By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — If Mike London needs material for his next pregame speech, he can always turn to assistant coach Shawn Moore for inspiration.
Moore, perhaps the greatest quarterback in UVa history, spoke with unmistakable passion Wednesday when asked about his alma master’s recent struggles in football against an ACC school known more for hoops: Duke.
“It totally bothers me,” said Moore, who coaches the Cavaliers’ wide receivers. “I hope these [players] realize, having lost to them three years in a row now, what this game means.
“Each week we say it, but this is really the biggest game on the schedule. It really is.”
Not since 2007 have the Wahoos beaten Duke. Their next opportunity to do so comes Saturday at Scott Stadium. At 3 p.m., Virginia (3-2, 6-3) hosts Duke (1-4, 3-6) in a Coastal Division game.
“It’s another great opportunity for this program,” said London, who replaced Al Groh as Virginia’s head coach after the 2009 season.
By whipping Maryland last weekend in College Park, UVa became bowl-eligible for the first time since 2007. A win over Duke would restore order — at least in the Cavaliers’ minds — in a series Virginia dominated for most of the 1990s and 2000s. It would assure the ‘Hoos of finishing with a winning record and, most important, keep them in contention for the Coastal title (and ACC championship game).
Given all that, it’s difficult to overstate the importance of this game.
“For us, any type of goals we set for ourselves have to start with an opportunity this Saturday,” London said, “because outside of a positive outcome, then all that talk about the game after and the game after, is a moot point.”
The three-game losing streak against the Blue Devils is UVa’s first since the late ’70s, long before London’s players were born. Duke’s record under fourth-year coach David Cutcliffe is 15-30, but he has managed to bedevil the ‘Hoos, much to their chagrin.
“I’m not going to lie,” fifth-year senior linebacker Aaron Taliaferro said Monday after acknowledging that the losses to Duke were especially galling.
Their defeat in Durham, N.C., last fall might have been the most vexing for the Cavaliers, who were one stop from victory.
With 75 seconds remaining at Wallace Wade Stadium, Virginia led 48-47, and the Devils, out of timeouts, faced fourth-and-20 from their 21-yard line. Quarterback Sean Renfree, who had been sacked on the previous two plays, completed a 32-yard pass to wide receiver Donovan Varner to extend the drive, and moments later tailback Desmond Scott ran 35 yards for what proved to be the game-winning touchdown.
UVa allowed 489 yards in the 55-48 loss. Not since the 1999 Micronpc.com Bowl had the Cavaliers surrendered so many points in a game. Moreover, they were penalized 11 times for 103 yards and turned the ball over three times against the Blue Devils.
“I try not to think about it,” Taliaferro said. “It was a tough game, a tough loss. I feel like this we’re just moving on from that.”
With many of the same players in the lineup, UVa’s defense has been dramatically better this fall. Among the 120 teams in the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision, Virginia ranks 22nd in total defense and 33rd in scoring defense.
Defensive coordinator Jim Reid and his charges know what’s coming Saturday. The Blue Devils’ running game has been anemic (105.3 yards per game), but they have a potent passing attack that features Renfree and wideouts Varner and Conner Vernon.
“They’re good wide receivers,” said junior middle linebacker Steve Greer, Virginia’s leading tackler. “They don’t drop a lot of balls, and they run good routes. That’s where we’ve got to take it upon ourselves to tighten up our coverage and make sure we’re playing to the best of our abilities, so we don’t give them those opportunities.”
Virginia’s offense is more balanced. The Cavaliers rank 34th nationally in rushing offense (190.1 yards per game) and 53rd in passing offense (237.6). Playmakers surround Michael Rocco, from tailbacks Perry Jones and Kevin Parks to wideouts Kris Burd and Tim Smith, and a big, talented line protects the sophomore quarterback, who ran the offense efficiently in road wins over ACC foes Miami and Maryland.
As a team, sophomore offensive guard Luke Bowanko said Monday, the ‘Hoos are “10 times better” than in their first season under London. Another opportunity to prove that comes Saturday.
“We feel good,” Greer said. “We’re just going week to week, and we know what we’re capable of. If everyone is playing to the best of their ability, we can play with anyone right now.
“A bowl game was one of our goals, but we have a lot bigger goals than that. The ACC championship is our biggest goal right now. Going into November, we still have a shot at that.”