By Jeff White
COLLEGE PARK, Md. — At the end, the people making all the noise in the stands at Byrd Stadium were wearing orange and blue, and they had much to celebrate Saturday afternoon.
“U-V-A! U-V-A!” the fans chanted, and second-year coach Mike London’s players ran over to join the party, raising their helmets in triumph and joining in the cheers.
“It’s definitely a special feeling knowing that on the road you’ve got fan support,” UVa wideout Kris Burd said. “At the end of the game, we just wanted to show them love and that we appreciated them coming out here.”
This was not just another game for Virginia. The Wahoos wanted to prove — to themselves and to the college football world — that they could play well in consecutive games, and they succeeded.
“Yes, sir!” London shouted as he entered a jubilant locker room after the game.
Nine days after stunning Miami to give London his first ACC road win, UVa whipped Maryland 31-13 in College Park to become bowl-eligible for the first time since 2007.
“And now that we’re there,” said fullback Max Milien, a fifth-year senior, “the more wins we get, the better bowl we get. So that’s our goal now. On to the next one.”
Milien caught a 17-yard touchdown pass from sophomore quarterback Michael Rocco late in the third quarter to help the Cavaliers (3-2, 6-3) ensure that the Terrapins (1-4, 2-7), whose first season under coach Randy Edsall has been a disaster, will stay home for the holidays. Virginia scored the game’s final 24 points Saturday to secure its first November win since 2007.
“Hopefully that’s a sign of progress for this team as we get older,” London said, “as we get into the season, and hopefully it’s a sign of better things to come.”
Rocco said: “It just shows you the resilience of our team. We were kind of wavering at the beginning of the year, and we’re coming out in the second half of the year and really getting the job done. It just shows the leadership of our team and how we’re picking things up, and it’s going to become something special here in the future.”
Against Maryland, Rocco completed 23 of 35 passes for a career-high 307 yards and two TDs. He was intercepted once, but the turnover came after Virginia had built a 31-13 lead. Burd, a fifth-year senior who redshirted in 2007, when UVa played in the Gator Bowl, caught nine of Rocco’s passes Saturday, for 112 yards.
“We’re not satisfied at all,” Burd said. “We’re still hungry. But for us to be bowl-eligible and still have three games left, it’s definitely an exciting feeling. We haven’t felt this way since our first year … We’re just looking to build on it and keep getting wins.”
Senior safety Rodney McLeod agreed.
“Now it’s just about how far we want to go as a team,” McLeod said after a game in which he became the first UVa player since Anthony Poindexter, now his position coach, to intercept three passes.
The Cavaliers want to win the Coastal Division title, and they remain contenders. Virginia hosts Duke (1-4, 3-6) at 3 p.m. Saturday at Scott Stadium. London’s team visits Florida State (4-2, 6-3) on Nov. 19 and then closes the regular season at home against Coastal leader Virginia Tech (4-1, 8-1) on Nov. 26.
“The sky’s the limit,” McLeod said.
Virginia struck fast and hard Saturday. Redshirt freshman Khalek Shepherd returned the opening kickoff 48 yards. Moments later, junior tailback Perry Jones showed why the Terps rank among the nation’s worst in rushing defense, turning what looked like a short gain into a 47-yard touchdown run.
“It was originally an outside play,” Jones said, “but I cut it up, and I think I broke one tackle, and the next thing I knew I was in the secondary.”
This was Senior Day at Byrd Stadium, and Maryland battled back. After Virginia cornerback Demetrious Nicholson, a true freshman, broke up a third-and-goal pass in the end zone, the Terps had to settle for a field goal that made it 7-3. But they took the lead early in the second quarter on a touchdown drive that followed a fumble by Virginia tailback Clifton Richardson, another true freshman, at the Terps’ 17.
Penalties and mistakes marred many of the Cavaliers’ first-half possessions. But after a goal-line stand by UVa’s defense, which limited Maryland to a field goal, Rocco and Co. took over with 2:41 left in the second quarter.
A 24-yard pass to Burd moved the ‘Hoos to the Maryland 41, and then Jones ran for 6 yards. On second down, Rocco threw an incompletion. On third down, he made one of the better plays of his college career. With blitzing Terps in his face, Rocco held his ground and at the last instant tossed a pass to redshirt freshman tailback Kevin Parks, who was uncovered coming out of the backfield. Parks caught the ball in stride and ran untouched to the end zone, and Robert Randolph’s extra point put Virginia back up 14-13.
“I think there were times in the first half where we felt some frustration, because we felt like we were stopping ourselves and making some errors,” offensive coordinator Bill Lazor said. “So it felt good for the unit at halftime to have a little production come of our efforts. I think it just verified to them, yes, we can do this thing. We can score points if we just get it all together and not make errors. I think it’s always good to enter the halftime with momentum, and then I think it’s always good to start the second half [well]. That first drive is always a big drive.”
Virginia’s first possession of the second half was a gem. The drive began on the Cavaliers’ 6-yard line. It ended with Jones’ 1-yard TD run on fourth-and-goal. Other highlights included a 10-yard completion from Rocco to Jones, junior tight end Colter Phillips’ first catch of the season, a 16-yard run by Rocco, and a 22-yard completion from Rocco to sophomore wideout Tim Smith.
“I really like this offense,” said Smith, who had five receptions for a career-high 101 yards.
The ‘Hoos had three turnovers Saturday, the third coming on a fumble by Rocco’s backup, true freshman David Watford, late in the game. Even with those errors, Virginia totaled a season-high 527 yards.
“I think the turnovers, obviously, were really disappointing,” Lazor said. “Sometimes they cost you the game, and we were fortunate today that by the efforts of the team, those turnovers did not cost us the game. They were disappointing, but they’re things that we can fix, and I’m really proud of how our guys are fighting. They’re working really hard to develop leadership, to develop a personality as an offense that can run it when we want to run it and throw it when we want to throw it and develop the whole team.”
Defensive coordinator Jim Reid’s charges distinguished themselves too, holding the Terps scoreless for the final 32:49. The Cavaliers’ defense was most impressive, however, on the Maryland drive that ended with Nick Ferrara’s second field goal.
A 14-yard completion from quarterback Danny O’Brien to wideout Quintin McCree moved the Terps to the UVa 2. On first down, senior tackle Nick Jenkins tackled fullback Tyler Cierski at the 1. On second down, junior middle linebacker Steve Greer stopped tailback Davin Meggett for no gain. Then on the third down, senior outside linebacker Aaron Taliaferro dropped Meggett for a 1-yard loss.
That was enough for Edsall, who sent his field-goal team on the field. Ferrara’s kick made it 13-7, but Reid was ecstatic on the UVa sideline.
“It was a great, great, great stand,” Reid told reporters later. “[The Terps] knew what we were doing. We knew what they were going to do. It was a huge moment in the game.”
In fact, Reid said, he told his players “when they ran off the field that we just won the football game. That’s exactly what I told them … Everybody was like, ‘This guy’s old and senile.’ But it’s just the truth. I’ve seen it a hundred times.”
Reid’s instincts proved correct. And now the Cavaliers, for the first time in four years, are again relevant in ACC football.
“There’s a lot of believers in that locker room right there,” London said. “They believe in a lot of things. It’s just great to see a summer of preparation, a game week of preparation, it’s great to see it come to fruition. It very easily could have went the other way, and it has in the past.”
London said he was humbled to see his team become bowl-eligible, “because of where the program was and the progress we’re trying to make and the ups and downs you have with your players. It’s gratifying to see young men that believe in themselves and a coaching staff that puts the time and the effort in to make something significant out of the season.”
HOMECOMING: McLeod, who played at nearby DeMatha Catholic High School, is one of 12 players from Maryland on the UVa roster.
“I had a lot of family and friends here today, so it’s always great coming back to your hometown and playing in front of your family,” McLeod said. “I’m just blessed and happy we got the win.
Asked he had ever had a three-interception game before Saturday, he shook his head.
“I never had a two,” McLeod said, smiling. “So this was this was a great game for me. I guess I just had a magnet today. A lot of great calls, though. I made plays when they came to me.”