By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — One by one, the UVa football team has been checking off boxes during Mike London’s brief tenure as head coach.
First victory under London: Virginia’s 34-13 win over Richmond at Scott Stadium in the 2010 season-opener.
First victory under London against an FBS foe: UVa’s 48-21 win over Eastern Michigan at Scott Stadium on Oct. 23, 2010.
First ACC victory under London: Virginia’s 24-19 squeaker over Miami at Scott Stadium a week after the Eastern Michigan game.
First road victory under London? That came last weekend in Bloomington, Ind., where Virginia rallied to beat Indiana 34-31.
An ACC road win, however, has eluded UVa’s second-year coach. The Wahoos lost at Georgia Tech, at Duke, at Boston College and at Virginia Tech last season. Which adds to the significance of UVa’s next game.
Virginia (2-0) visits Coastal Division rival North Carolina (2-0) at 3:30 p.m. Saturday in the ACC opener for both teams.
“It’s a conference game, and it’s an away opponent,” London said Monday.
UNC is not just any opponent, of course. These teams first met in 1892, and their rivalry is the South’s oldest. Carolina ended a four-game losing streak in the series by crushing Virginia 44-10 at Scott Stadium last season.
“We got beat pretty good last year by UNC when they came to our house, and we just want to return the favor,” senior fullback Max Milien said Tuesday.
The victory was the Tar Heels’ first in Charlottesville since 1981. On the game’s first play, the ‘Hoos surrendered an 81-yard touchdown pass, and they never seriously threatened UNC thereafter.
“We weren’t happy with that performance,” Virginia center Anthony Mihota said Monday. “No one should be. We made a lot of mistakes. There’s nothing we can do about what the score was last year, but hopefully we can change that this year. We’ve gotten a lot better since last year, and it’s going to be a lot better game.”
At game’s end last year, London kept his players on the field. The Cavaliers who had gone to the locker room were summoned back to join the rest of the team at midfield.
“I wanted them to feel what it feels like to get beat like we did on your homecoming … and then never, ever, ever forget that feeling,” London said in his postgame press conference. “To never forget a feeling when somebody else comes in your house and hands it to you like they did.”
Most of the players who started against UNC last season, Mihota and Milien among them, are still at UVa. More has changed at North Carolina, where an NCAA investigation led to head coach Butch Davis’ dismissal about six weeks before the season began.
UNC promoted defensive coordinator Everett Withers to interim head coach, and he took over a program that, as usual, is well-stocked with NFL prospects. The Heels have huge linemen on both sides of the ball, including 6-6, 290-pound defensive end Quinton Coples. His fellow starters on the defensive line go 6-3, 315; 6-3, 305; and 6-6, 260.
“They definitely look the part,” Virginia tight end Paul Freedman said.
Offensive line coach Scott Wachenheim said: “They’re not only the biggest [defensive linemen] we’ve faced, they’re the fastest.”
Carolina crushed JMU 42-10 on opening day and then edged Rutgers 24-22 last weekend. Withers’ team leads the ACC in rushing defense and in sacks. On offense, the Heels have yet to allow a sack, and sophomore quarterback Bryn Renner, a Virginian, has completed an astounding 85.7 percent of his passes. The ‘Hoos know they must disrupt Renner’s rhythm.
“You always want to get pressure on the quarterback, make him uncomfortable and push him outside the pocket,” UVa defensive end Jake Snyder said.
Snyder is the only non-senior starter on the Cavaliers’ defensive line. Virginia’s offensive line is experienced, too, and it’s a group that, London has said, ranks among the ACC’s finest. The line wants to back up that talk Saturday at Kenan Stadium.
“From what I’ve heard,” Mihota said, the Heels’ D-linemen “are really good, and from what I’ve seen on film, they’re fast, strong guys, and I’m really excited about it, because this is why we play the game: to play against the best you can go against.
“It’ll be a big test for us. They’re big, strong, fast guys, and it’s going to take a lot to block them. So we gotta live up to the hype from all our coaches and what everybody’s been saying about us.”
Virginia turned the ball over five times against UNC last year, and “you just can’t do that against a team like that,” London said. Starter Marc Verica threw three interceptions, and Michael Rocco and Ross Metheny, the Cavaliers’ backup quarterbacks in 2010, threw one apiece.
Rocco, who will make his third consecutive start Saturday, has yet to throw a touchdown pass this season. But the sophomore from Lynchburg has completed 62.1 percent of his attempts and, for the most part, made good decisions.
Against Indiana, Rocco led the ‘Hoos on a 77-yard touchdown drive late in the fourth quarter. Junior tailback Perry Jones ended the drive with a 3-yard run that pulled UVa to 31-29, and then Rocco passed to Freedman for the game-tying 2-point conversion.
“I think [Rocco] played well, especially in that last drive, keeping it together,” Mihota said. “No one was really down. No one was like, ‘Aw, man, we’re going to lose.’ Everyone’s spirits were high. We knew what we came there to accomplish: to beat Indiana and be 2-0 after that game.”
And now the ‘Hoos have an opportunity to start 3-0 for the first time since 2005. “There’s a great vibe” around the program, Mihota said, and All-ACC cornerback Chase Minnifield agreed.
“It just feels like we’re playing hard, we’re playing fast, we’re playing aggressive,” Minnifield said.
“I would probably say the biggest difference is the experience that we have. We have a lot of guys that have played out there, and there’s a lot of confidence on both sides of the field that we’ve been out there, we’ve seen it. I can really see that on the field and off the field in preparation.”
Snyder said: “It’s a process, and we want to keep building on what we’ve been doing.”