By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
RALEIGH, N.C. — The four charter buses pulled up to NC State’s Carter-Finley Stadium around 2:45 p.m. Friday, about three-and-a-half hours after pulling away from the McCue Center in Charlottesville.
For the first time in five years, UVa is here to face NC State in football.
That 2007 team saw its seven-game winning streak end with a 29-24 loss to the Wolfpack. These Cavaliers, who are in their third season under head coach Mike London, have dropped six in a row and are trying to avoid the program’s first seven-game losing streak since 1981.
UVa (2-6 overall, 0-4 ACC) and NC State (5-3, 2-2) meet at 12:30 p.m. Saturday. A defeat would assure Virginia of finishing with a losing record for the fourth time in five seasons. A team that hasn’t won since Sept. 8 must string together four consecutive victories this month to become bowl-eligible for the second straight year.
“I think talent-wise, there’s no question we can do that,” middle linebacker Steve Greer said. “We gotta play together, eliminate mistakes and execute. I think we can do that.”
London is well aware of the challenge facing his team. His immediate concern, though, is leaving Raleigh with a victory.
“Then you can worry about adding wins up after that,” London said.
The Wahoos haven’t played since Oct. 20, when they fell 16-10 to Wake Forest at Scott Stadium. They’ll be short-handed Saturday, and not only because starting defensive end Bill Schautz will miss his fifth straight game with a hamstring injury.
London announced Monday that he had suspended three players indefinitely for violating team rules: strong-side linebacker Henry Coley, tight end Jeremiah Mathis and fullback LoVante’ Battle. None will be available against NC State.
Mathis and Battle are reserves. Sophomore Daquan Romero has replaced Coley on the first-team defense. Romero, who played primarily on special teams as a true freshman last year, has made 19 tackles this season.
“He’s been patient and really attentive to learning the assignments, the keys and the techniques needed to play the position, and he’s continuing to grow each and every week,” said Vincent Brown, who coaches UVa’s linebackers.
“He’s still a young player, and I just watch his growth from week to week, and his decision-making, his reaction times, are so much better. His understanding of what we’re trying to do schematically is so much better, and he’s only going to get better.”
Backing up Romero is Demeitre Brim, a 6-3, 225-pound true freshman.
“Demeitre’s a very, very talented young man,” Brown said. “He’s big, he’s extremely athletic, and really, really fast. Football is important to him, so he studies the assignments. He takes it serious. He just has to get game experience.”
The bye week allowed Romero and Brim to get work in practice, and the Cavaliers believe it came at a good time for the team, too.
“We used the bye week a little bit to get back to basics,” junior center Luke Bowanko said, “get back to the fundamentals of the game, work on stuff that we need to improve on as an offensive unit and a defensive unit.”
UVa’s players lift weights during the season, and testing last week showed that many of them are getting stronger as winter approaches.
For a player who’s sore and tired, in-season workouts aren’t always fun, but “we want to be a fourth-quarter team,” junior defensive end Jake Snyder said. “We want to be an end-of-the-season type team. We’re going to keep getting stronger. We’re going to keep playing hard, and that’s where it all starts, in the weight room. That’s how you build that mindset, that mentality.”
Snyder and the rest of UVa’s defense will try Saturday to stop — or at least slow down — one of the ACC’s premier quarterbacks Saturday. Mike Glennon, a 6-6, 232-pound fifth-year senior from Northern Virginia, completed 29 of 52 passes for a career-best 467 yards and five touchdowns last weekend in State’s 43-35 loss to arch-rival North Carolina.
Even more impressive: Glennon’s numbers could have been better, said Wolfpack coach Tom O’Brien, who spent 15 seasons as an assistant at Virginia under George Welsh.
“Certainly you can’t be happy with dropped passes,” O’Brien said. “Once again, I think that’s a matter of concentration. We had 10 on Saturday. We have a quarterback that threw for 460 yards. If you catch some of those passes, some of those are game-changing passes. He might have had 600 yards passing the ball.”
For the season, Glennon has passed for 2,455 yards and 19 TDs, with nine picks.
“He’s a great player, there’s no doubt,” Snyder said. “He’s a guy that if he sits back there and he has all the time in the world, he can pick apart just about any defense.
“Just like any other quarterback, you get a little pressure in his face, and that’s going to throw him off his game, at least a little bit.
“That’s going to be our goal. We’re going to have to get to him, no matter what, because he is a great, talented quarterback, and we’re going to have to do our best to disrupt his timing and disrupt his pace a little bit.”
UVa’s quarterbacks haven’t been nearly as productive as Glennon, whose brother, Sean, played at Virginia Tech. Junior Michael Rocco has thrown more interceptions (eight) than touchdown passes (seven) this season, and sophomore Phillip Sims has struggled with his accuracy.
After backing up Rocco for the first five games, Sims took over as the starter Oct. 6 against Duke. Sims, who transferred to UVa from Alabama after the 2011-12 school year, has thrown seven touchdown passes this fall, with four interceptions, but has often looked out of sync in offensive coordinator Bill Lazor’s system. The extra time he’s had to prepare for his fourth start should help Sims on Saturday.
“The open week can do wonders for a quarterback, to go back [and] research what he’s done,” O’Brien said.
Sims will be facing a defense known for coming up with turnovers. Seven players have at least one interception each for the Wolfpack, led by junior cornerback David Amerson, who has four picks.
Amerson led the nation with 13 interceptions last season, two of which came in State’s win over UVa at Scott Stadium. (He returned the second pick for a touchdown.)
“He’s such a talent that he finds the ball,” London said.
The Cavaliers, meanwhile, have intercepted only one pass this season. But as UVa’s offense has struggled in recent weeks, its defense has steadily improved.
“I think guys are maturing and coming along,” said Greer, the team’s leading tackler.
O’Brien was generous in his public comments about the `Hoos this week, calling them “a good football team that’s had some misfortune.”
Good football teams find ways to win, and UVa desperately needs to rediscover that formula.
“It’s a back-against-the-wall mentality,” Bowanko said. “I think everyone feels the pressure. Guys want to win. There’s no questioning anyone’s desire to win. But at this point it’s put up or shut up … Guys gotta perform on the field.”