Sept. 16, 2012

By Jeff White (

ATLANTA — For the UVa football team’s inexperienced defense, the game started with a shocking breakdown and quickly became a disaster of historic proportions.

A Virginia offense loaded with veterans fared little better at Georgia Tech’s Bobby Dodd Stadium, failing to reach the 300-yard mark for the second consecutive week.

On the game’s final play Saturday, the Cavaliers scored on a 1-yard touchdown pass from backup quarterback Phillip Sims to fullback Zachary Swanson. But that provided small consolation to third-year coach Mike London, his staff and his players.

“It’s a humbling experience when you come in and you get beat like that,” London said after UVa’s 56-20 loss to Coastal Division rival Georgia Tech.

“We got handled today. They did a great job executing every phase of their offense and defense. My hat goes off to them. That’s a good football team.”

Only once under London have the Wahoos been beaten by a larger margin: in last year’s regular-season finale, a 38-0 loss to Virginia Tech at Scott Stadium. And if not for Swanson’s last-second touchdown, the margin would have been 42 Saturday.

“It was a rough one, definitely,” junior offensive tackle Morgan Moses said. “They just came out and played better than us. They outplayed us from the start. They had a plan and they stuck to it, and they executed.”

The 56 points are the most Georgia Tech has scored against UVa in a series that dates to 1965. Not since a 63-21 loss to Illinois in the 1999 Bowl had Virginia allowed so many points in a game.

The Yellow Jackets (1-1 ACC, 2-1 overall) gained a staggering 594 yards Saturday, the most the `Hoos have surrendered in more than a decade.

Against a defense that returned only four starters from 2011, the Jackets had 12 plays that went for at least 15 yards Saturday, including gains of 77, 70, 60, 41, 32, 27 and 22.

“We played terribly, and that all starts with preparation, it all starts with me,” UVa defensive coordinator Jim Reid said. “We gave up some big plays early. We didn’t play with as much speed and intensity as we had before. We were looking around a little bit. But again, it all starts with me, and that’s what I told the players.”

Reid’s counterpart, former Virginia head coach Al Groh, had a much more enjoyable day at work. Groh’s defense held UVa (0-1, 2-1) to 297 yards, 75 on which came on the game’s final drive.

“You gotta take your hat off to them,” Virginia offensive coordinator Bill Lazor said. “They played a very good game. I thought they played physical. I thought they did a good job, both in the front of getting off some blocks and making some plays in the run [game], and they did a good job in the secondary of being tight in coverage.”

The Jackets forced UVa into a three-and-out on the game’s first series, then struck a stunning blow. Coach Paul Johnson’s team is known for its triple-option offense, and it was exceptionally productive Saturday.

On its first play, though, Georgia Tech went to the air. Senior quarterback Tevin Washington took the snap, dropped back and lofted a pass toward the left sideline, where fullback Zach Laskey, running a wheel route, had slipped behind outside linebacker Henry Coley.

Laskey gathered in the ball and, aided by textbook downfield blocking, raced untouched to the end zone to complete a 70-yard scoring play.

The Jackets were nearly as efficient on their second series. They needed only two plays to score another touchdown, this one on a 77-yard run by tailback Orwin Smith.

Little more than four minutes into the game, it was 14-0. Virginia answered with its most impressive drive of the day, moving 71 yards for a TD that came on a 19-yard pass from junior quarterback Michael Rocco to sophomore tight end Jake McGee.

Perhaps, it seemed then, the Cavaliers had put their early struggles behind them and would make this a game. But the Jackets, still stinging from their 2011 loss in Charlottesville, never let up.

On Georgia Tech’s next play, Washington gained 60 yards on a keeper and might have scored had defensive end Ausar Walcott not chased him down at the UVa 25. This drive, too, ended with a Tech TD — a 1-yard run by Washington on fourth down — and by halftime it was 35-7.

The Jackets’ final touchdown of the half followed a poor decision by Rocco, who, under pressure, threw into double-coverage. Cornerback Louis Young picked off the underthrown pass, and Georgia Tech took over at the Virginia 44 with 49 seconds left in the second half.

Rocco finished 15-of-25 passing for 143 yards and one TD. He was intercepted twice before Sims replaced him early in the fourth quarter.

“They weren’t doing anything special,” Rocco said of the Jackets. “They were just mixing coverages up. I was just trying to take what they gave me. I forced a couple plays which I wish I could have back, but I can’t, and I’ll just learn from my mistakes.”

In its 24-21 win over No. 12 Georgia Tech in Charlottesville last fall, Virginia bolted to a 14-0 lead.

“Last year we did a good job of starting fast,” Lazor said, “and I thought that was going to be one of the keys today, but obviously we weren’t able to get off to a fast start.

“I think we needed to start the game fast. It was really important to score early. So regardless of what they did, we had to come out and do that, and we didn’t do it.”

It was 28-7 when sophomore Khalek Shepherd returned a kickoff 72 yards to the Jackets’ 20, an opportunity the Cavaliers couldn’t afford to squander. But they did.

On first down, Rocco underthrew senior tailback Perry Jones on a wheel route that, with an accurate pass, almost certainly would have produced a touchdown.

Instead of a TD, Virginia had to settle for a 4-yard gain. Jones picked up five more yards on a second-down run, but on third-and-1 from Georgia Tech’s 11, sophomore tailback Kevin Parks was stopped for no gain. On fourth-and-1, Lazor called another run, and the Jackets swarmed over Jones, stopping him well short of the first-down marker.

“That was really disappointing,” Lazor said, “and it’s obvious, when you get in those short-yardage situations, if you’re going to take some pride in being a physical football team when you run it, then you like to think you can make it. We called two [runs] and had a chance, and I’m sure we’ll see it just takes one little mistake here or there [for a play to break down], but I think we’re at the point where we’ve got to eliminate those mistakes and take some pride in being able to knock it for a yard.”

To come away from that possession with no points, London said, was “just disheartening. It takes its toll after a while … It just kind of seemed like when it started raining, it started pouring. We have to find a way sometimes when things like that happen to put the brakes on and have a group collectively say, `You know what? All right, that’s it. Let’s turn this thing around.’

“We’ve done it in the past, but that was with last year’s team. There’s a new cast of characters here this year, and we’ve got to be able to do it with the players that are in the mix now.”

A week after rushing for only 32 yards in a 17-16 win over Penn State, Virginia showed modest improvement against Georgia Tech, gaining 98 yards on the ground. But that satisfied no one in a UVa uniform.

“We’re just trying to find ourselves right now,” Moses said of the offensive line, which returned three starters from a team that finished 8-5 last season.

In their 2011 meeting, the Cavaliers had dominated the Jackets at the line of scrimmage, and Johnson didn’t hesitate to remind his players of that.

“I just challenged them,” Johnson said Saturday. “When you lose and you care, it ought to bother you. I heard a long time ago that revenge is a great motivator for those who care. They care. We were embarrassed the way we played up there a year ago.”

The Cavaliers were the ones embarrassed Saturday, but “we’re not going to point fingers, we’re not going to blame anybody,” London said.

“That’s a good football team that ran their style of offense, came out ready to play, and we got too [deep] of a hole dug to come out of that. They continued to play well, and we tried to find some sort of balance or some sort of rhythm and could just never get into it.”

The score was 49-7 when Sims took over for Rocco with 12:32 to play. Sims led the `Hoos on two touchdown drives — the first ended with his 22-yard pass to sophomore wide receiver E.J. Scott at the 9:15 mark — but the outcome had long since been decided by the time the transfer from Alabama entered the game.

Virginia’s captains include middle linebacker Steve Greer, a fifth-year senior. His message to the team’s younger players?

“You have two ways you can go,” Greer said. “You can either keep your head down and kind of let this decide your season, or you can pick you head up, learn from it and bond together and understand we got a big game next week and we still have a lot of games to play.”

London said: “After the third game of the season, we see a lot of things we need to fix. Those guys in that locker room are my guys; I gotta coach `em better … Ultimately the responsibility lies with me for the product that’s out on the field, and today I didn’t do a very good job of getting the team ready to play this team.”

EXTRA POINTS: Three players who started UVa’s Sept. 1 opener against Richmond missed the Georgia Tech game with injuries: junior wide receiver Tim Smith, sophomore offensive guard Cody Wallace and senior defensive end Billy Schautz.

Taking their spots Saturday were sophomore wideout Dominique Terrell, sophomore offensive guard Conner Davis and senior defensive end Ausar Walcott, respectively.

Sophomore tailback Clifton Richardson, who has been slowed by a hamstring injury, made his 2012 debut Saturday. He carried once, for 1 yard, and returned three kickoffs for 58 yards.

NEXT SATURDAY: UVa (2-1) travels to Texas to take on No. 16 TCU (2-0) in Fort Worth. The game will start at noon Eastern and be televised by ESPN.

The Horned Frogs won 20-6 at Kansas on Saturday.

This will be the third football game between Virginia and TCU. In the first, on Dec. 28, 1994, the `Hoos defeated the Horned Frogs 20-10 in the Independence Bowl at Shreveport, La. The teams met again in 2009, TCU romping 30-14 at Scott Stadium.

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