By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — UVa’s football team doesn’t play again until Oct. 15, but the McCue Center will be bustling over the next two weeks. Second-year coach Mike London, his staff and his players have much to review, much to ponder and much to fix, especially on special teams, before 21st-ranked Georgia Tech visits Scott Stadium.
The Cavaliers head into their bye week with a 3-2 record, and they’re fortunate to not be 2-3 after another perplexing performance at Scott Stadium.
For the second straight week, Virginia, which lost Sept. 24 to Southern Mississippi, seemed intent on self-destructing, this time against Idaho. Among other mistakes Saturday, the Wahoos turned the ball over three times, let the clock run out when they were in field-goal range at the end of the first half, and had a punt blocked and returned for a touchdown with 3:11 left in the fourth quarter — all against one of the weakest teams in the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision.
In overtime, though, the ‘Hoos pulled themselves together. A screen pass from one true freshman to another turned into a 27-yard touchdown play, and then one final stop by a defense that shined throughout allowed Virginia to escape with a 21-20 overtime victory.
“Good gracious,” London said. “That was probably an ugly football game right there, but in the end, what matters is we found a way to win it. It’s a huge win for us going into this bye week.”
Virginia senior Robert Randolph, who had one field-goal attempt blocked and missed another Saturday, made the PAT that proved decisive in overtime. Randolph’s extra point followed a spectacular play by true freshman wide receiver Dominique Terrell, who caught a short pass from classmate David Watford, got excellent blocks from offensive tackle Morgan Moses and tailback Perry Jones and raced along the home sideline to the end zone for his first touchdown as a Cavalier.
“All I saw was daylight,” Terrell said, “and I ran to it. I got hit a little bit and thought I was going to fall, but I kept my feet. I just thought, ‘I need to do it. This is my play.’ “
The Vandals (1-4) did not go quietly. They made it a one-point game on a 23-yard pass from Brian Reader to wide receiver Armauni Johnson, who got behind defensive backs Dom Joseph and Corey Mosley to make a sensational catch in the end zone.
Vandals coach Robb Akey decided to end it there, opting to attempt a 2-point conversion. His gamble failed. Outside linebacker LaRoy Reynolds burst into the backfield to pressure Reader, and the senior quarterback’s pass to tight end Mike LaGrone, who was well-covered by safety Rodney McLeod, fell incomplete in the end zone. The ‘Hoos, and the fans who remained in the crowd of 39,827, could finally exhale.
“We bent to the max,” senior cornerback Chase Minnifield said, “but we didn’t break, so at the end of the game we got the win, and that’s really all that matters.”
London said: “I appreciate the resilience of the entire team just to hang in there and keep swinging.”
Sophomore quarterback Michael Rocco, whose ribs were injured in the Southern Miss game, started against Idaho and led Virginia on two first-quarter touchdown drives. The Cavaliers’ quarterback in overtime, however, and for most of the fourth quarter, was Watford, and it’s too early to say how London and offensive coordinator Bill Lazor will handle that position in the Georgia Tech game.
Rocco played the first three series Saturday and then, as the coaching staff had scripted, gave way to Watford, even though the ‘Hoos were up 14-0. After Watford’s one series, Rocco took the rest of the snaps in the opening half, which ended with a play that drew boos from the crowd.
With the score 14-6, three straight completions by Rocco — the first to wideout Matt Snyder, the second to Jones and the third to wideout Tim Smith — had gained 41 yards and moved UVa to the Idaho 20. The clock showed six seconds.
“We were going to take a shot in the end zone, and if the guy wasn’t open, we wanted Michael to throw it out of the end zone and have at least a second on the clock to kick a field goal,” London said.
Instead, Rocco dropped back and, seeing his receivers covered, took off for the end zone. He was tackled at the 6, well after time had expired.
“It’s disappointing,” Lazor said, “but shoot, we had lots of drives where we didn’t score. They were all disappointing.”
Overall, Rocco completed 20 of 30 passes for 240 yards and one touchdown Saturday — a 6-yarder to Jones. He wasn’t intercepted. Watford was 10-for-20 passing for 95 yards and one TD, with one interception.
“We’re trying to find a rhythm with David and with Michael,” London said. “There were some good things, and there were some bad things.”
Lazor said: “I really feel like we have two quarterbacks who are developing and have the chance to be good players. It’s hard when you’ve got to split it up. When you have quality players, it’s a good problem to have. Neither of the QBs are perfect, but they’re both on track.”
The Cavaliers were missing two of their top players Saturday: redshirt freshman tailback Kevin Parks and senior defensive end Cam Johnson, both out with lower-leg injuries. Parks’ absence did not keep Virginia from piling up 27 first downs and 496 yards on offense. Still, at the end of regulation, UVa had only 14 points to show for all that yardage.
“Moving the ball almost 500 yards, you would think that you would have 40-plus points,” senior wideout Kris Burd said.
“We’re going to get in the film room [Sunday] and break down the little things that kind of shot us in the foot when we could have put up points or should have put up points. We’re going to fix it. This bye week comes at a good time.”
The list of Cavaliers who distinguished themselves on offense Saturday was a long one. Burd finished with eight catches for 123 yards, both game highs. Smith and Snyder combined for 115 yards on nine receptions. Jones rushed for a career-high 110 yards and scored two touchdowns, and true freshman tailback Clifton Richardson carried 11 times for 70 yards.
Lazor was happy to get the victory, but to say he was satisfied would be a stretch.
“I know what direction we’re headed,” Lazor said, “and I’d like to think that the yards are an indication of what we can do, but I feel like I’ve said it a lot this year, because it was really an emphasis coming out of last year: Points are the key on offense.”
On a day when its offense struggled to score, UVa’s oft-criticized defense limited Idaho to two field goals in regulation. Virginia forced two turnovers and held the Vandals to 296 yards.
Minnifield, a first-team All-ACC pick in 2010, had a fourth-quarter interception, as did Joseph, whose pick came moments after he’d been beaten on a 44-yard completion from Reader to wideout Mike Scott. On second-and-goal from UVa’s 5, Joseph stepped inside Johnson, who was running a slant pattern, and picked off Reader’s pass in the end zone.
“I was just happy to get the opportunity to go back out there and compete again,” said Joseph, a fifth-year senior who plays in passing situations.
Junior middle linebacker Steve Greer led Virginia with 13 tackles, and senior tackle Matt Conrath added seven stops. The 6-7 Conrath wreaked havoc Saturday, batting down two passes, forcing a fumble and recording 1.5 sacks.
“We wanted to come out and improve on our consistency, and I think we did that today,” Greer said. “The whole defense played at a high level and ran around, got some turnovers, made big plays and kept ourselves off the field. It was definitely really positive for us.”
Most of Virginia’s special-teams units could not say the same thing Saturday. True freshman Darius Jennings totaled 101 yards on four kickoff returns, and the Cavaliers’ kickoff coverage was sound. Elsewhere, though, UVa struggled mightily on special teams.
Late in the fourth quarter, Idaho’s Justin Hernandez ran in almost untouched and blocked Jimmy Howell’s punt. Daniel Micheletti picked up the ball and ran 4 yards for a touchdown that made it 14-12. Reader then passed for the game-tying 2-point conversion.
“I don’t think the snap was bad,” London said. “It didn’t look like it. I don’t know if the shield or the wall [of blockers] that was up front, if there was any leakage in that. I don’t know if Jimmy took too much time hanging on to it and trying to kick it. Regardless of whatever happened, it got blocked, and it’s not supposed to get blocked, and we gotta do a better job.
“We gotta look at a lot of special-teams issues to make sure we shore up what we’re doing, because those possessions and opportunities to flip the field are critical. We’ll look at it and make the necessary corrections and adjustments.”
The ‘Hoos returned only one of Bobby Cowan’s nine punts. Terrell has been the team’s punt-returner, but Minnifield took over that role in the fourth quarter. On one memorable third-quarter play, Cowan went back to punt on fourth down from Idaho’s 20. He launched a booming kick that sailed over Terrell’s head and kept rolling until it was downed at the UVa 4.
“Sometimes I’m really uncertain and I don’t know what to do,” Terrell said, “so I just let it bounce, because I don’t want to make any mistakes. I’d rather have the offense get the ball than me fumble the ball on the 2-yard line and have them get the ball there.”
Terrell, one of the jewels of the recruiting class that arrived at UVa this summer, has game-breaking ability, but through the first four games he had only two catches — for minus-3 yards.
“I’ve been struggling a lot lately,” Terrell said, “but hopefully that touchdown right there gives me a boost of confidence and I can just play now.”
LOOKING AHEAD: The ‘Hoos, who lost their ACC opener Sept. 17 at North Carolina, play their second conference game Oct. 15 when Coastal Division leader Georgia Tech (2-0, 5-0) comes to town. That’s also the third game in the Cavaliers’ four-game homestand, which ends Oct. 22 with a visit from NC State.
Paul Johnson’s Yellow Jackets won Saturday at NC State. Johnson’s defensive coordinator, of course, is Al Groh, who spent nine seasons as UVa’s head coach (2001 to ’09).
A year ago in Atlanta, Johnson’s trademark triple-option offense amassed 536 yards in the Jackets’ 33-21 win over the Cavaliers.
“Playing Georgia Tech is a lot of assignment football,” Greer said, “so having the extra week to prepare and get your assignments down is going to be huge. So it definitely works out well having a bye week before that game [this year].”