By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — If its performance against Miami counts for anything, UVa’s football team won’t have to wait another five years for its next invitation to appear on ESPN’s Thursday night showcase.
In a nationally televised ACC game, the Cavaliers produced big play after big play in a 28-21 win over the Hurricanes at Sun Life Stadium. Many of them came when Mike London’s team had the ball, but the final minutes featured a tour de force by junior linebacker LaRoy Reynolds, who sliced in from the edge to tackle Miami tailback Mike James for a 1-yard loss on fourth-and-2 from Virginia’s 15.
“This team has tremendous, tremendous — I don’t know what you call it — resolve, guts, grit, whatever it is,” London said after Virginia’s first Thursday night appearance on ESPN since October 2006.
When he was hired to replace Al Groh, London took over a team that had staggered to a 3-9 finish in 2009. The ‘Hoos, who went 4-8 in their first season under London, are now 5-3 with four regular-season games left, the first of which comes Nov. 5 against Maryland in College Park.
Virginia, which is 2-2 in ACC play, needs one more win to become bowl-eligible for the first time since 2007.
That was the year UVa came to South Florida and, on national television, humiliated the ‘Canes 48-0 at the Orange Bowl. Thursday night’s game wasn’t so one-sided, but it gave the Cavaliers their first ACC road win under London, and it offered evidence that their subpar play in a 28-14 loss to NC State last weekend was an aberration.
“It’s just a reassurance that we are a good team,” junior tailback Perry Jones said. “We can’t let one bad game define our team, so we’re just going to keep getting better from here.”
The Cavaliers were uncharacteristically inept on offense against NC State, and that led to a change in the quarterback rotation coordinator Bill Lazor had been favoring. No longer would true freshman David Watford come off the bench to replace starter Michael Rocco for multiple series in each game. Rocco would take the large majority of the snaps, and the coaching staff hoped that would result in more consistent and confident play from the sophomore from Lynchburg.
The change paid major dividends Thursday night. The ‘Hoos totaled 470 yards, with tailbacks Jones, Kevin Parks and Clifton Richardson combining for 180 on the ground. Rocco, who was in for every UVa snap but one, completed 11 of 20 passes for 226 yards and two touchdowns, and he wasn’t intercepted.
“It’s nice being in there the whole game and getting into a flow,” said Rocco, who passed to wideout Tim Smith for a 2-point conversion that made it 28-14 with 14:08 remaining.
Rocco “managed the offense,” London said. “He had great touch on the ball, particularly on some of those screens … I think he did a great job.”
Lazor agreed. “What I thought as a coach was that he was really focused. We talked about the fact that a quarterback has to create his own confidence. That’s easier said than done. But I thought Mike did that. I thought he came out and he was in control. He probably did more run checks and things at the line in this game than we’ve ever done since we’ve been here. I thought he handled it great. He did what we needed him to do to win the game. I’m really proud of him.”
For the offense, as well as the team, the victory was “special because of when it came, after a poor performance,” Lazor said. “We came back, and we did it so a lot of people could see us on a Thursday night. I think it was really big for the program.”
Nobody in a UVa uniform made a bigger contribution than Jones. He’s only 5-8, 185 pounds, but he’s “got the heart of a giant,” London said.
Against Miami (2-3, 4-4), all Jones did was rush for 67 yards, throw a 37-yard touchdown pass to Smith on a halfback option, and turn a short pass from Rocco into a 78-yard touchdown.
“Well, the kids call him Superman for a reason,” Lazor said, smiling.
Jones is a graduate of Oscar Smith High in Chesapeake, where his teammates included Smith. Against the Hurricanes, who are in their first season under former UVa defensive coordinator Al Golden, Jones took a pitch from Rocco, headed right, pulled up and then unleashed a spiral that traveled more than 45 yards in the air. Smith caught the ball in stride in the end zone.
“We ran something similar in high school,” Smith said, “and Perry did the same thing. I trusted him, and I knew he was going to make the play.”
Jones said: “I’ve been working on my throwing every day in practice. I knew we were going to call it sometime.”
The touchdown that Jones scored stunned Miami and the home fans in the sparse crowd of 40,403. The ‘Canes, who trailed 17-7 at halftime, closed to 20-14 late in the third quarter, and early in the fourth, Virginia faced third-and-2 from its 22.
Jones went in motion to the right and found himself with a favorable matchup.
“In the past when we’ve run that play, other teams have bumped corners out on me, but for some reason [Miami] brought a linebacker out on me,” Jones said.
Jones ran a slant pattern, got inside his defender and, at the 33, caught a sharply thrown ball from Rocco. Nobody touched Jones as he sprinted to the end zone.
“Perry had to make one man miss, and he did,” Rocco said.
Virginia never trailed Thursday. In the first quarter, true freshman wideout Darius Jennings caught a short pass from Rocco on a bubble screen and raced through and past the Miami secondary for a 53-yard touchdown.
The TD was Jennings’ first as a Cavalier.
“In high school, I did do it a lot, but just to get that first one out of the way in college, it feels good,” Jennings said. “It kind of brought back the same feeling as I had in high school.”
Virginia struggled to stop Miami receiver Tommy Streeter, a 6-5, 217-pound junior who caught seven passes for 176 yards and two TDs. Overall, though, the Cavaliers’ defense came away feeling good about its play. In Lamar Miller, Miami has one of the nation’s premier tailbacks, but he gained only 70 yards Thursday night.
“He’s a great running back,” junior linebacker Steve Greer said. “He’s very elusive. We kind of looked at it as a challenge, and we wanted to embrace that challenge and come out here and show what our defense can do.”
Greer led Virginia with seven tackles, and Reynolds, tackle Matt Conrath, linebacker Aaron Taliaferro and end Jake Snyder had five apiece. Snyder also recorded his first career sack and recovered a fumble.
“We thought we had to stop the run for sure,” London said. “That was the main focal point of the game plan this week, and [to] make them throw the ball. They threw the ball and made some great catches. But the guys did a great job defensing the things that were giving us problems and making plays in those situations.”
After Reynolds’ fourth-down tackle with 2:10 left, Virginia produced a possession that forced the ‘Canes to use all three of their timeouts. By the time Miami got the ball back, after Cavaliers senior Jimmy Howell’s 36-yard punt rolled dead at its 35, only 25 seconds remained.
On first down, quarterback Jacory Harris rushed for 19 yards. On the next play, Harris, who suffered a concussion at Scott Stadium last season, got hit hard while throwing a pass that fell incomplete in the end zone, and he had to leave the game.
His replacement, Stephen Morris, completed a pass to wideout Travis Benjamin, who ran out of bounds at the Virginia 32 with four seconds left, time for one final play. Morris dropped back and had to scramble to elude defensive end Thompson Brown, a true freshman who had been inserted for his pass-rushing ability. Morris, with no better options, threw underneath to Eduadro Clements at the 15. Clements turned upfield and found himself facing a wall of white-shirted Cavaliers. Greer and senior safety Rodney McLeod brought Clements down, and the game was over.
“We wanted to try to push [Morris] to his left, away from his throwing hand, and the kids made him have to make a miraculous throw,” said Anthony Poindexter, who coaches UVa’s safeties. “He checked it down, and the kids built a fence at the goal line, and the rest is history.”
“Oh, man,” London shouted as he entered the locker room, “I love this team!”