest at a Virginia home game since the stadium was expanded about a decade ago.
The Cavaliers (2-4), though, have plenty to play for. In their first season under Mike London, the Wahoos have beaten only Richmond and VMI, neither of which competes in the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision. The ‘Hoos won’t have a chance to break their nine-game losing streak in ACC play until next weekend, when Miami comes town, but they can collect an FBS victory Saturday night.
For a program coming off a 3-9 season, such steps, no matter how small, are important.
“Guys are itching for an opportunity to get back on the field and play football, play winning football,” London said Wednesday on the ACC coaches’ teleconference.
Virginia’s opponent is a team that ended an 18-game losing streak by rallying for a 41-38 overtime win over Mid-American foe Ball State last weekend.
Only about 10 percent of the head coaches at the FBS level are African-American, but two of those men will be on the sidelines Saturday night in Charlottesville: London and Eastern Michigan’s Ron English, a former assistant at Louisville and Michigan.
The Black Coaches and Administrators organization, in fact, believes this will be the first Division I football game in which the opposing head coaches and athletics directors are all African-Americans.
London and his boss, Craig Littlepage, applaud this milestone. London’s focus this week, though, has been on ending a streak that began Oct. 2 with a 34-14 loss to Florida State.
Since then, UVa has lost 33-21 to Georgia Tech and, last weekend, 44-10 to North Carolina. The teams to which Virginia has lost this season are a combined 20-7. Eastern Michigan is 1-6.
“We need to win,” London said Monday during his weekly news conference at John Paul Jones Arena.
To do so, the Cavaliers probably need to avoid the turnovers that doomed them against UNC. Starting quarterback Marc Verica threw three interceptions, the last of which the Tar Heels returned for a touchdown. Verica’s backups, redshirt freshman Ross Metheny and true freshman Michael Rocco, threw one interception apiece.
Since the Carolina game, debates about Verica have raged on message boards devoted to UVa athletics. Many fans would like to see a change at quarterback. London and offensive coordinator Bill Lazor aren’t ready to make that move.
“I know it’s frustrating for others and for [Verica] himself to see him throw three interceptions, and everyone wants a quick change,” London said Wednesday, but Metheny and Rocco “are still in a phase of development.
“We’ll continue to look for opportunities to put them in the game, but right now Marc gives us the best chance to win.”
London said he’s “cognizant of the fact, going into a game, that if [Verica is] not on with the passes or making good decisions, then you’ll have to maybe put something else in there.
“But we have confidence in Marc in what he can do, because we’ve seen what he can do. So we’ll keep moving down that path.”
At Eastern Michigan, there’s no quarterback controversy. Sophomore Alex Gillett completed 10 of 18 passes for 225 yards and 3 touchdowns against Ball State. Gillett also rushed 35 times for 189 yards — both school records for a quarterback — and 2 TDs.
“We have to find ways to get to the quarterback through personnel, through schemes,” London said. “We’re going to have to find ways to put pressure on him.”
After running a pro-style offense for its first six games, Eastern Michigan switched to a spread against Ball State. Virginia isn’t sure exactly what’s coming Saturday night.
“We’re just trying to prepare for both offenses,” junior safety Rodney McLeod said. “That’s definitely challenging. You never know what you’re going to get that first snap, what they’re going to come out in. You just gotta be alert.”
In the first half alone, North Carolina had plays that gained 81, 54, 46, 20 and 19 yards last weekend. A UVa defense that played well in September has become prone to blown coverages and missed tackles.
“We know what we have to do,” said sophomore LaRoy Reynolds, a first-year starter at outside linebacker.
The hard part, of course, is the execution.
“We started out the season and we prided ourselves on gang-tackling and running to the ball,” London said. “We need to keep cultivating the mindset that when one guy misses [the ball-carrier], then the next guy and next guy have got to be there. That is all part of defensive football. We’ve got to get back to that.”
Eastern Michigan’s defense has bigger problems. The Eagles have allowed an average of 43.4 points per game. Only one of the 120 teams in the FBS — New Mexico (46.5) — is giving up more.
For a UVa offense that, when it wasn’t self-destructing, gained 335 yards against North Carolina, the timing could be ideal.
“As an offense right now we have had some frustrating times, especially this last game,” sophomore tight end Colter Phillips said Monday. “We drive the whole field and then something would happen. It’s frustrating, but at the same time we understand that we can move the ball, and I think that’s the most important thing.”
Three UVa starters who missed all or part of the UNC game — cornerback Ras-I Dowling, wideout Dontrelle Inman and offensive tackle Landon Bradley — practiced this week and might play Saturday night.