By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Nearly 12 months have passed since the University of Virginia hired Mike London to revive its flagging football program, and it’s clear that much work remains for the head coach and his staff.
In each of the past three games, the Cavaliers have been ahead or in position to win in the fourth quarter. In each case, UVa found a way to lose, first to Duke, then to Maryland and, finally, to Boston College last weekend.
And so Virginia enters its season finale assured of finishing with a losing record for the third straight year. No. 13 Virginia Tech (7-0, 9-2) hosts UVa (1-6, 4-7) in an ACC game at noon Saturday in Blacksburg.
No matter which team captures the Commonwealth Cup, the Hokies will represent the Coastal Division in the ACC championship game Dec. 4 at Charlotte, N.C.
Win or lose Saturday, the Wahoos will play no more this season.
“For us, it’s kind of like a bowl game,” London said. “We’re not going to a bowl this year, they’re a really, really good team, and this is our last game.”
Had the ‘Hoos beaten Duke, Maryland and BC, they would be assured of playing in a postseason game for the first time since 2007. Had they won two of three, they’d be playing Saturday for bowl-eligibility. But their inability to capitalize on fourth-quarter opportunities has put the Cavaliers in a position where they’re playing only for pride at Lane Stadium.
“We’ve all heard about how you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink it,” London said. “We’re leading the horse to water and saying, ‘Hey, look, if you drink it, it’s a good thing for you.’ “
Duke converted on fourth-and-20 late in the fourth quarter Nov. 6 to extend a drive that ended with the game-winning touchdown at Wallace Wade Stadium. A week later at Scott Stadium, Virginia was leading 23-21 when a pass by Maryland quarterback Danny O’Brien glanced off the hands of senior linebacker Darnell Carter, who was in perfect position to intercept the ball or, at the very least, knock it down for an incompletion.
Flanker LaQuan Williams came down with the deflection for a first down, and Maryland went on to score the first of its three fourth-quarter touchdowns in a 42-23 win.
In its 17-13 loss to BC, Virginia came away with no points after driving to the Eagles’ 8-yard line with about five minutes left. Earlier in the game, sophomore linebacker LaRoy Reynolds had failed to secure an interception that he almost certainly would have returned for a touchdown.
“I tend to be the eternal optimist and keep looking at opportunities like that as turning the fortunes of what guys think about themselves,” London said. “Instead of when something bad happens [thinking], ‘Oh, woe is me, here we go again.’ Just keep pressing those issues like that, because it will happen.
“The light will come on, and you’ll make plays like that and point back and say that was the difference when the season turned for us.”
Anthony Poindexter coaches the safeties and coordinates special teams at UVa. In the ’90s, he was an All-America safety for then-Virginia coach George Welsh. Poindexter played on teams that won 32 games in his four seasons.
“It’s a culture of winning,” Poindexter said this week. “You look at Tech. Anytime they’re in a tight game, they find a way to win it. Eventually we’re going to have to have breakthrough games. We played Boston College tight. You play Duke right down to the wire. Maryland was a tight game going into the fourth quarter. You’ve just got to find ways to win them. And I think as you start to do that, [players] start to build confidence, they expect to win.
“That’s the part we’re trying to get here now, that we all expect to win and know we’re going to win each time we go out.”
UVa faces an epic challenge Saturday. The ‘Hoos haven’t won in Blacksburg since 1998. Since then, Tech has won 10 of 11 games against the Cavaliers, including the past six.
Of the major rivalries in the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision, only Army-Navy has been so one-sided over that span. The Midshipmen have won 10 of the past 11 games in that storied series.
The Hokies’ recent dominance over the ‘Hoos is “something that sticks out,” London acknowledged this week, and it’s something he hopes to change.
“In order to make it an interesting rivalry, we have to do a better job of competing on the field, and we haven’t done that,” London said.
The Hokies, not surprisingly, are heavy favorites Saturday. Tech has won nine straight since its stunning Sept. 11 loss to JMU at Lane Stadium, and a UVa victory would be considered a monumental upset.
Playmakers abound on Tech’s offense, from quarterback Tyrod Taylor to tailbacks Ryan Williams and Darren Evans to tight end Andre Smith to wideouts Jarrett Boykin and Danny Coale. Moreover, the Hokies will be facing a UVa defense that has allowed an average of nearly 400 yards per game.
Nonetheless, Virginia quarterback Marc Verica said, he and his teammates are conceding nothing.
“We don’t really pay attention to what the lines are and how heavily a team is favored or any stuff like that,” Verica said. “We go into every game confident and ready to compete, and we go into the game thinking we’re going to win the game, and that’s no different with this game. It doesn’t really matter how many games they’ve beaten us in the past or what their record is versus what our record is.
“We’re preparing and competing to win. We’ll let other people worry about all that other stuff. All we can do is focus on our preparation and our jobs.”
In its most recent visit to Blacksburg, UVa lost 17-14 in the 2008 regular-season finale. Verica was involved in perhaps the game’s most pivotal play. Late in the fourth quarter, with the score 17-14, he threw into the end zone on third-and-11 from the Hokies’ 25-yard line. Tech rover Dorian Porch picked off the ill-advised pass — Verica’s target, wideout Kevin Ogletree, was well-covered — and returned the interception 40 yards.
Against Tech, “you can’t make mistakes like that,” said London, who was head coach at the University of Richmond in 2008.
Verica hasn’t brought up that play, London said Wednesday, and “he won’t mention it, unless you guys mention it. But I think he understands that he’s got to play a really, really good game against a very good team.”
A fifth-year senior, Verica is among the players who will put on the UVa uniform for the final time Saturday. Others include tailback Keith Payne, wideout Dontrelle Inman, offensive guard B.J. Cabbell, defensive tackle John-Kevin Dolce, linebacker Darnell Carter, cornerback Mike Parker and safety Trey Womack.
Verica redshirted as a freshman in 2006 and did not appear in any games in ’07. As a redshirt sophomore, however, he became the starter after Peter Lalich was dismissed from the team early in the season.
He threw for 2,037 yards in 2008 but fell out of favor with London’s predecessor, Al Groh, and started only one game in ’09.
This season, Verica has started every game. He’s completed 221 of 376 passes for 2,631 yards and 14 touchdowns, with 13 interceptions. With 4,824 career passing yards, Verica ranks seventh all-time at UVa, and he holds the school record for passing yards in a game (417).
“It has been a crazy ride,” Verica said. “I’ve enjoyed it, and I’ll always remember it.”
Had he been told before the 2008 opener that he would find himself in this position on the eve of the 2010 finale, Verica probably would not have believed it.
“It’s pretty amazing to think about how many plays I’ve played here and all the different games I’ve played in and all the statistics and stuff,” he said. “It really just has come from basically two seasons worth of playing. And I think I’m proud of those things and I take ownership of those things. But right now, everything’s about Virginia Tech right now and what we can do to win.
“It’s similar to my response when people ask me, ‘How do you feel about breaking the single-game passing record?’ You don’t really get caught up in the numbers and stuff. I think maybe down the line, when I’m done playing, I can look back on those things and cherish them a little more. But right now, I’m really just caught up in finishing this season.”
Virginia’s confidence level has grown, Verica said, even as the team has struggled in close games. The ‘Hoos don’t need to convince themselves, he said, that they can beat the Hokies.
“Convincing almost kind of implies that it’s not reality that you’re getting better,” Verica said. “We know that we’re getting better, because we can see it. We can see the things when we watch it on film. We’re taking maybe little steps here and there, just taking your game to a new level. It’s kind of hard to describe some of those things, but the players know it and the coaches know it, and we feel confident, and we’re going to be ready to go out and do it.
“Just because the scoreboard might say something, that doesn’t always tell the whole story. We know what we’re capable of, and we know what we’ve accomplished, but now it’s time to go put it all together again in this final game.”