By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — As a head coach, Mike London has already celebrated one victory over an ACC team. That, however, was when he coached Richmond, which beat Duke 24-16 on Sept. 5, 2009.
As the head man at UVa, London is 0-3 against ACC foes. His predecessor, Al Groh, lost his final six conference games in 2009. Which means a victory over the 22nd-ranked Miami Hurricanes would be significant not only for London but for his program.
“It would be a milestone for all of us,” junior fullback Terence Fells-Danzer said.
At noon Saturday, in a game that ESPN will televise, UVa (0-3, 3-4) hosts No. 22 Miami (3-1, 5-2) at Scott Stadium.
“We’re looking to break through in the ACC,” junior wideout Matt Snyder said, “and this would be, as Terence said, a milestone game for us. It would be a big win and a great way to jump back into ACC play to finish off the year.”
The matchups, not surprisingly, do not favor the Wahoos. They lost 34-14 to Florida State, which crushed Miami 45-17. The ‘Canes rank second nationally in sacks and second in tackles for loss. UVa, meanwhile, is tied for 85th in sacks allowed.
The Hurricanes’ pass rush forces quarterbacks into mistakes. The ‘Canes have intercepted 14 passes this season, the most of any ACC team.
“Miami’s always a big, physical, fast team, and I don’t think this year is an exception,” Snyder said.
A year ago, Marc Verica was sacked twice and picked off once in Virginia’s 52-17 loss at Miami. He completed only 11 of 29 passes for 75 yards against the ‘Canes.
“They were just playing a lot of man to man and a lot of press [coverage],” Verica recalled this week. “They weren’t blitzing much. Just lining up and daring us to beat them, and we weren’t winning the individual battles.
“This year it’ll definitely be important to rise to that challenge … We have to win one-on-one battles.”
As a redshirt sophomore in 2008, Verica started nine games. In ’09, however, Groh turned to Jameel Sewell, the 2007 starter. If not for an injury to Sewell, Verica might not have played against Miami last season.
“Last year was kind of a difficult situation, but I had to try and respond,” Verica said. “If you’re the backup quarterback, that’s what you gotta do. You gotta be ready, no matter when you’re called. This year, fortunately, I have some games under my belt. Hopefully that rhythm and the game experience I have this year will benefit me.”
In its past four games, Virginia has allowed an average of 449.3 yards. Even Eastern Michigan, whose record is 1-7, repeatedly pierced UVa’s defense for big gains, and the ‘Canes have considerably more firepower than the Eagles.
So improved play on defense is essential for the ‘Hoos if they want to challenge the ‘Canes. The offense has a huge responsibility, too.
“Can’t start slow,” London said. “Can’t get in those second-and-long situations. We’ve got to stay out of those things, because this is the type of teams that thrives on that.”
Verica said: “We obviously have to be productive on first down. So if it’s a run it’s got to be a positive run play. And a positive run play for us is in the area of 4 yards or more. And then if we throw the ball on first down, we need completions.”
Against Eastern Michigan, Jimmy Howell averaged 44.3 yards on his three punts (and threw a 56-yard touchdown pass to Trey Womack on a fourth-down fake). Robert Randolph was 2 for 2 on field goals, connecting from 24 and 31 yards, and kickoff specialist Chris Hinkebein had five touchbacks in the second half.
“When you add up keys to the game, or things that we have to do, then obviously, and without a doubt, the kicking game will play a critical role in any success that we have,” London said. “So I think the legs of those three guys are going to be important if we’re going to add up to having an opportunity to play well.”
These teams haven’t met at Scott Stadium since Nov. 1, 2008. On that afternoon, quarterback Jacory Harris, then a true freshman, came off the bench to help the ‘Canes rally for a 24-17 overtime win. Virginia didn’t win again that season.
“It was a tough one to watch,” recalled junior defensive tackle Nick Jenkins, who missed the game with an injury. “They’re beatable, but they’re a very, very, very good team.”
Harris has been erratic this season, throwing 10 interceptions (along with 14 TD passes). Still, when “he’s on, he’s on,” London said. “Hopefully he’ll be off on this Saturday.”
If the Cavaliers stumble against Miami, they will have four more opportunities this season to end their conference losing streak, starting Nov. 6 at Duke (0-4, 1-6).
“We really need an ACC win,” junior cornerback Chase Minnifield said. “We just gotta keep working for it, and hopefully some things go our way.”
That Virginia has struggled this season is not shocking. From a team that finished 3-9 last season, UVa lost such players as Sewell, Rashawn Jackson, Mikell Simpson, Nate Collins, Chris Cook, Vic Hall, Will Barker, Darren Childs and Denzel Burrell. The ‘Hoos entered their first season under London with renewed optimism, but they were realistic, too.
“We knew it was going to be hard and it wasn’t going to come easy and we were going to have to work on it,” Fells-Danzer said.