By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Twice before he had been part of UVa football teams that beat the Miami Hurricanes.
But Mike London was Virginia’s defensive coordinator for those 2006 and ’07 victories. His first win over the ‘Canes as the man in charge felt different, London acknowledged Sunday night.
“As a head coach you’re responsible for trying to put the whole game plan together,” London said, “in terms of what we’re doing on offense and approving it, defense, special teams, for motivating the team, for disciplining them, for congratulating them, for whatever it may be.”
The victory over Miami represented the latest benchmark in London’s first season as head coach at UVa.
His first win? That came in the Sept. 4 opener against the University of Richmond, his alma mater.
His first victory over a Football Bowl Subdivision foe? That came Oct. 23 against Eastern Michigan.
His first win over an ACC team? That came Saturday afternoon, when Virginia beat then-No. 22 Miami 24-19 at Scott Stadium, ending a nine-game losing streak in conference play.
Now comes another opportunity for UVa (1-3, 4-4) to earn its first ACC road victory under London. Virginia meets Coastal Division rival Duke (0-4, 2-6) at noon Saturday in Durham, N.C.
“The important thing to do now is to not change and continue to work hard and prepare hard,” senior quarterback Marc Verica said.
The Blue Devils are coming off a 34-31 victory over Navy in Annapolis, Md., where sophomore quarterback Sean Renfree completed 28 of 30 passes for 314 yards and a touchdown. Renfree also rushed for 2 TDs.
“I think obviously he played about as good as you can play,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said Sunday evening.
Virginia’s victory over Miami was as improbable as Duke’s over Navy.
The Cavaliers entered as 15-point underdogs, and in the days leading up to the game, London’s players heard — outside the McCue Center, at least — that they weren’t fast enough or talented enough to stay with the Hurricanes.
They refused “to listen to those things,” London said after the game Saturday. “We are what we are, and we play a style that fits who we are. And today we played a style that was good enough to hang on to beat a very, very good football team. A fast team, an athletic team.”
Time and again this year, London has referred to his team as “a work in progress.” He knew when he took the job last December that virtually every aspect of the program needed rebuilding, but London did not expect the secondary to require much attention.
UVa’s returning players there included cornerbacks Ras-I Dowling and Chase Minnifield and safeties Corey Mosley and Rodney McLeod. Through seven games, however, those four have started together only once.
“It’s tricky a little bit,” London said of patching together a secondary.
McLeod, a junior, missed the first two games with a knee injury. He’s back to full speed, but injuries continue to hinder Dowling, who was a second-team all-ACC pick last season.
First there was a bad hamstring that sidelined Dowling for most of the training camp and kept him out of the first two games. Now he’s dealing with a knee injury and has played only one series in UVa’s past three games.
“God bless Ras-I,” London said Sunday night. “It’s one of those things … Doctors are still working with him to try to get him in a position where he can go out and feel good and play, and hopefully before the season [ends] that’ll happen. But this game we had to personnel our groups with the guys that we have that are able to play.
“We’ll see what happens here again [in practice] Tuesday, if Ras-I’s ready to play. If not, then we’ll come up with another game plan. But right now, the guys that are playing now, in this particular game, did a nice job, did a good job, did an excellent job, particularly playing on the ball with five interceptions.”
Dowling, listed as “probable” on the injury report UVa released Thursday night, was in uniform Saturday. He warmed up with the team but decided he wasn’t ready to play.
“It’s how he feels,” London said. “Ras-I is the type of guy that, probably even if he was 80 percent, he’d be like, ‘Coach, I know that 100 percent Mike Parker or Devin Wallace is probably better than me right now.’ ”
Wallace, a sophomore, had been starting in Dowling’s place until Saturday, when London and cornerbacks coach Chip West went with Parker, a fifth-year senior.
The 6-2, 210-pound Parker had one glaring mistake, missing a tackle on Miami’s final touchdown, a 60-yard pass play, but he tied linebackers LaRoy Reynolds and Darnell Carter for the team lead in tackles.
“I thought for an extended period of time Mike did a nice job,” London said. “Had eight tackles, was around the ball. Unfortunately gave up that one long big catch and score there at the end by not being in position. But we thought with their tall receivers that could provide a match-up opportunity.”
Mosley, a junior, returned from what was essentially a one-game suspension for academic lapses. He didn’t start against Miami but intercepted two passes and totaled 69 yards on his returns.
“I thought Corey played well. I thought he played the passing lanes well,” London said. “He played with energy. He played with the type of passion we always talk about.
“He could have pouted and said, ‘Woe is me,’ but he accepted the discipline that had occurred last week and came in the game and contributed in a big way.”
On offense, the ‘Hoos played for the third straight game without junior Landon Bradley, a two-year starter at left tackle who has a broken right hand. The revamped line, which includes sophomore Oday Aboushi at left tackle and true freshman Morgan Moses at right tackle, allowed no sacks Saturday and helped UVa pile up 185 yards rushing.
“It’s a great accomplishment,” Aboushi said. “We knew coming into the game today they were a tough team to run the ball on and pass against, and we knew we were going to have to have attention to detail. Everybody had to be on the same page.”
The Cavaliers’ final drive Saturday started with 4:39 left. Virginia led 24-19, but Miami had put up 19 unanswered points in a span of about six minutes. If the ‘Canes got the ball back, UVa’s offense knew, they might well leave with a victory.
“We talked before this game about having courage and finishing,” Aboushi recalled afterward, “and we looked at each other and we reminded each other, ‘Remember what we came into the game thinking, and don’t forget, we came in with a purpose. We came in to earn respect, and that’s what we’re going to do.’ And we did.”
Miami never got the ball back. Twice the ‘Hoos converted on third down, Verica hooking up first with junior wideout Matt Snyder for a 6-yard gain and then with junior wideout Kris Burd on a 20-yard completion.
On the game’s last play, Verica took the snap from junior Anthony Mihota. Verica then took a knee as the seconds ticked off the scoreboard clock.
“Sometimes you just gotta draw a line in the sand and say enough is enough,” London said Sunday night.