By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The final score suggests a blowout, and by the 13:07 mark of the fourth quarter, that was an accurate description of the UVa-Eastern Michigan football game at Scott Stadium.
At halftime, though, Virginia’s lead was only three points. On a crisp fall night, fans wondered anxiously if a fourth straight loss awaited Mike London’s team.
Special teams swung the first-ever meeting between these teams. First, Terence Fells-Danzer returned a kickoff 70 yards for a touchdown that pushed the Cavaliers’ lead to 31-21 midway through the third quarter.
Then, early in the fourth quarter, Jimmy Howell, better known as UVa’s punter, passed to Trey Womack, better known as a reserve safety, on a fake punt that produced a 56-yard touchdown.
Suddenly it was a 17-point game, and the crowd of 37,386 could relax. And so could the Wahoos’ first-year coach.
“It feels good to win a game,” London said after his team’s 48-21 win. “It feels good to be able to celebrate with the players about the possibilities of what this team can do and can accomplish.
For the Cavaliers (3-4), the victory was their first over an opponent from the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision.
“You can’t let the highs get too high or the lows get too low,” London said. “But when you haven’t won around here in a while, and you have a chance to experience a win, regardless of the opponent … you always want to win. I’m very proud of the team, particularly the second-half effort.”
One week after throwing three interceptions in an ugly loss to North Carolina at Scott Stadium, quarterback Marc Verica performed much better against Eastern Michigan (1-7).
“He played the way that he needs to play in order for us to have a chance,” London said.
Verica, a fifth-year senior, completed 18 of 31 passes for 203 yards and two touchdowns. He wasn’t intercepted.
“I think it’s real important, when you get a quarterback who’s coming off a game with some interceptions, that you handle it the right way with him,” offensive coordinator Bill Lazor said. “And you absolutely want him to come out firing again. You cannot ever be cautious and play quarterback in this offense. If you’re cautious it won’t work.
“And so we just had to have him come away firing, and he did. We’ve learned from all the mistakes that occurred [against UNC], but we wanted him to stay aggressive and take what was there, and he took some shots up the field. We didn’t hit them all today, but he was taking them, so I felt really good about that.”
The coaching staff didn’t feel as upbeat about the defense’s play. The Cavaliers, who started only one senior on defense, surrendered touchdowns of 55, 53 and 31 yards, though EMU’s production declined in the second half.
The Eagles’ spread option “puts a lot of pressure on you, because it’s very detailed, assignment football,” Virginia defensive coordinator Jim Reid said.
Eastern Michigan has lost 19 of its past 20 games, largely because its defense consistently breaks down. The Eagles have speed on offense, though, with quarterback Alex Gillett and tailbacks Javonti Green and Dwayne Priest. The new spread-option scheme that helped this Mid-American Conference team beat Ball State last weekend confused the Cavaliers for much of the first three quarters Saturday night.
After Virginia bolted to a 14-0 lead, EMU scored on a 55-yard burst around right end by Green, who had gone in motion and was running at full speed when he took a handoff from Gillett. Then Gillett’s 31-yard touchdown run evened the game with 5:18 left in the second quarter.
Virginia’s defense had one major lapse in the second half — a play on which Green jetted 53 yards for a TD — but eventually asserted itself.
The Eagles wanted to attack the perimeter, London said. “They chopped our linebackers’ legs and our corners’ legs in the first half, and when you do that, put guys on the ground, and you’re running in an alley full speed, then you got angles. So they did a nice job in the first half and then came back and ran the same plays the second half, and we did a much better job staying on our feet, using our hands and scooting and having some overlap players getting involved.
“They executed better than we did the first half. I think we executed better than they did the second half.”
The special-teams touchdowns are what most fans will remember about this game, but there was another critical play seconds into the second half. After the first of UVa kicker Chris Hinkebein’s five touchbacks, the Eagles took over at their 20-yard line, trailing 17-14 with 30 minutes to play.
On first down, an errant snap got past Gillett, who had to fall on the ball at the 3-yard line. That brought up second-and-27, and “then the game-calling from the [offensive] coordinator’s standpoint changes a little bit, because you don’t want to do too many things that could get a sack or cause a turnover back there,” London said.
Sure enough, the Eagles took no risks. A punt soon followed, and Virginia started its first possession of the second half near midfield. This drive ended with Verica’s 3-yard touchdown pass to Fells-Danzer, a junior fullback from Culpeper.
“It was huge,” London said of the bad snap. “The battle of field position is always critical, and it kind of was a domino effect a little bit after that.”
The Cavaliers’ grip on the game was anything but tight — the score was 24-21 — when Eastern Michigan ran out to kick off after Green’s second TD. The Eagles were understandably wary of Raynard Horne, who came into the game averaging 27.5 yards per return, so they opted for a short, high kick.
The ‘Hoos pounced. Fells-Danzer fielded Kody Fulkerson’s kick at the UVa 30. He didn’t stop running until he reached the end zone.
He knew he was safe, Fells-Danzer said with a smile, once he “saw the kicker stumble.”
The 70-yard kickoff return was the second-shortest for a TD in UVa history. The record belongs to Joe Crocker, who in 1994 fielded an onside kick and ran it back 46 yards against Maryland.
Special-teams coordinator Anthony Poindexter credited another UVa assistant, Scott Wachenheim, with devising a return scheme on short kicks by EMU. Poindexter, though, was the one who signaled for a fake when Howell went back to punt in the first minute of the fourth quarter.
“I’m like, ‘Ah, hell. If I call this fake punt, and if it doesn’t work, Coach is going to shoot me,’ ” Poindexter recalled with a smile afterward.
Dex need not have worried. Howell, a former high school quarterback, took the snap from Danny Aiken and hesitated long enough for Womack, a former high school wideout, to break free across the middle.
Howell’s pass was on target, and the Cavaliers’ downfield blockers cleared a path for Womack, who sprinted untouched to the end zone.
“He was open, and I was like, ‘Just get it to him. Don’t try to do anything special. Just deliver the ball like you have in practice,’ ” Howell said.
Womack said: “It’s just a little screen. I had familiarity with it, because I ran that play in high school about three times a game [as a wideout]. And Jimmy, being a high school quarterback, we knew if we got that look with an all-out blitz that it was going to be there, and he just delivered the ball perfectly.”
The Cavaliers’ offense came away pleased, too. Tailbacks Keith Payne, Perry Jones and Horne rushed for 69, 57 and 44 yards, respectively, and Payne ran for 2 touchdowns. Junior wideout Matt Snyder had a career-high 6 receptions for 68 yards. Sophomore tight end Paul Freedman caught a 21-yard TD pass from Verica late in the first quarter.
“I thought we took strides and got better,” Lazor said.
With 4:59 left, London replaced Verica with true freshman Michael Rocco. Those who remained in the Cavaliers’ smallest home crowd of the season cheered Verica as he came to the sideline.
“I wanted to bring him out a little early and show him that I appreciated him,” London said, “and it sounded like a couple people out there appreciated him also.”
Verica said he tried not to put any pressure on himself after the UNC game.
“My approach was just to take it one play at a time and do the right thing, one play at a time,” he said. “In summation, when you add up all those small things when you’re doing it the right way, just over and over again, usually it’ll lead to good things. I wasn’t trying to play out of myself or make a big play or do anything extraordinary. I was just trying to approach every play kind of like a one-game season: This is my play, and this is what I have to do.”
NEW LOOK: Virginia opened the game with two new starters on offense: Fells-Danzer and sophomore center Mike Price. Fells-Danzer and junior Max Milien split time at fullback. Junior Anthony Mihota, who had started the first six games at center, replaced Price after the first series, which ended in Payne’s 4-yard TD run.
On defense, first-time starters were sophomore Jake Snyder at end, fifth-year senior Darnell Carter at middle linebacker, and junior Dom Joseph at safety.
Carter moved to the middle from outside linebacker after the UNC game, and junior Aaron Taliaferro shifted to an outside spot. Taliaferro had start the first six games at middle linebacker.
WELCOME TO THE CLUB: Before Saturday night, neither Freedman nor Fells-Danzer had scored a touchdown as a Cavalier. Verica was delighted to be able to help them break through.
“There’s no doubt about it,” Verica said. “Throwing a touchdown pass is always an exciting thing. But these are not only your teammates, they’re also your close friends off the field, and not everybody gets to score touchdowns in their career.
“I couldn’t be happier for Paul. He made a great play. And [Fells-Danzer], I don’t know if I’ve ever been happier for a guy making a play. His touchdown catch was definitely awesome, and then when he took the kickoff return to the house, I was as excited as anybody. It was an unbelievable play.”
UP NEXT: UVa (0-3, 3-4) returns to ACC play against 25th-ranked Miami (3-1, 5-2), which visits Scott Stadium next Saturday. The noon game will be shown on ESPN or ESPN2.
Miami hammered North Carolina 33-10 on Saturday night. Virginia has lost nine straight ACC games.