By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — On a steamy September evening, the Virginia Cavaliers turned in an opening-night performance as resounding as it was unexpected.
A close game would have surprised no one. But against a William and Mary team that’s projected to contend for the Football Champion Subdivision national title, UVa dominated, especially after intermission. And for a coach whose team became known last season for its late-game fades, that was especially satisfying.
Around 9:15 Saturday night, in the jubilant home locker room at Scott Stadium, Mike London quizzed the young men gathered around him.
“What was the score at halftime?” London yelled.
“13-0,” his players replied as one.
“What was the final score?”
“That’s what I’m talking about!” London shouted, pride cutting through the hoarseness in his voice.
Later that night, after his press conference, the Cavaliers’ second-year coach elaborated on his locker-room statement.
“You want to be able to play at your best in the second half and fourth quarter,” London said, “because you can take the heart away from teams sometimes if you continue to play stronger when they try to mount some kind of comeback.
“Again, it goes back to what [new strength-and-conditioning coach] Evan Marcus did with them during the offseason, the resiliency that they learned over the course of the summer. I’m very proud of the players and how they played.”
William and Mary coach Jimmy Laycock saluted the Cavaliers, too, saying they “executed, executed, executed and wore us down.”
Two years ago, as UVa players and coaches were reminded time and again in the weeks leading up to this season-opener, William and Mary came into Scott Stadium and pulled off a stunning upset. Tribe cornerback B.W. Webb had three interceptions in that game. On the last, Webb returned his pick for a victory-sealing touchdown and then kept running into the visiting team’s tunnel.
“We showed them that clip about 50 times, and that was the only thing we showed them [from the 2009 game],” said London, who was the University of Richmond’s head coach that season.
“Enough said. This is a new team this year, and we played a new team [from W&M], and all that mattered was what happened today, not what happened two years ago.”
The numbers don’t tell the whole story, of course, but they’re revealing.
Quarterback Michael Rocco, in his first start, completed his first 11 passes Saturday night and finished 21 of 29 for 174 yards and no interceptions.
Tailback Kevin Parks, in his first college game, rushed 16 times for 114 yards and three touchdowns. Overall, the Wahoos ran for 240 yards and averaged 5.1 per carry.
UVa’s defense, which was prone to major breakdowns in 2010, smothered W&M, allowing only 169 yards. Virginia’s offense, which had seven turnovers against the Tribe in 2009, had none this time and amassed 496 yards.
Senior kicker Robert Randolph was perfect, booting four field goals (32, 48, 36 and 42 yards) and four extra points.
Sophomore wide receiver Tim Smith, who missed most of last season with an ankle injury, caught seven passes for 72 yards, both game highs.
The most significant number, however, might have been this one: 22. That’s how many freshmen played for the ‘Hoos: 12 true and 10 redshirt.
“Hopefully the future is bright,” said London, whose first team at UVa went 4-8.
He smiled. “The good news is they’re young and they’re talented and they can make plays,” London said. “The bad news is they’re young and they’re talented and they might make mistakes. But that’s where we are right now with this program. With the ones that are playing, and hopefully with the class that we’re recruiting now, we just keep trying to improve ourselves in every aspect and turn this thing completely around.”
On the drive on which the Tribe scored, on a 34-yard field goal with 4:34 remaining, UVa’s defense included seven freshmen: end Thompson Brown, linebackers Henry Coley and Daquan Romero, cornerbacks Drequan Hoskey and Brandon Phelps, and safeties Kameron Mack and Anthony Harris. Of those seven, only Coley and Hoskey were not in high school last fall.
“Those young men in at the end are going to be playing for us,” defensive coordinator Jim Reid said, and his staff is coaching them as it would veterans.
“This is what we told them when we recruited them: ‘If we’re going to treat you as a freshman, then you’re going to play like a freshman,’ ” Reid said. “If you watched the sideline, what you saw was four coaches coaching very, very hard, because we know at some point in time, [the newcomers are] going to get into a very big, important game, and they’re going to have to make plays for us. And I felt very good about all those guys. They were terrific. They played hard. We actually had a couple of assignments that were missed, but it wasn’t by the true freshmen.”
Seniors abound on this team, from Randolph to wideouts Kris Burd and Matt Snyder, to offensive linemen Austin Pasztor and Anthony Mihota, to defensive linemen Matt Conrath, Nick Jenkins and Cam Johnson, to cornerback Chase Minnifield, to safeties Corey Mosley and Rodney McLeod, to punter Jimmy Howell. But the freshmen are adding much-needed talent to a program that hasn’t advanced to a bowl since 2007.
Demetrious “Tra” Nicholson, the Gatorade player of the year in 2010 as a senior at Virginia Beach’s Bayside High, started at cornerback against William and Mary, and he lived up to his billing. Nicholson made three tackles, broke up two passes and had an interception that he returned 31 yards late in the third quarter.
“He has a tremendous amount of confidence in his ability without being braggadocious, without being conceited,” London said. “He’s a very quiet, unassuming young man that loves to play the game. He’ll be a future captain here. He can run. He’ll come up and hit you. There’s so many things that he has, that we just kind of knew when we were recruiting him that these are the type of players you want to come to Virginia.”
One of Nicholson’s classmates, Darius Jennings, had four catches for 61 yards and returned a punt 27 yards. Another true freshman, Dominique Terrell, returned two punts for 17 yards.
Of all the Cavaliers who made their college debuts Saturday night, however, none wowed the crowd more than Parks, a 5-8, 195-pound redshirt freshman from Salisbury, N.C.
Parks became the first UVa player since quarterback Bob Davis in 1964 to rush for three TDs in his college game. On his first carry, Parks gained 20 yards.
“I thought Kevin showed what we’ve been seeing in practice for the last couple months here,” London said. “He’s very explosive. He can run. He can run away from people, and he can run over people.”
Parks struggled in Virginia’s spring game, and his memories of that performance drove him through the offseason.
“Every time I was in the weight room and working out, that was always in the back of my head, that game,” Parks said Saturday night. “I didn’t think I played well at all. It was in the back of my head, and I came out tonight and I thought about that. I thought my focus was real good.”
As for his performance against W&M, Parks graded himself harshly. At the end of his first run, he lost the ball, though Smith recovered for the Cavaliers.
“I still don’t think I had a good game,” Parks said. “I put the ball on the ground, and I don’t like putting the ball on the ground.”
London and offensive coordinator Bill Lazor went into the game planning to play at least two quarterbacks — Rocco and true freshman David Watford. Sophomore Ross Metheny also got in, completing both of his passes.
Watford, who played one series in the first half, got more work after intermission and, after some rough moments, finished 3-for-5 passing for 46 yards.
“We’ll continue to put him in the game in different spots,” London said. “He’ll continue to play, and we’ll continue to do some things to try to utilize his skills.”
Rocco, who appeared in six games as a true freshman last season, impressed in his first start, and “he’ll get better like all these other young guys will get better,” London said.
For a quarterback coming off the bench, as he did last year, it can be difficult to “really get into a groove,” Rocco said. “But as a starter, you can kind of get into a groove. You know the playmakers you have.”
Rocco forced nothing Saturday night. Not until his 10th pass — a 20-yard strike to Burd — did Rocco take a shot down the field, but that was partially by design.
“I wanted to make sure I got him in a rhythm, and I thought we did that the first half, and I felt good about that,” Lazor said.
“I thought Michael did a great job today throwing checkdowns, and that’s usually the sign of a quarterback who’s poised enough in the pocket that he doesn’t start taking off when his first read is covered, and then he knows where everyone is, and he’s able to give them the ball. So I was real happy with that.”
At halftime, Rocco was 14-for-18 passing for a modest 92 yards. In the third quarter, Virginia’s passing game produced more big plays, most notably a 40-yard completion from Rocco to Smith. That moved UVa to the W&M 1, and on the next play Parks capped a 97-yard drive with his second TD.
“If you can go the distance like that, that speaks to the efficiency of the offense,” London said. “I’m very pleased with the offense, the way they handled that drive. That’s what it’s supposed to look like. So now we have a model of what it’s supposed to look like, and now we’ve got to continue to keep trying to execute plays, no matter what kind of defenses are being called.”
Lazor said: “That’s a heck of a drive by the offense. I really take my hats off to the kids.”
Likewise, Reid and London saw much that they liked from Virginia’s defensive players.
“They played hard, and they practice like we have something to prove, and we do,” London said. “This whole team has something to prove. Game No. 1 is over, and now we’re looking forward to game No. 2.”
Virginia plays at Indiana (0-1) next Saturday. The Big Ten Network will televise the 7 p.m. game.