By Jeff White
ATLANTA — When the new year arrived at midnight in a burst of fireworks and blaring horns, many members of the UVa football team were already back at the Marriott Marquis. Others were on buses en route to the team hotel, following police escorts through the traffic-choked streets of this city.
All were still stunned by what had unfolded on the final day of 2011. Before a sellout crowd of 72,919 at the Georgia Dome, the Cavaliers stumbled through the last three quarters of the Chick-fil-A Bowl. The final was 43-24, Auburn, and it could have been worse for UVa.
The Tigers (8-5) let the clock run out after reaching Virginia’s 4-yard line in the final minute.
“It’s been a fantastic year for us, and I’ll get a chance to reflect on a lot of things,” second-year coach Mike London said in a hoarse voice at the start of his postgame press conference. “But right now this one stings a little bit, because obviously you want to win a game like this.”
For more than a quarter, that seemed distinctly possible for the Wahoos (8-5), even with two of their best players out with knee injuries. Two minutes into the second quarter UVa led 14-7, behind two touchdown passes from sophomore quarterback Michael Rocco to senior wide receiver Kris Burd. The Tigers pulled even at 14-14 with 10:33 left in the quarter, however, and moments later they recovered an onside drive.
The possession that followed ended with an Auburn TD, too, and by halftime it was 28-17. UVa’s offense continued to pile up yards in the second half, but defensive breakdowns and special-teams mistakes doomed London’s team against its faster, more athletic SEC opponent.
“I want to thank the [UVa] fans for coming out to this game,” London said. “I know it was ugly. I appreciate you traveling. But this program is up and coming. This program is going to be a very good program. We’re going to attract the type of student-athletes and young men that this program and this university can be proud of.”
Overall, the Cavaliers have ample reason to be proud of their play this year. After three straight losing seasons, the ‘Hoos reversed their fortunes in 2011 and tied for second in the ACC’s Coastal Division. But they lost their regular-season finale to Virginia Tech, 38-0, and then suffered another one-sided loss in Atlanta.
The 43 points were the most Virginia allowed all year. So were the 454 yards Auburn amassed. The Tigers’ starting quarterback, Clint Moseley, left the game with an injury in the first quarter, and they were without All-SEC tailback Michael Dyer, who was suspended last month for violating a team rule.
Auburn didn’t need either player. Moseley’s backups, Barrett Trotter and Kiehl Frazier, befuddled UVa, mostly with their feet. Dyer’s backups, Onterio McCalebb and Tre Mason, combined to rush for 173 yards and 2 touchdowns, and McCalebb also had 53 yards receiving.
Auburn’s first two possessions ended with punts. The Tigers punted only once more the rest of the game.
“That hurry-up offense kind of got us a little out of our groove,” said UVa defensive tackle Matt Conrath, a first-team All-ACC selection. “We knew what they were gonna do. We knew they were gonna come out with reverses, but we just didn’t fit on the plays right.”
Would the outcome have been different had midde linebacker Steve Greer and cornerback Chase Minnifield played for UVa? We’ll never know. But Virginia sorely missed them Saturday night.
Greer, a redshirt junior, led the ‘Hoos in tackles this season and was named to the All-ACC second team. Minnifield, a fifth-year senior, is a two-time member of the All-ACC first team.
Each suffered a knee injury last month. Greer suited up and went through warmups before being scratched Saturday. Minnifield watched from the sideline in sweat clothes. It was the only game he missed during his college career.
“That’s football,” London said. “Obviously they’re two of your better players, but at this point of the year everybody has lost players … I’m not going to use who didn’t play or injuries as an excuse. It’s part of the game of football. I’m sure [Auburn] had guys that were injured and out.”
Later in the press conference, London was asked again about the injured players.
“I’m not looking for heroes,” he said. “I am concerned about their futures, and Chase has a bright future ahead of him, and so does Steve. And if they could play, they would have played. They’ve tried to practice, they’ve tried to push it, they’ve tried behind-the-scenes rehab and things like that … It just didn’t feel right for them.”
Fifth-year senior Dom Joseph started in Minnifield’s place and finished with six tackles, tying his career high. Greer’s replacement was redshirt freshman Henry Coley, who missed most of the regular season with a hamstring injury.
Coley had been in for only 71 plays before the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Greer, by comparison, was in for 833 during the regular season. Coley made four stops Saturday night, including one for a 2-yard loss. But he missed a tackle on Mason’s 22-yard TD run early in the third quarter, and defensive coordinator Jim Reid also used junior linebacker Tucker Windle at middle linebacker in the second half.
“It’s tough that you lose those two guys, your leaders, but when one door of opportunity closes, another one opens,” London said. “Henry’s sitting in that locker room right now, he’s a dejected young man, but he’s going to be a very good football player for us.”
Coley said: “Our team is built around ‘next man up.’ One person goes, and the backup has to be able to step up at any given time. It’s been successful in the past, but tonight I felt like a couple of plays just didn’t go our way.
“The end result is definitely heartbreaking, because I’m not a person that likes failure at all, and my teammates are not people that like failure at all. I feel like I let some people down, but it’ll never happen again.”
As poorly as the Cavaliers played on defense, they were worse on special teams. For the third time this season, senior Chris Hinkebein booted a kickoff out of bounds, giving the opponent the ball on its 40-yard line. Another senior, Jimmy Howell, had two punts blocked.
The first block gave Auburn the ball on the UVa 15, and a touchdown followed two plays later. The second bounced out of the end zone for a safety that made it 37-24 late in the third quarter.
The game resumed with a Howell free kick that Quan Bray returned 62 yards to the UVa 15, setting up a possession ended with a 45-yard field goal by Cody Parker.
Those weren’t UVa’s only errors in the kicking game. Parker’s flawlessly executed onside kick early in the second quarter seemed to surprise the ‘Hoos, who then failed to convert a fake field goal on their next possession.
On fourth-and-6 from the Auburn 15, holder Jacob Hodges, who played quarterback in high school, took the snap and then rolled out to his right, looking to pass. His primary target, however, was not open, and Hodges had to try to run for the first down. Auburn stopped him at the 12.
“It’s my responsibility to make sure that we play all facets of the game well: offense, defense and special teams,” London said. “It’s unfortunate. The guys have played and responded better, they’ve played in big games and done well and executed. Unfortunately we didn’t execute like we needed to, particularly against this team. They’re very fast and very athletic.”
The fake field goal, London said, was “wide open, and unfortunately, one of the players that had the option to receive the ball tripped over someone … And we came down here to win the game. We didn’t come down here to play chess or ping-pong and go back and forth.”
Coming off an anemic performance against Virginia Tech, UVa offensive coordinator Bill Lazor’s charges redeemed themselves Saturday night.
Rocco completed 26 of 41 passes for a career-high 312 yards and 2 TDs. Burd caught 6 passes for 103 yards before leaving the game with a collarbone injury early in the fourth quarter. Junior tailback Perry Jones had 7 receptions for a career-best 90 yards. Jones’ backups, redshirt freshman Kevin Parks and true freshman Clifton Richardson, were productive, too, combining for 81 yards on 17 carries.
“We really have faith in ourselves and our offense and the schemes that we have,” Rocco said, “and believe we can put points up any night. Sometimes it doesn’t work out. Things don’t go our way, and they didn’t go our way in the Virginia Tech game. We moved the ball at times today, but we just didn’t put enough points on the board. It was a step in the right direction. We learned from the Virginia Tech game and we moved on, and we’ll move on from this one.”
Reid will have to rebuild a defense that started seven seniors against Auburn. Lazor loses wideouts Burd and Matt Snyder, fullback Max Milien, center Anthony Mihota and All-America guard Austin Pasztor, but returning will be such players as Rocco, Jones, Parks, Richardson, tight ends Colter Phillips, Paul Freedman and Jeremiah Mathis, tackles Morgan Moses and Oday Aboushi, guard Luke Bowanko and wideouts Tim Smith, Darius Jennings and Dominique Terrell.
“We just regroup, get ready and remember this experience,” London said, “because it’s something we want to do: play in the postseason and have a chance to play good teams like that and compete in our league and be very representative of the University of Virginia and Charlottesville.”
Jones said: “We’ve had the taste of winning a few games this year, a few more than we did last year. I think we have a lot of younger guys that are going to step up next year. We’re going to need them to step up in order for us to have a more successful season next year.”
Virginia entered 2011 with four quarterbacks competing for the starting job: Rocco, redshirt sophomore Ross Metheny, redshirt freshman Michael Strauss and true freshman David Watford. By the start of the season, Rocco and Watford had separated themselves from Metheny and Strauss (who has since left UVa.)
A two-quarterback rotation proved ineffective, and Rocco took virtually every snap in the final six games. His 26 completions Saturday night set a UVa bowl record, and he finished the season with 2,671 yards passing, fourth-most in UVa history. Only once before has a UVa quarterback thrown for more yards in a bowl game than Rocco did against Auburn: in 2005, when Marques Hagans passed for 358 in a win over Minnesota in the Music City Bowl.
“He’s definitely matured as a quarterback,” Burd said. “The first few games starting, he was a little rattled. Stat-wise, he didn’t produce as much as we would have liked, but throughout the season you can tell that he’s been growing and maturing, and I felt like our offense definitely went as far as he took us, and he got us here to this game today, and I feel like he played well.”
Burd was instrumental in UVa’s turnaround too. He finished the season with 66 catches for 913 yards and 3 TDs. He ranks No. 2 at Virginia in career receptions, with 162, and No. 4 career receiving yards, with 2,190.
“Kris is a heck of a player,” Rocco said. “He’s a great athlete, a great football player athletically, but his football smarts and his savvy and his leadership are what we’re going to miss the most.”
UVa also will miss its other departing seniors, a group that includes such players as Conrath, Milien, Pasztor, Mihota, Joseph, Howell, Hinkebein, Snyder, Robert Randolph, Ray Keys, Nick Jenkins, Cam Johnson, Aaron Taliaferro, Rodney McLeod and Corey Mosley.
“Hopefully the young guys will take this as a stepping stone and continue forward and do even better next year,” Conrath said. “And hopefully we’ll be the team that started it.”