By Jeff White
MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — High above the field at Sun Life Stadium are displayed the names of the legendary players who have worn Miami Dolphins’ uniform, Larry Csonka, Dwight Stephenson, Bob Griese, Paul Warfield and Dan Marino among them.
UVa’s football players took all of that and more in Wednesday afternoon during their walk-through at the Dolphins’ stadium. Their focus now is on the Miami Hurricanes, who also play at Sun Life.
“This is a business trip,” second-year coach Mike London told his players Wednesday. “This is not a sight-seeing trip. Yes, NFL teams play here, but all that matters is what happens between the lines here.”
At 8 o’clock tonight, UVa (1-2, 4-3) will meet Miami (2-2, 4-3) in an ACC game shown nationally on ESPN. It will the Cavaliers’ first appearance on ESPN’s Thursday night stage since Oct. 19, 2006, when they pummeled North Carolina 23-0 at Scott Stadium. UVa’s current players were still in high school — or middle school — then.
“It’s an exciting deal,” senior wide receiver Kris Burd said. “Thursday, when you’re flipping through the channels and you see a game on, you’re definitely going to stop. We look forward to that chance to get to play in front of our peers, all other colleges around the country, I know they’re going to be watching. There’s nothing else you’re really doing on a Thursday night. It’s a perfect opportunity for our team right now.”
The game can also pay dividends in recruiting.
“Provided that you play well and you’re competitive, it gives you an opportunity to get your name out there and to get your brand out there,” London said Monday. “These young men that we’ve been writing and calling and visiting their schools, they have heard about us. This is an opportunity to put a face with the name, an opportunity to put the school brand out there, to be recognized from the national media exposure that’s given … Playing well on national TV against a very, very good opponent is something that every program [wants to do].”
A year ago, when these teams met at Scott Stadium, a jarring tackle by defensive tackle John-Kevin Dolce knocked Miami’s No. 1 quarterback, Jacory Harris, out of the game, and the Wahoos went on to win 24-19. Dolce is out of eligibility, but Harris is back, and the 6-4, 200-pound senior is having a stellar season.
Harris has completed 90 of 145 passes for 1,244 yards and 12 touchdowns, with only four interceptions, and he’s also a threat to scramble.
UVa’s quarterbacks aren’t nearly as experienced. Starter Michael Rocco is a sophomore who hasn’t redshirted. His backup, David Watford, is a true freshman.
“The reality of it is, would you like a guy who’s a fifth-year guy or a senior or whatever it is?” London said Wednesday on the ACC coaches’ teleconference. “Sure, you would. But the reality of it is, we don’t at this point, and the only way you address that is by recruiting and separating guys as they go on.
“You do the best you can with what you have and the evaluations that your coaching staff makes, and you live with it … We understand where we are right now as far as quarterbacks in the program. We just gotta develop them and do the best we can and put the best players out there that can give us a chance to win. That’s all we’re trying to do.”
Watford has appeared in every game, but he threw three interceptions last weekend in UVa’s 28-14 loss to NC State, and the coaching staff plans to reduce his workload for the rest of the regular season. That figures to give Rocco more opportunities to get in and stay in rhythm.
For the season, Rocco has completed 109 of 182 passes for 1,186 yards and four TDs, with eight interceptions.
The key for Rocco against Miami, London said, is to not “get caught up in the bigness of the game. It’s a national game, but Mike has a calm demeanor, and he’s able to go out there and run this offense. And I think despite all the glitz and glamor and everything that’s going around, this is a situation, because of his mentality, that probably bodes well for him.”
On the home sideline tonight will be a man London knows well. He and Al Golden worked together first at Boston College and then as assistants on Al Groh’s staff at Virginia, and they remain good friends.
Golden, who revived the program at Temple, is in his first season as Miami’s head man. In August, allegations of NCAA violations rocked the Hurricanes’ program, and 12 players have served suspensions of varying lengths this season. But the ‘Canes have won two straight and appear to be improving each week.
“Coach Golden has done a great job shielding them from whatever the early-season issues that might have been going around, and now they’re concentrating on playing football,” London said. “They’re a team that’s looking to make strides, as we are, so this is an important game for both teams.”
Neither team has had much time to prepare for this game. Both played Saturday. Miami, which beat Georgia Tech, came out of the weekend feeling better than Virginia, whose offense sputtered against the Wolfpack.
Still, London said, “I think at this point of the season, one of the things that takes the sting out of losing a game is the ability to play again, and then the ability to play again in front of a national audience. If that doesn’t drive you and get you psyched-up, I don’t know what will.”