By Jeff White
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — UVa’s football team banished another demon Saturday night, winning on the road for the first time under second-year coach Mike London. The Cavaliers’ victory came in a game that will be remembered for The Drive, for The Sack and, finally, for The Kick.
Had Virginia not managed all three Saturday night at Indiana University’s Memorial Stadium, the game might have been known, at least from the orange-and-blue perspective, for The Collapse.
Virginia, which led by 20 points early in the third quarter, trailed by eight with 6:34 left in the fourth after unraveling at a dizzying clip.
Watching Indiana rally for 28 straight points as his team self-destructed, London said, was torture.
Yet the Wahoos refused to succumb. They steeled themselves and rallied for 11 points in the final 96 seconds. And when the game ended, on Robert Randolph’s 23-yard field goal as time expired, UVa’s players and coaches whooped and hollered in a frenzied celebration of their 34-31 victory, a turn of events that left the home fans in the crowd of 41,549 — as well as the Hoosiers — shaking their heads.
“I feel really honored and blessed to be part of this team and part of a process where you have a team that’s trying to search for an identity,” London said. “In the past, we probably would have given up or tucked and said, ‘Oh, what the heck.’ But these guys just kept on playing. And in the end we just made more plays than they made, and the play that Cam Johnson made was unbelievable.”
With the score tied at 31 and Indiana facing third-and-5 from its 23, Johnson raced in untouched from the right side, blasted Edward Wright-Baker and, in one motion, ripped the ball out of the hands of the left-handed quarterback, who had dropped back to pass.
“When I tackled him, I felt the ball there, and I just knew I could get it, so I grabbed it,” Johnson said.
The ‘Hoos took over on the Hoosiers’ 14-yard line with 1:13 remaining. After three runs by junior tailback Perry Jones moved the ball to the 6, UVa called a timeout with 2 seconds left. On came Randolph, who was 7 of 7 on field goals for the season and had already connected from 42, 44 and 23 yards against Indiana (0-2).
Long-snapper Matt Fortin and holder Jacob Hodges executed their roles perfectly, and Randolph did the rest, splitting the uprights with the first game-winner of his college career.
Don’t ask him to break down the kick in detail. “I saw the ball snapped, and then I saw the ball go through the uprights. I can’t really recall any of the in-between parts,” Randolph said with a smile. “I guess just the adrenaline was running, and it was awesome. It was a great feeling.”
Virginia, which opened with a 40-3 rout of William and Mary at Scott Stadium, is 2-0 for the first time since 2005. The victory was the Cavaliers’ first in a non-conference road game since Oct. 6, 2007, when they rallied to beat Middle Tennessee 23-21 on a field goal by Chris Gould in the final seconds.
“Was it pretty? No, it wasn’t pretty,” London said. “Do we have a lot of things to work on? Yes, we do. But the key thing is, we found a way to win, and people can stop talking about winning on the road.”
In 2010, London’s first season as Virginia’s head coach, his team went 0-5 on the road. After Indiana’s fourth touchdown, an 18-yard pass from Wright-Baker to wide receiver Duwyce Wilson, another road defeat appeared imminent to many observers. London’s players, however, saw things differently, and they were the ones who counted most.
“What was amazing was that on the sideline when we were down eight, the guys started talking about, ‘We’re going to come back and win this game,’ ” London said. “They started talking about, ‘When we score, we’re going to go for 2.’ When you hear that kind of talk, you can look cross-eyed at somebody, but I think you start to build a level of confidence in what’s going on in the moment. We spoke it, and it happened.”
A 22-yard kickoff return by true freshman Darius Jennings gave Virginia the ball at the Indiana 23. The scoreboard showed Indiana leading 31-23, and the clock showed 6:29. To that point, Virginia quarterback Michael Rocco had been uneven at best, but the sophomore from Lynchburg teamed with Jones for an 11-yard completion on first down, and The Drive was under way.
It included a 9-yard reception by senior fullback Max Milien, two third-down runs for first downs by Jones, a fourth-down run for a first down by Jones, runs of 6 and 12 yards by true freshman tailback Clifton Richardson, a 12-yard reception by senior wideout Matt Snyder and, finally, a 3-yard touchdown run by Jones.
That made it 31-29 with 1:36 left. The offense stayed on the field. Rocco took a shotgun snap from senior center Anthony Mihota, waited in the pocket until a target came open and then fired a pass to junior tight end Paul Freedman near the goal line. Freedman came back toward the ball, made the catch and then lunged over the line to make it 31-31.
“That’s a play that we repped all week,” Freedman said. “There’s a couple diffferent reads, but I’m one of the first reads on it, and Rocco didn’t see me during the first part of the play, so we just kind of kept working and made something happen.”
Rocco finished 15-of-29 passing for 191 yards and two interceptions, one of which London said was the fault of a wideout who ran the wrong route. Against William and Mary, Rocco had completed his first 11 passes. His first attempt against Indiana, on the game’s first play from scrimmage, was picked off. But Rocco, like the rest of the team, battled through adversity and came away with a memorable victory.
“That’s an awesome confidence-builder for Rocco,” Freedman said, “but he’s a really cool, calm and collected kid. We have no doubt in our minds that Rocco can do everything we need him to, and he’s confident enough that he knows that as well.”
Rocco is “still kind of young,” Jones said, “so having a game like this early in his career, where we come out with the victory in the last minute, is going to make him that much better.”
After Freedman’s 2-point conversion, senior Chris Hinkebein kicked off, and UVa’s coverage unit buried Shane Wynn at the Indiana 18. Ninety-one seconds remained, and now it was the Hoosiers’ turn to implode. On first down, Wright-Baker threw an incompletion. On second down, tailback Matt Perez went out of bounds after a 5-yard reception, stopping the clock. Two plays, and only 10 seconds had elapsed.
“We were going to use a bunch of timeouts, but we didn’t have to use any timeouts at that point,” London said. “That helped us towards the end. I wasn’t quite sure what their mindset was on that [possession].”
On the visitors’ sideline, one of the greatest pass-rushers in ACC history had summed up the situation before the series started. “This is where defensive linemen earn their [scholarships],” former UVa star Chris Slade said, and three plays later, Johnson did just that.
“At that point, I’m just trying to get to the quarterback,” Johnson said. “No matter how I gotta do it, I’m trying to do it.”
Mistakes plagued UVa for much of the game, and the errors nearly cost London’s team. On special teams, true freshmen Jennings and Dominique Terrell looked their age, making several poor decisions in the return game.
On one Indiana punt in the first half, both were back deep, and miscommunication between the two contributed to a Jennings fumble that he was fortunate to recover. Then, early in the third quarter, Jennings chose to field a kickoff that was clearly heading out of bounds. He was unable to stay in, and so Virginia started the possession at its 8, instead of its 40.
Later in the third, Terrell went back to receive another Indiana punt. The kick was short, however, and Terrell never got his hands on it. The Hoosiers were awarded possession after officials ruled that the ball had touched another Virginia player — whom, to London’s irritation, they were unable to identify by number — before Indiana’s Kofi Hughes pounced on it.
“It’s growing pains,” London said, “but again, I’m convinced of the skill level that [the true freshmen] have, and that once we get this thing settled down for them, when they catch the ball, they can run with it. We’ll get it corrected. We have to, because like I said, they’re a talented group of young players, Clifton Richardson and all those guys, and we’re going to need them. We’re going to need them as the season goes on.”
Even Jones, a team captain, had a moment to forget. With the score 23-17 early in the fourth quarter, Jones took a handoff, started left and then fumbled on contact. Cornerback Lawrence Barnett scooped up the ball and sprinted 54 yards for a TD, and Mitch Ewald’s extra point gave Indiana its first lead.
“When they scored on the fumble, it got in my head quick that I could be the reason that we lost,” Jones said. “But when we got the ball back, Rocco did a good job of managing the game, completing passes, and our line did a good job of blocking.
“It’s going to be in the back of my mind. I’m going to know that I can’t have mistakes like that, because it can ultimately cause the whole team to lose, and not just me. I’m not going to linger on it, but I’m going to just get better from it.”
Jones had much to be proud of, too, totaling 78 yards rushing and 85 yards receiving, both game highs. He wasn’t the only UVa hero on this September night. To wit:
* Senior defensive end Matt Conrath, who stands 6-7, blocked Ewald’s 48-yard field-goal attempt in the first quarter.
* Redshirt freshman tailback Kevin Parks rushed for two touchdowns — giving him five for the season — before leaving the game with an undisclosed injury.
* Sophomore Rijo Walker, a second-team safety, made an acrobatic interception early in the second half.
* Richardson gained 41 yards on only four carries.
* Redshirt freshman Jake McGee, who’s fast becoming a special-teams terror, forced a fumble on a kickoff in the final minute of the first half. Fifth-year senior Dom Joseph recovered for UVa, setting up Randolph’s third field goal.
* Junior linebacker LaRoy Reynolds made a game-high nine stops. The biggest was Reynolds’ tackle of Wright-Baker for a 4-yard loss on second-and-goal from the 1 late in the third quarter. That Indiana drive ended with an unsuccessful fake field-goal attempt.
“I’m just so proud of the guys for what they did and what they accomplished tonight,” London said.
“I just think that as the game went on and things were happening to us, instead of going south, the guys decided, ‘You know what? We’ve got to make a stand somewhere,’ ” London said.
SPECTATORS: Neither Colter Phillips nor his brother Paul played in the game. Colter, a redshirt junior who starts at tight end for UVa, injured his lower left leg against W&M and wasn’t healthy enough to play against the Hoosiers. Paul is a redshirt freshman tight end at Indiana who has yet to play this season.
NEXT UP: The ‘Hoos open ACC play next weekend. At 3:30 p.m. Saturday, Virginia meets North Carolina (2-0) at Kenan Stadium in a game that ESPNU will televise. The Tar Heels, who opened Sept. 3 by pounding JMU, edged Rutgers on Saturday.