By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — To say that UVa dominated the fourth quarter Saturday night would be a stretch. Indiana outscored Virgina 21-11 in the final 15 minutes. When it counted most, however, the Cavaliers were the stronger team in Bloomington, Ind.
With everything seemingly tilting the Hoosiers’ way, UVa rallied late, scored the game’s final 11 points and came away with a 34-31 victory. Evan Marcus, several players said Monday, played a role in that comeback.
After four years in the NFL, Marcus returned to Charlottesville in January for his second stint as Virginia’s strength-and-conditioning coach for football, and he immediately ratcheted up the intensity of workouts.
“That whole lesson learned in that game was completely learned in the offseason with Coach Marcus, just responding to adversity,” said junior tight end Paul Freedman, who caught the 2-point conversion pass from quarterback Michael Rocco that made it 31-31.
“He put us through some incredible tests, and that’s what led us to do the right thing in that game, and everyone remained calm. I think everyone fell back, whether they knew it or not, on what we learned in the offseason.
“I don’t think you completely realize that you’re learning that lesson as you go through the workouts, but you see yourself getting stronger, and you’re forging bonds with your teammates through the stuff that you go through.”
The Wahoos led 23-3 early in the third quarter, and a blowout seemed imminent. By the 6:34 mark of the fourth quarter, however, the Hoosiers led 31-23, thanks in part to a series of UVa blunders.
“That’s not the way we wanted to win,” Virginia defensive end Jake Snyder said. “We felt like we had the opportunity and probably could have put them away early.
“But things happened the way they did, and we showed a lot of resilience, and that’s what we worked on all summer with Coach Marcus in the weight room and throughout all training camp, and we’re really proud of that.
“That’s been our mindset all summer, all training camp, and that’s something we want to pride ourselves on, and we want to build the foundation of this team and program on.”
ACC play starts for UVa at 3:30 p.m. Saturday. Virginia (2-0) meets North Carolina (2-0) at Kenan Stadium in a game that ESPNU will televise.
“It’s a huge game for us,” Freedman said. “We can really gain some more momentum, especially in ACC play. Their defense is going to be a huge test for us, especially running the ball. I know they pride themselves on stopping the run, and our offensive line, we feel like we can move the ball on anyone.”
UNC ranks third nationally in rushing defense (30 yards per game).
NOTHING TO IT: As time expired Saturday night, senior Robert Randolph booted a 23-yard field goal to give Virginia the victory. Roberts said he felt confident as he lined up to attempt the first game-winning kick of his college career.
“It wasn’t a very long field goal,” he said. “I’ve made that field goal a thousand times in practice, and I’ve run that scenario through my head, just like every other kicker has, and I was mainly very excited just to have that opportunity.”
And now the Cavaliers are 2-0 for the first time since 2005.
“It feels awesome,” said Randolph, who’s 8 for 8 on field goals this season. The team’s seniors “really wanted to change this thing around … I feel like most of our teams were all pretty good in high school. It’s been a tough three years that we’ve gone through, and we just didn’t want to keep that going.”
ROUGH TRANSITION: Punt returns have been an adventure for the ‘Hoos this season, partly because most have been handled by Dominique Terrell and Darius Jennings, who at this time last year were high school seniors.
Senior Chase Minnifield isn’t surprised that the newcomers have had growing pains. Minnifield, best-known as an All-ACC cornerback, was the Cavaliers’ top punt-returner in 2009 and ’10.
“I’ve probably been booed a lot of times at Scott Stadium for dropping punts, but it’s a hard job back there for punt-returners,” Minnifield told reporters Monday at John Paul Jones Arena.
“That’s probably one of the hardest jobs in college sports, I would think. It’s a big adjustment for kids coming out of high school to come catch college punts. I’ve always been a punt-returner, but when I got here, Vic Hall was the punt-returner, so I had a lot of practice punts under my belt before I actually caught a punt in a real game at Scott Stadium or any other college [stadium]. So I was pretty ready for it when I actually got my chance. It’s a big jump.”
In college, Minnifield said, the punts are higher, the spirals are different, and the returner often has only a split second to decide whether a fair catch is the best course of action.
“You want to be a fearless punt-returner and not call for fair catches, but at the same time you want to protect your health, and you want to do what’s right for the team,” Minnifield said.
“It definitely comes with experience in the game. You can’t really get that look in practice.”
Jennings muffed a punt against Indiana but was able to recover the ball. Later in the game, Terrell was the deep man on a punt that landed well in front of him and, according to the officials, brushed against teammate LoVanté Battle, leading to an Indiana fumble recovery.
“The communication back there can and will get better,” London said.
For the season, Jennings has returned two punts for 30 yards, Terrell three for 19.
BIG-TIME TALENT: Jennings and Terrell are among the 12 true freshmen who have played for UVa this season. Another is Clifton Richardson, who has been impressive in a limited role.
A 6-0, 215-pound tailback from Newport News’ Menchville High, Richardson has gained 98 yards on 11 carries. Against Indiana, he had runs of 6 and 12 yards on UVa’s final touchdown drive.
Ahead of Richardson on the depth chart are junior Perry Jones and redshirt freshman Kevin Parks.
“Clifton is a work in progress, and he’ll see more carries and opportunities to get in the game,” London said Monday. “He provides another type of back — a big back that can run. And we need to get him in the game. We will get him more involved in the game plan. He doesn’t know the whole offense, but as with some of these other guys, they are learning as we are going along. Now it’s time for him to accelerate his opportunities to touch the ball.”
LEARNING CURVE: Yet another true freshman in UVa’s rotation is Demetrious “Tra” Nicholson, who starts at cornerback. Nicholson, who had an interception in the opener against William and Mary, was beaten in the fourth quarter Saturday night on an 18-yard touchdown pass from Indiana quarterback Edward Wright-Baker to wide receiver Duwyce Wilson.
Nicholson was in good position, Minnifield said Monday, “but in the end zone, as a cornerback there’s very little room to make a mistake. He’s a freshman. He’ll be OK. You live and you learn out there as a corner.
“He’s doing very well. It’s a fast-paced game, and there’s bigger players out there. But you know, you put him into the water, and he’s swimming. That’s pretty good for a true freshman.”
Wright-Baker’s pass was perfectly thrown, London said. “Tra looks up, and as he looks up, he brings his hand up, and his hand is just inches from knocking the ball out of the guy’s hand. That’s the life of a corner … That’s what happens when you’re on an island like that, and credit goes to [the Hoosiers] for executing when they needed that big play.”
SIGNS OF PROGRESS: As a sophomore last year, outside linebacker LaRoy Reynolds led the Cavaliers in tackles. So it’s no surprise that, after two games, he’s No. 1 on the team again this season.
But Reynolds has improved dramatically since the end of last season, London said. As a true freshman in 2009, Reynolds played safety in Al Groh’s 3-4 scheme, and he often struggled at his new position last season, especially on running plays.
As a junior, though, the 6-2, 230-pound Reynolds has “been in position a lot of times,” London said. “He’s running around pretty good. He does all of the things that a player who wants to be really good does: extra film sessions and taking care of his body and just the little things like that.”
Reynolds had a game-high nine tackles Saturday, including a 4-yard stop for loss on a second-and-goal play for the Hoosiers from UVa’s 1.
“He’s a linebacker now, and he’s playing like a linebacker,” London said. “And that’s the thing that we missed last year, a little bit with the run fits and understanding of the position. I think LaRoy’s done a good job of studying what a linebacker does, what his reads are, and being very instinctive about some things.
“He’s very aggressive. He runs down on our kickoff-coverage team, because he’s very physical. We’re a better football team now [at linebacker], because he’s playing better.”
WELL-FED: North Carolina’s starting offensive linemen are listed at 310, 305, 320, 345 and 315 pounds, respectively. The listed weights for Virginia’s starting defensive linemen are 275 pounds (Snyder), 270 (end Cam Johnson), 280 (tackle Matt Conrath) and 275 (tackle Nick Jenkins).
The Tar Heels “pride themselves on being able to run the ball, and we pride ourselves on being able to stop the run, so that’s what we want to do,” Snyder said. “It’s not always about size, though going against a big line, it’s always a tough order. But we pride ourselves on getting off the ball fast, being quick, using our fundamentals and techniques and using leverage, and that’s how you defeat a bigger line.”
Snyder added: “For me personally, it doesn’t make a huge difference. I’m not the biggest guy out there anyway. Offensive tackles are almost always going to be bigger than me no matter what, so I have to rely on my leverage and my technique to play with them.”