By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Ras-I Dowling left the game early in the first quarter, Perry Jones late in the second, Keith Payne early in the fourth.
Injuries to three of its best players hurt a UVa football team that entered its home finale with little margin for error. More costly, though, was the Cavaliers’ disturbing lack of discipline Saturday at Scott Stadium.
This was not a new development. In a shocking loss at Duke on Nov. 6, Virginia was flagged 11 times for 103 yards. A week later, against Maryland, the implosion was worse.
UVa, which led after three quarters, finished with 16 penalties — one shy of the school record — for 145 yards in a 42-23 loss to ACC rival Maryland.
The defeat was the Wahoos’ 11th straight in games played in November.
The ‘Hoos (1-5, 4-6) committed penalties on offense, on defense and special teams, making things much easier for the Terrapins (4-2, 7-3), who had dropped three straight games in this bitterly contested series.
“Way too many yellow flags on the ground,” said UVa quarterback Marc Verica, who was among the players recognized in the pregame Senior Day ceremony.
“It’s hard to overcome that. It’s hard to win a football game in the ACC when you have close to 20 penalties. I thought that was disappointing, and it’s been a trend that’s been kind of consistent throughout the whole season. We won’t win games until we can eliminate those kind of things.”
With two games remaining in its first season under Mike London, Virginia has been penalized 84 times. The school record for penalties in season, 90, was set in 2001, Al Groh’s first season as the Cavaliers’ coach. London’s first team has now been penalized 776 yards, so it’s approaching the school record of 831, also established in 2001.
“It’s frustrating,” London said. “That’s directly on us coaches, on what we teach and how we teach it and getting it across the players about what’s acceptable and what’s not acceptable. You can’t have that many penalties.”
The ‘Hoos were penalized six times in the first quarter, three times in the second and three times in the third. Still, they went into the break with momentum, having pulled to 21-20 when junior Chris Hinkebein closed the half with his first field goal as a Cavalier — a 52-yarder. Virginia went up 23-21 on junior Robert Randolph’s 37-yard field goal late in the third quarter and, moments later, had a chance to make another game-changing play.
Danny O’Brien dropped back to pass on third-and-14 from Maryland’s 40. UVa middle linebacker Darnell Carter dropped back in coverage, putting himself in perfect position to knock down or intercept O’Brien’s pass to flanker LaQuan Williams.
“That would have been big,” Virginia defensive coordinator Jim Reid said.
Alas, the ball glanced off Carter’s hands and went straight to Williams behind him. Williams made the catch for a 26-yard gain, and O’Brien passed to wideout Torrey Smith for a 27-yard gain on the next play. The Terps scored the first of their three fourth-quarter touchdowns at the 14:25 mark, and they never were seriously threatened again.
“Missed opportunity,” said Carter, a fifth-year senior who wore a sling during the game to protect an injured shoulder. “That’s all I can say. It hit my hands. That’s the way it is. When it hits your hands you gotta catch up.”
Reid said: “Darnell has worked very, very, very hard at this, and he really had a perfect drop, and, honestly, everybody was yelling, ‘Interception,’ when the ball left the quarterback’s hand. It was a nice deep drop, perfectly done. It happens sometimes … As I told him, there were a hundred turning points in the game. That one was a little bit more obvious than others.”
London said: “It was unbelievable, but that’s the way it goes. They got theirs, and we didn’t get ours.”
Indeed, Maryland had no turnovers. Virginia had two, both interceptions thrown by Verica.
For much of the first three quarters, Verica directed the offense brilliantly. He headed into the fourth having completed 22 of 36 attempts for 224 yards and 1 touchdown, with no picks, and his numbers would have been better had UVa’s normally sure-handed wideouts — Kris Burd, Dontrelle Inman and Matt Snyder — not dropped several passes in the first half.
Verica’s run ended in the final period. On Virginia’s first possession, he nearly had a pass intercepted. On the second, Verica underthrew his target, Burd, and safety Eric Franklin returned the interception 31 yards to the Cavaliers’ 28.
The Terps, leading 35-23, failed to score on that possession, but they came up with another turnover on Virginia’s next drive, as linebacker Adrian Moten wrestled the ball from Burd for the interception.
This time Maryland’s offense didn’t falter. Aided by two 15-yard penalties on UVa — the first on sophomore cornerback Devin Wallace for pass interference, the second on sophomore linebacker LaRoy Reynolds for a personal foul — the Terrapins drove 49 yards for their final TD, a 12-yard pass from O’Brien to Smith.
Smith, a junior from Colonial Beach, finished with 7 catches for 157 yards. He overwhelmed a secondary that lost Dowling, a senior cornerback, to an apparent ankle injury less than six minutes into the game.
“We tried to minimize what he could do to us on the special teams part of it,” London said. “He got behind us [as a receiver] and had a great day on a couple of those catch and runs.”
For the second straight week, UVa scored a touchdown on a fake field goal, and holder Jacob Hodges, a former team manager, again played a pivotal role in the razzle-dazzle.
In each case, Hodges said Saturday, he could “hear the defense yelling, ‘Watch the fake, watch the fake,’ and I’m just like, ‘Oh, my gosh. Just act normal and pretend like nothing’s going on, and it’ll work. Just have confidence in the coaching staff.’ It’s kind of hard to, but you gotta keep your cool, and it’ll work out.”
Against Duke, Hodges caught the snap from Danny Aiken and flipped the ball behind his head to the kicker, Randolph, who ran 20 yards for a TD. Against Maryland, Hodges caught Aiken’s snap and then flipped a shovel pass to fullback Terence Fells-Danzer, who went 16 yards for the score.
“Coach London has come in with the attitude that if we see something we like on special teams, we’re going to fake it, or we’re going to run a certain play for whatever the situation is,” Hodges said. “That’s just exciting, and the fact that I can help it out makes it even better.”
Virginia visits Boston College (3-4, 5-5) next weekend. BC has won three straight games since an Oct. 23 loss to Maryland. UVa closes the season Nov. 27 at Virginia Tech (6-0, 8-2). The Hokies have won eight straight since a stunning loss to James Madison.
London said: “As I told the players in the locker room, ‘We got two games left. You can tank it and go south. All those that want to do that, they can come by my office tomorrow and I’ll excuse them from practice and the rest of the season. Anybody that wants to go forward and move forward, then show up, and we’ll get this thing going and get it in a direction where we want it to go.’
“We’re a work in progress. It’s rough. It’s not smooth around the edges, but it is what it is. This team and this program are moving in the right direction. I know it hurts on the scoreboard. It’s not reflected that way, but I think when adversity hits a lot of times, the true test of someone’s character is how you handle that.”
The Terps, meanwhile, have rebounded impressively from a 2009 season in which they finished 2-10.
“Got to give credit to them,” London said. “They played well. I know they’re celebrating. They’re bowl-eligible, and they’ll be going somewhere for sure in December. We’ll be hard at work, working to make sure that my team gets better and we recruit better players and we keep doing what we need to get done to make people proud and be representative of the type of program that this university deserves.”
His job, London made clear, includes reducing the penalties that have doomed the ‘Hoos this season.
“That’s got to be created in practice,” London said. “I’m holding the coaches accountable for the techniques that they teach, to make sure their techniques are sound and will allow us a chance to execute whatever we’re trying to get done. Since I’m in the charge of the whole team, then I’m the one that’s got to make sure that we reduce the amount of penalties by what’s being taught and what’s being understood by the guys that are playing out there.”
BIG LOSSES: It wasn’t clear after the game if Dowling, Jones or Payne would be available at BC. Dowling was on crutches, his left foot in a boot, during the second half. Jones may have suffered a concussion a second-half kickoff, and Payne came off the field clutching his shoulder early in the fourth quarter.
Before getting hurt, Jones carried three times for 11 yards, caught 2 passes for 14 yards, returned 2 punts for 30 yards and ran back a kickoff 11 yards.
Payne rushed 18 times for a game-high 68 yards and also had 2 receptions for 15 yards.
With Jones and Payne out, Raynard Horne took most of the turns at tailback in the fourth quarter.
“We feel good about the group of backs we have, and I don’t think it changes a whole lot,” offensive coordinator Bill Laor said. “There’s some things that we ended up crossing off the game plan at halftime when we didn’t think we’d have Perry back, because there’s some things that he can do on the perimeter that are a little different than the other guys.
“It’s just hard when you lose good players. We’re happy to have as many good backs as we have, but when you have the guys that have been out there doing it for you, and you lose them, obviously it changes some things. But it doesn’t change really the basics of what we call.”
NOTHING TO IT: When the season began, redshirt freshman Jeremiah Mathis was a reserve defensive end for the Cavaliers. He switched to tight end after senior Joe Torchia suffered a season-ending shoulder injury, and Mathis continues to impress at that position.
Against Maryland, Mathis caught his first TD pass as a ‘Hoo, a 1-yarder from Verica.
“I wasn’t that surprised [to see Mathis open],” Verica said, “because usually when we get down and we’re in that formation, I think we’ve run the ball every time this season. I was expecting somebody to be open. They took away the first guy, and then Jay was in the back of the end zone. He made a good play.”
For the season, Mathis has 3 catches for 11 yards.