By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — A crowd of 51,956 saw UVa open its football season Sept. 3 with a 40-3 rout of William and Mary at 61,500-seat Scott Stadium.
Three weeks later — after Mike London’s team won at Indiana and lost at North Carolina — Virginia’s game against Southern Mississippi drew only 43,220 to Scott Stadium.
The Cavaliers lost 30-24 to the Golden Eagles, an outcome that left many fans grumbling. The Wahoos’ homestand continues Saturday when they host Idaho (1-3) at 3:30 p.m.
At his weekly press conference Monday, Virginia’s second-year coach was asked what he and his team could do to boost attendance. Mike London is trying to rebuild a program that hasn’t been to a bowl game since the 2007 season.
“We can play well and we can win,” London said at John Paul Jones Arena. “We can play well and be exciting with how we play the game. You look at our baseball team, you look at other teams that have done well here — when you start having some success, the people want to come out and they want to see that success. I understand that. That’s part of this whole thing — trying to win games, trying to get young players to feel like there’s a home-field advantage by having a large crowd.”
London spent six seasons as a UVa assistant during the tenure of his predecessor, Al Groh. In four of those years — 2002, ’03, ’04 and ’07 — the Cavaliers advanced to a bowl. (London was the Houston Texans’ defensive line coach in 2005, when UVa played in the Music City Bowl).
“I’ve been here when the whole place has been filled, and that’s the goal: trying to create that type of excitement and energy once again,” London said. “When people come to the games and they’re out there and they’re loud and they’re vocal and they make noise, that can bring or infuse an amount of energy that I think this young team, our team, needs. I think our team needs the crowd, and I know that part of that is doing well and performing well.”
Virginia’s starter at right offensive guard, redshirt sophomore Luke Bowanko, offered a succint analysis of the situation.
“If we build a winning tradition, if we produce results on the field, fans are gonna show up,” Bowanko said.
WAIT AND SEE: Michael Rocco has started every game at quarterback for the ‘Hoos this season, but the sophomore from Lynchbug took two hard shots to his midsection against Southern Miss and didn’t play in the fourth quarter.
Rocco’s availability for the Idaho game is uncertain. If he’s able to play at or near his usual level, Rocco will start against the Vandals, and his backup, true freshman David Watford, also will play, London said.
If Rocco isn’t cleared to play, the starter would be Watford or sophomore Ross Metheny. “It would be determined this week in practice,” London said.
Watford completed 10 of 20 passes for 81 yards and one touchdown against Southern Miss. He also hit senior wide receiver Kris Burd with a 2-point conversion pass that pulled UVa to 27-24 with 5:18 left.
“I thought he came in and did great,” Burd said. “It was a high-pressure situation, with him being a freshman. It’s a nerve-wracking thing, and I thought he kept his composure and executed.”
UNEVEN EFFORT: One huge breakdown — on a third-and-23 screen pass by Southern Miss late in the fourth quarter — overshadowed an otherwise solid second-half performance by UVa’s defense.
In the final two quarters, the Cavaliers held the Golden Eagles to four first downs, nine points and 131 yards, 41 of which came on the third-and-23 play.
Overall, though, Virginia allowed 374 yards in its 30-24 loss to Southern Miss, and most came through the air. The ‘Hoos sacked senior quarterback Austin Davis three times, but he completed 27 of 41 passes for 313 yards and three touchdowns.
“The coverage and the pressure up front, they all have to fit together,” London said. “The front can be good, but your coverage has to be good too. Your coverage can only last so long if you don’t have pressure on the quarterback.”
Virginia totaled 24 first points and 374 yards against Southern Miss. But the ‘Hoos had three turnovers and struggled to run the ball in short-yardage situations.
Since the start of training camp, London has described his offensive line as perhaps the team’s biggest strength. So “the thing I was most disappointed in [Saturday was],” London said, “I think there were four third-and-1 situations that we were unsuccessful on. And that’s not good.”
POSITIVE TREND: The NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision consists of 120 teams. A year ago, only two teams averaged more penalty yards per game than Virginia (73.3), and only four averaged more penalties per game than Virginia (8.2).
In their second season under London, the ‘Hoos are showing modest improvement in both categories. Virginia is averaging 6 penalties and 51.3 penalty yards per game. It ranks 58th nationally in fewest yards penalized per game and is tied for 54th in fewest penalties per game.
TOP PRIORITY: When the teams met in Hattiesburg in September 2009, UVa struggled to keep up with Southern Miss, which rallied for a 37-34 win. Two years later, in the rematch, the Golden Eagles again appeared to be the faster team.
“We’re still in need of more speed, and we’re still recruiting speed,” London said. “I think they were fast. They did a great job coming off the ball — very athletic team — and that came to fruition [as] the game went on. I thought they got off the ball well. When a ball was thrown, they turned and ran well. On special teams, kickoff return, they did a lot of good things there.
“That’s one of the things as this program is being built, as far as recruiting and things like that: The need for speed is always paramount.”
The Cavaliers need “guys that can run, because they can run out of mistakes or they can chase down people,” London said. “They can make big plays. So we’re just going to keep on making that an emphasis of this program.”
FLASHES OF BRILLIANCE: The addition of wide receiver Darius Jennings has made the Cavaliers faster. The 5-11, 165-pound true freshman from Baltimore is averaging a team-high 14 yards per catch. He also has gained 226 yards on 11 kickoff returns and 30 yards on two punt returns.
Against Southern Miss, Jennings returned three kickoffs for 83 yards, with a long of 30, and caught two passes for 23 yards. He said Monday that he’s becoming more comfortable all the time.
At Gilman School, he was the quarterback on a team that operated out of the Wildcat offense, “so I had the ball in my hands every play,” Jennings said. “I was running the ball a lot, so just trying to make that transition from QB to receiver, that’s kind of been an adjustment, but I think I’ve handled it pretty well.”
In a typical high school game, Jennings said, he would run the ball 20 to 25 times and throw only four or five passes.
“Being quarterback, I had the ball in my hands every play, so it wasn’t that hard for me to get into a rhythm in high school,” he said. College football has “been a little different. But right now I’m just playing my part and just waiting for my number to be called.”
Asked if he was surprised Saturday to see Watford inserted at quarterback for a series that began on UVa’s 1-yard line, Jennings smiled.
“Everything’s kind of surprising to me at this point,” he said. “I really don’t know when I’m going in, or when I’m not. Me being a freshman, I’m just kind of going with the flow.”
Jennings was perhaps the most highly regarded player in the recruiting class that signed with UVa in February. Ohio State, Michigan, Nebraska, Stanford and Oregon were among the other schools that offered him scholarships.
“I know football’s going to take care of itself,” Jennings said. “I came here to play, and that’s what I’m doing. But at Virginia, I felt as though I could be more of a student-athlete. I can go to a great school and get a good education, and it’ll help me prepare myself more in life. It won’t just be for the next four or five years, but the next 40 years. Here, I can get a good degree and also play ball at a school I love.”
STEPPING UP: Jennings is one of 12 true freshmen to have played for the Cavaliers this season. The others include cornerback Brandon Phelps and safety Anthony Harris. Neither has played much from scrimmage, but London expects that to change in the coming weeks.
The coaching staff talked Sunday about increasing the roles of Phelps and Harris, London said on a teleconference that night. Each is likely to contend for a starting job in 2012.
“With the season almost at the midway point, they’ve been in games now, they’ve done things, they’ve had success, they’ve experienced making errors and making mistakes,” London said.
“They practice with the second group, and they’re with the travel team that’s going to play in the game, and they go in and do game-planning and take game-planning reps and things like that. The next thing as far as their development is to get them in the game and get scrimmage reps. Because I don’t want at the end of the season them not having had too many reps, and then to go into the next season having inexperienced young guys.”