Nov. 4, 2012
RALEIGH, N.C. — Nearly two months elapsed between victories for UVa’s football team, an eternity for everyone associated with the program. At times, as the Cavaliers self-destructed on an almost weekly basis, it appeared they might not win again this fall. But Mike London’s players never stopped battling, never stopped believing a breakthrough was imminent.
Their perseverance was rewarded Saturday afternoon at NC State’s Carter-Finley Stadium. That six-game losing streak? History. In one of the more improbable results of this ACC season, the Wahoos whipped the Wolfpack 33-6 before a stunned crowd of 54,812.
“It’s a great feeling, and it’s long overdue,” senior tailback Perry Jones said of UVa’s first victory since Sept. 8.
“It wasn’t 100-percent pretty,” said London, Virginia’s third-year head coach, “but by the same [token], when you score 30-some points and only give up six … I think that’s a heroic effort.”
The `Hoos, who hadn’t played since losing 16-10 to Wake Forest on Oct. 20, entered the game ranked last nationally in turnover margin. No one who witnessed UVa’s first win over NC State in Raleigh since 1999 would have guessed that.
Against the Wolfpack (5-4 overall, 2-3 ACC), Virginia (3-6, 1-4) gave the ball away only once, on a first-quarter fumble by sophomore wide receiver Darius Jennings, who later caught a touchdown pass. But the bigger news was that the `Hoos forced a season-high five turnovers, three coming on interceptions of passes thrown by State quarterback Mike Glennon, an All-ACC candidate.
When the defense can come up with turnovers, the offense gets “better field position, the energy of the whole team is a lot higher, and plus you get more possessions,” said Virginia sophomore Phillip Sims, who split time at quarterback Saturday with junior Michael Rocco.
“When those guys get turnovers, instead of getting maybe five or six possessions in a half, you get seven or eight. It equates to more points. You get more opportunities. So when those guys get the ball back for us, it’s big-time for the whole team.”
The Cavaliers’ defense wreaked havoc Saturday, recording six sacks, one of which resulted in a safety that made it 16-0 with 3:17 left in the second quarter.
The first five sacks came against Glennon, a fifth-year senior who was coming off a game in which he’d passed for 467 yards and five touchdowns. UVa harassed the 6-6 Glennon throughout and limited him to 197 yards passing.
“We got a lot of pressure on him with four people, and that’s an important thing,” said junior defensive end Jake Snyder, who had a sack and recovered a fumble. “Any time you can do that, you can allow the guys on the back end to have some good coverage, and they did a great job today.”
Defensive coordinator Jim Reid said: “When you rush four and you can get some pressure, now it allows you to play seven in coverage and it gives you an advantage. When you have to bring six for pressure, or five, then [the defensive backs] are on an island a little bit.”
Through its first eight games, Virginia had recorded only seven sacks and forced only four turnovers. Even so, three of UVa’s losses were by seven points or fewer, and its defense had shown steady improvement.
“When you play as many games as we’ve played where you could have won, I just think you just need a spark, and I think the spark happened today,” Reid said.
“We didn’t hurt ourselves. We played a solid football game. We got some turnovers, and that’s what happens.”
On a day when Virginia’s offense totaled 446 yards, its defense allowed only 216. That marked the third consecutive game in which the defense gave up fewer than 235 yards. Even more impressive, the Cavaliers did it with three first-time starters on defense: true freshman cornerback Maurice Canady, true freshman end Eli Harold, and sophomore strong-side linebacker Daquan Romero, who hasn’t redshirted either.
“I just told the guys, if we believe in ourselves, we can pull this out,” Harold said. “We’ve got a talented team, and you can see what happens when it comes together. Things like this happen.”
Sophomore tackle Chris Brathwaite led UVa with two sacks Saturday. Ends Snyder and Mike Moore, a true freshman, and tackles Brent Urban and Will Hill contributed one apiece. Harold added a tackle for loss and his first interception as a Cavalier. Canady and sophomore safety Anthony Harris also had interceptions that they returned 39 and 37 yards, respectively.
Canady led UVa with seven tackles, his career high, in a remarkably poised performance. The Wolfpack challenged him early, and No. 26 didn’t flinch.
“Maurice Canady had a monster game,” Reid said.
Virginia started only three seniors on defense against NCSU: Hill, weak-side linebacker LaRoy Reynolds and middle linebacker Steve Greer. Still, there are “no more young guys on this team,” Snyder said.
“Everyone’s experienced at this point. We just came out and wanted to play a complete game. That’s what we’ve been talking about for the past two weeks, and that’s something we’ve struggled with over the past six weeks or so, and we came out and got it today.”
Sims made his fourth straight start, and he guided the Cavaliers to a touchdown on the game’s opening drive. The drive lasted 11 plays and covered 75 yards. It should have lasted only nine plays, but on first-and-goal from the 4-yard line, Sims, wide open in the end zone, dropped a perfectly thrown option pass from Jones.
Sims fell to the turf and grabbed his helmet in frustration. Two plays later, though, he redeemed himself by scrambling one yard for a touchdown, reaching out to touch the right pylon with the ball as he went out of bounds.
“Man, it was tough,” Sims said of his drop. “I told my teammates I wasn’t leaving the field without making up for it. I had an opportunity there, and I took advantage of it.”
Sims was 5-for-5 passing through two series, but Rocco replaced him on Virginia’s third possession. It wasn’t a demotion. The coaching staff had decided leading up to the game that both quarterbacks would play, and neither was in for more than three consecutive series Saturday.
“You gotta deal with the situation you’re in each time,” offensive coordinator Bill Lazor told reporters. “I may have said in the past I didn’t like [rotating quarterbacks], but I like what happened today.”
London called Sims and Rocco “very talented players [who] provide different things for our team. And without getting into game-planning and who does what, I just thought both of them brought something to the table, to our offense.
“We just wanted to find a way to come up with a formula to win, and Coach Lazor and the offensive staff, I thought they did a really nice job today at putting the pieces together to help Michael and Phillip be successful.”
Sims completed 8 of 10 passes for 115 yards and one touchdown, a 38-yard bomb to junior wideout Tim Smith, his former teammate at Oscar Smith High in Chesapeake.
“Post route over the top,” Sims said, smiling. “Touchdown. We had a lot of those a few years ago. I saw him open and I said, `Oh, man, it’s a touchdown. Go give him a chance to make a play.’ ”
Lazor raved about Smith’s effort on the deep ball.
“He was getting hit and grabbed all the way down the field, and a lot of times it isn’t called,” Lazor said. “And then when it got to the point where the ball got there — we call it a 50-50 ball, where both guys have a chance for it — he went and got the football. That’s what a receiver’s supposed to do.”
Rocco, who started Virginia’s first five games this season, was 12-for-23 passing Saturday for 83 yards and a TD, an 18-yarder to Jennings in the first quarter. Rocco also hurt NC State with his feet, running five times for 36 yards.
“I believe in my athletic ability,” Rocco said. “I know a lot of people may not. I believe that if the play’s not open down the field and a running lane presents itself, I can make yards. That’s really my main goal, and it worked out today.”
Rocco, of course, would like to take every snap for Virginia. So would Sims. Neither, however, puts his interests above those of the team.
“You do as you’re asked to do as a player,” Sims said. “In a situation like this, we’re just trying to win football games. So as a player, if the coaches feel that this is the best thing for us as a team, then you have no choice but to roll with it and do your job. When you’re number’s called, just go out there and play to the highest ability you can play.”
For the second time in three games, sophomore tailback Kevin Parks rushed for more than 100 yards to lead UVa’s running game. Parks, who’s from Salisbury, N.C., wasn’t recruited by any of the ACC schools in his home state, and he likes nothing better than to play well against them.
“It’s a joyful thing,” Parks said.
He finished with 115 yards on 25 carries Saturday. His final run, on fourth-and-1 from State’s 31, went for a touchdown that made it 32-6 with 4:28 remaining and sapped whatever energy the Pack had left. Junior Drew Jarrett then closed the scoring with his second PAT of the afternoon.
“Words can’t express how happy I am for a lot of those players,” London said. “That was an elated locker room in there. Like I said, we’ll celebrate it for a little bit but know that we’ve got much more business ahead of us to take care of … if this season is to turn out the way it possibly could.”
UVa has three regular-season games left. The `Hoos must win them all to become bowl-eligible for the second year in a row.
To the team’s many underclassmen, Jones said, the veterans “just gotta reiterate: The time is now. We’re not looking forward to the future. We have to do it right now.”
UP NEXT: The first of UVa’s two remaining home games is next Saturday, when Miami (5-4 overall, 4-2 ACC) visits Scott Stadium for a Coastal Division clash. The game will start at noon and be televised on ABC.
The Hurricanes, in their second season under former Virginia defensive coordinator Al Golden, ended a three-game losing streak Thursday night with a 30-12 victory over visiting Virginia Tech.
UVa trails 5-4 in the series but has won two straight over Miami.