By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — In the jubilant home locker room, the dancing and singing and chanting stopped long enough for first-year coach Mike London to address his football team.
“Great victory,” London shouted with what was left of his voice, “but that’s just the beginning.”
No longer is UVa (1-3, 4-4) without an ACC win. No longer must the Wahoos live with the possibility of a 3-9 finish for the second straight year. That scenario was obliterated Saturday afternoon, when the ‘Hoos built a huge lead and then held on for a 24-19 victory over 22nd-ranked Miami at Scott Stadium.
“It’s a huge win,” senior quarterback Marc Verica said. “I couldn’t be happier for our team and Coach London to get our first ACC win under his leadership. Being 0-3 in the ACC, we were definitely starving for a win.”
For the second straight weekend, the turnout was disappointing at Scott Stadium, where the official attendance Saturday was 39,528. But the supporters who showed up were in full voice, and when time finally ran out on the Hurricanes’ comeback, UVa players and students and fans formed a mosh pit at midfield.
London had kept his players on the field after a 44-10 loss to North Carolina on Oct. 16, and he had them stay out there again Saturday. Just as he wanted them to remember the pain of the one-sided loss to UNC, he wanted them to remember the joy of a memorable win.
“I don’t know how many other opportunities we’ll have before the season’s over for that to happen, but you’ve got to start somewhere, and you’ve got to start a mindset of, ‘This is what we want done, and this is what’s going to happen around here for a long time,’ ” said London, who had to stop twice to compose himself during his postgame press conference.
“So just being out there and sharing the moment with them and the students, I thought was a pretty signature moment for them. And then we came back in the locker room and celebrated some more. They’re probably celebrating again.”
He smiled. “That’s why I wish we could hurry up and finish this, so I could go back and celebrate with them.”
The Cavaliers came in having lost nine consecutive ACC games and were 15-point underdogs to a supremely talented Miami team. But Virginia struck first, on a touchdown pass from quarterback Marc Verica to sophomore tight end Colter Phillips on fourth-and-3 from the Hurricanes’ 16.
“Just sending the message that we’re here to call the game to play to win the game,” London said. “And when you have sometimes a team that’s taken its lumps a little bit, then the only way to bring yourself out of that mindset is to say, ‘You know, I have enough faith in you that we’re going to go for it on this down and we’re going to get it.’ ”
At halftime, the score was 14-0. After three quarters, it was 17-0, and the ‘Hoos led 24-0 with 11:56 to play. Miami had lost its starting quarterback, junior Jacory Harris, on a bone-rattling hit by defensive tackle John-Kevin Dolce early in the second quarter.
The ‘Canes tried third-string quarterback Spencer Whipple for two series, each of which ended with an interception. So in the second half Miami turned to true freshman Stephen Morris, a former UVa recruiting target who in his first college appearance finally found his rhythm in the fourth quarter.
Morris threw a 29-yard touchdown to wideout Leonard Hankerson to get the ‘Canes (3-2, 5-3) on the scoreboard with 10:34 to play. The two-point converstion attempt failed, but Morris’ 9-yard run pulled Miami to 24-12 with 4:45 left.
Matt Bosher missed the extra point, but his onside kick was recovered by the ‘Canes, or so ruled the officials. Moments later, Morris teamed with wideout Travis Benjamin on a pass-and-catch that went for a 60-yard TD, stunning the Cavaliers and the crowd.
Suddenly it was 24-19, with 4:39 to play. Two years ago, on the same field, the ‘Canes had pulled even with a long touchdown drive late in the fourth quarter, then won in overtime.
“That was one of the toughest losses I’ve seen in my career,” Verica recalled, “and it almost looked like it was heading down that same path today at the end there. I was just trying to do everything in my power to prevent that and help us secure the win.”
With many in the stands bracing for the worst, UVa took over at its 20 after Torrey Mack downed Bosher’s kickoff in the end zone.
“We knew that if the defense ended up going back out there on the field,” Virginia wideout Kris Burd, “it was going to be a tough thing to keep [the ‘Canes] out of the end zone, because of the explosive players they got on offense. So we knew we had to win the game on offense and just run the clock out.”
That was easier said than done, of course. Miami had all three of its second-half timeouts left, and UVa wanted to take no undue risks.
“You’d like to get in those situations and just hand the ball off about 10 straight times and go home,” offensive coordinator Bill Lazor said. “But it’s not easy, and we’re playing against a really good defense with physical players, and they made it tough on us.”
Two runs by sophomore tailback Perry Jones netted 7 yards. On third-and-3, with the ‘Canes desperate to get the ball back, Verica drilled a pass to junior wideout Matt Snyder, who made the catch for a 6-yard gain and a precious first down.
Jones ran for 1 yard, and then senior taiback Keith Payne did the same, bringing up third-and-8 from UVa’s 35. This time Verica teamed with Burd for a 20-yard gain.
“That was definitely the biggest catch of the season for me,” said Burd, who finished with 7 receptions for 104 yards.
Aided by an offsides call against Miami, the ‘Hoos were able to run out the clock. Then began a celebration that carried into the locker room, where senior cornerback Ras-I Dowling, one of UVa’s captains, presented a game ball to London.
“This stands out, being such a significant win,” said Verica, another team captain, “because it’s the first ACC win for Coach London, and that holds a lot of meaning for him and us.”
Verica completed 19 of 27 passes for 176 yards and 1 touchdown. He made one mistake, throwing an interception late in the third quarter, but otherwise ran his team confidently and efficiently.
Rarely has Verica, a fifth-year senior, been more impressive than on UVa’s final drive, with his completions to Snyder and Burd.
“It doesn’t get any harder than when the defense knows you’re going to go run-run-pass,” Lazor said. “You try to stay away from that formula as much as possible, but in that situation it’s hard to disguise. We’re trying to run the clock and make first downs. They were two critical plays. They were two concepts that I think our players, including Marc, know very well, and when you get in those situations, that’s what you should do: Give them things that you know that they know very well. I’m really proud of how they executed.”
The list of Virginia’s heroes is a long one and, in addition to Verica and Burd, includes Payne (81 yards and 2 TDs rushing), junior cornerback Chase Minnfield (2 interceptions), junior safety Corey Mosley (2 interceptions) and junior punter Jimmy Howell, who thrice pinned Miami inside its 20-yard line.
And then there was the offensive line, which for the third straight game was without junior Landon Bradley, a two-year starter at left tackle. Miami came in ranked second nationally in sacks. Verica did not go down once. Moreover, the Cavaliers rushed for 185 yards.
His charges blocked well on running plays, offensive line coach Ron Mattes said, and they “kept the quarterback clean all day. They had a heck of a game. We’ve been waiting for a breakout game, and I think finally the guys are getting the attitude that they like running the ball, and if they stay on their blocks and they do the techniques right, good things happen.”
True freshman Morgan Moses made his third straight start at right tackle for UVa. He was matched against defensive end Allen Bailey, a 6-4, 285-pound All-America candidate. Bailey was credited with 6 tackles, including one for loss, but he never overpowered Moses.
“Allen Bailey is a high-profile guy,” Moses said. “Hands down, he was a good player. But I just came out there fast, and I knew my teammates, my coaches and the O-line had my back on whatever I did. And just being able to compete against competition like that feels good.”
For a UVa team that until last weekend hadn’t beaten a Football Bowl Subdivision foe, just about everything felt good about the win over Miami.
“It was a great feeling, just because of the ups and downs that we’ve had,” Minnifield said. “But I know my teammates, and we really fight, and we’ve really got this will to win, and we keep putting in the effort and the work in practice, and it’s starting to pay off.”
GAME-CHANGER: Without Harris, who led the comeback win over UVa in 2008, the ‘Canes were nowhere near as dangerous on offense. But London has injury problems of his own.
“It was unfortunate for Jacory to go down, but I’m playing without [tight end] Joe Torchia,” London said. “I’m playing without [wideout] Tim Smith. Ras-I Dowling didn’t play. That’s the nature of football. You play with who you have, and I’m proud of the way our guys and our coaches responded.”
Dolce, who delivered the hit that knocked Harris out of the game, said, “You don’t wish harm on anyone. You want to play with sportsmanship. I hope he’s all right. I hope he gets to play next week.”
UNPLEASANT TOPIC: After pulling to 24-12, Miami attempted on onside kick that, the ESPN replay appeared to show, Minnifield corraled on the ground. But the official awarded possession to the ‘Canes, who struck for a TD on the next play.
“Please don’t get me started about that,” London said when asked about the call. “[Minnifield] came up with the ball. Not only did he have the ball in his hands when they were tussling … he came up with the ball.
“It’d be a shame if that was one of those game-changers … They just decided that the Miami guy had it, even though he didn’t come up with it. Chase had it in his hands and gave it to [the official]. It was a judgment call. They made it, and I gotta live with it, so we move on from there.”
Minnifield said: “I’m at the bottom of the pile, fighting with everybody or whatever, and I hear them saying the team in white’s got the ball, and he hasn’t even pulled everybody off the pile. So I really don’t know how they came to that decision. But it is what it is. We had to come back to play.”
For the season, Minnifield now has a team-high 6 interceptions. His picks against Miami were spectacular, especially his second, on which he leaped high in the back of the end zone and managed to get his left foot down before falling out of bounds.
“That was huge, because they were driving,” London said.
“Chase, he’s played lights out. I don’t know how many interceptions he has, but it seems like he always kind of gets one at the right time.”
Virginia’s five interceptions Saturday tied the school’s single-game record. Not since a 1994 rout of Virginia Tech, however, had the ‘Hoos picked off five passes.
REDEMPTION: Mosley was among the UVa players disciplined last weekend for academic lapses. His punishment, in fact, was the harshest handed out. Mosley did not play against Eastern Michigan.
“It took a toll on me,” he said Saturday. “The main thing was, I wanted to support my teammates. But individually coming back, I just wanted to make a statement, and it felt good to be back out there with my brothers.”
Mosley didn’t start against Miami, but he played much of the game, and he came up with the second and third interceptions of his UVa career.
The first he returned 44 yards to the Miami 48. The second Mosley ran back 25 yards, weaving his way up the field to the Hurricanes’ 5.
“I’m trying to be like 1-3 out there,” Mosley said with a smile, referring to Minnifield, who wears jersey No. 13.
UP NEXT: UVa plays Coastal Division rival Duke (0-4, 2-6) next weekend in Durham, N.C. The teams will meet at noon Saturday in a game to be shown on ESPNU or ESPN3.
The Blue Devils snapped a six-game losing streak Saturday by upsetting Navy 34-31 in Annapolis, Md.
UVa leads the series 32-29, but Duke has won the past two meetings. The ‘Hoos haven’t lost three straight in this series since the late 1970s.