By Jeff White
INDIANAPOLIS — The three charter buses pulled up to the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center. Under gray skies, Mike London’s players disembarked and headed into the Indianapolis Colts’ indoor practice facility.
At one end the players saw a wall of banners, 17 in all, commemorating the titles this NFL power has won, most notably Super Bowl XLI and the 2009 AFC championship.
“They take football seriously here,” London told his team before its practice Friday afternoon.
London is in his second year as head coach at Virginia, which plays Indiana at 7 p.m. Saturday in Bloomington. He’s known Colts coach Jim Caldwell for years, and when the Cavaliers were given an opportunity to use the NFL team’s facility, London did not hesitate.
“This is the epitome of what football’s all about,” he said. “You’re in a great place here, so it’s great that we had a chance to work out here. I was just talking to Coach Caldwell. He said their practices are phenomenal, and sometimes he’s gotta tell them to slow it down. That’s the sign and mark of a really good team, and that’s what we’re trying to be, a really good team as we go along here.”
The Wahoos, who went 4-8 in 2010, opened the new season by walloping William and Mary 40-3 at Scott Stadium last Saturday.
“Right after the game was over, it was a great feeling,” London said, “but this team has a lot to prove this year, and now we’re on to the next one.”
Indiana has long struggled to be competitive in the Big Ten, and its first season under new coach Kevin Wilson started on an inauspicious note. At Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, the Hoosiers fell 27-20 to Ball State last Saturday.
Still, London said, Indiana is “a team that’s hungry, that’s very similar to us in terms of playing freshmen and changing the culture. [Wilson] wants to change the identity and what people’s perceptions of the program are.”
Indiana played nine true freshmen and seven redshirt freshmen in its opener. UVa topped the Hoosiers in both categories. Against William and Mary, 24 players made their college debuts: 12 true and 12 redshirt freshmen.
“I felt like the young guys, they weren’t nervous,” senior fullback Max Milien said. “They knew what they could do. They came out and really, really shined for us.”
Now those freshmen must play on the road, in an unfamiliar setting some 600 miles from Charlottesville. Virginia went 0-5 away from Scott Stadium last season and has dropped three straight non-conference road games since winning at Middle Tennessee in 2007.
To end that streak, the Wahoos almost certainly will need contributions from the freshmen on the two-deep, a group that includes starting cornerback Demetrious Nicholson, return specialists and wide receivers Darius Jennings and Dominique Terrell, tailback Kevin Parks, quarterback David Watford and linebackers Henry Coley and Daquan Romero.
“You’re never really, really sure until you see what happens in Game 2,” London said, “but I have confidence in what [the freshmen have] exhibited in practice and on the chalkboard. We ask them a question, and they’re able to answer the question in a correct manner. But I think the big thing will be now against competition and the schemes that Indiana will have, to see if we can react to those things. If we can do that, then we’ll be in good shape.
“It’ll be interesting, but at the same time, these guys are playing, they’re committed to playing, and they’re going to learn along the way.”
The Hoosiers want to spread the field, and they’re likely to use a no-huddle, hurry-up offense that will limit UVa’s ability to make defensive substitutions. The Cavaliers’ coaching staff ratcheted up the tempo in practice all week, forcing the defense to get set almost immediately after a play ended.
“You just have to be poised,” London said.
When he came to Virginia, London replaced the 3-4 defense that had been the trademark of his predecessor, Al Groh, with the 4-3. The Cavaliers struggled in their new scheme last season, but they looked much sharper in last weekend’s opener, holding William and Mary to 169 yards.
“The key thing for us is not giving up big plays, and I think we did that,” outside linebacker LaRoy Reynolds said.
“This whole offseason we’ve been getting prepared and getting ready for the season, and just locking in on not making the same mistakes that we did last year, and everyone buying into the defense and understanding the defense as a whole. We really have a great understanding of what’s going on, and that’s the key thing for us this year: really knowing how to play the defense, making our own calls for the defense.”
A victory Saturday night would give the ‘Hoos their first 2-0 start since 2005. These schools have met in football only once, in 2009 at Scott Stadium, where the Cavaliers romped 47-7.
The rematch is at the Hoosiers’ 52,929-seat Memorial Stadium, but “it’s still a 100-yard field,” London said. “And the only thing we can take care of is ourselves. If it rains, it’s going to rain on both of us. If the football’s wet, both quarterbacks are going to have to handle a wet football. We’re not worried about the crowd situation or who’s officiating. We just gotta take care of ourselves.
“We just gotta play with passion, be poised and be physical.”
The Cavaliers’ plane landed at Indianapolis International Airport about 1:45 p.m. Friday. Nearby on the tarmac was another plane whose passengers were soldiers returning home from Afghanistan, weapons in hand.
London made sure to remind his players of that scene before practice. His father served in the Air Force, and London said Friday that he wanted his team “to appreciate the people in uniform fighting for the very freedoms that we enjoy right now. Here we are a couple days away from the anniversary of 9/11, and I want them to understand how important it is to respect people in uniform, to love your country and to feel good about the very freedoms they provide for us, because they’re out there in harm’s way for us.”