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Nov. 11, 2012

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CHARLOTTESVILLE — The scoreboard at Scott Stadium showed Miami leading 40-35 and 2:38 remaining when UVa got the football back at its 13-yard line Saturday. Nobody in the Cavaliers’ huddle needed to be reminded what was at stake.

“Everybody knew that this was it,” sophomore tight end Jake McGee said later.

If the Wahoos gave up the ball on downs or turned it over, they weren’t likely to get it back before time expired in this ACC game. If they failed to score a touchdown, their bid to become bowl-eligible for the second straight season would be permanently derailed.

None of that happened, thanks to one of the most memorable drives in the history of a program that dates to 1888. And so the dream lives on for a team that, heading into its bye week late last month, was 2-6 and had lost six games in a row.

Third-year coach Mike London wasn’t sure what November would bring for the `Hoos, but “I knew that these players don’t quit,” he said.

They never folded Saturday, even after the Hurricanes went up by 10 points early in the fourth quarter, even after a controversial call gave the `Canes a safety — and then possession of the ball — with 4:19 remaining.

With six seconds left, the 6-foot-5 McGee leaped high in the back of the end zone to snare a 10-yard pass from junior quarterback Michael Rocco. McGee managed to touch his left foot down before tumbling out of the end zone, sending the home fans in the crowd of 45,870 into a frenzy. The first option on the play was senior tailback Perry Jones, out of the backfield. McGee was No. 2.

“If it came to me,” said McGee, who also starred in basketball at Collegiate School in Richmond, “there was no doubt I was going to be able to make the catch.”

Asked about his vertical leap, McGee smiled. “I have no idea, actually,” he said. “I’ll just tell people 40 [inches], because that’s not true.”

McGee, known to his teammates as The Kid, had shown a flair for the dramatic in his college career — most notably in a 17-16 win over Penn State in September — but this was heady stuff, even by his standards.

“I was just glad that I was able to come down with it,” he said.

After the Cavaliers’ two-point conversion pass fell incomplete, they had to contend with one final kickoff return by Duke Johnson, the scintillating freshman who totaled 368 all-purpose yards Saturday. But the coverage team did its job, and when cornerback Demetrious Nicholson wrestled Johnson down with no time left, Virginia celebrated a 41-40 victory that brought hundreds of students rushing onto the field on a gorgeous fall afternoon.

“We’ve been working hard to turn this thing around and eliminate mistakes and quit beating ourselves,” senior linebacker Steve Greer said. “We helped ourselves out today, and I think at the end that was just kind of a release of emotion.”

The Cavaliers entered November needing to win their final four regular-season games to become bowl-eligible. That’s no small feat, but Virginia (4-6, 2-4 ACC) is halfway there after thumping NC State and edging Miami. UVa plays its final home game Thursday night, against North Carolina.

“It would have been really easy to get down after our losing streak, but Coach London stays optimistic about everything,” Nicholson said. “It trickles down to the rest of our team, and when we start winning people start believing. The more you believe, the better you do.”

London said: “Sometimes you can’t measure desire, you can’t measure heart. It’s tough when things don’t go your way, and the players look to leadership to see, are we going to tank it? Are we going to stay positive? And I’m an eternal optimist. I choose to be positive.”

On a day when offensive coordinator Bill Lazor again rotated his quarterbacks, sophomore Phillip Sims was superb, completing 11 of 14 passes for 88 yards and rushing for a touchdown. Rocco, who started for the first time since Sept. 29, was brilliant. During one stretch he completed 18 straight passes, breaking the school record of 14 consecutive completions set by Matt Blundin against Duke in 1991.

Had he ever completed 18 passes in a row before Saturday, at any level?

“Maybe flag football when I was 6, but I’m not really sure,” said Rocco, who finished 29-of-37 passing for 300 yards and a career-high four TDs. “I can’t really remember back that far, and right now my mind’s kind of blown by what just happened. I’m really excited and proud of our guys.”

On their final drive, the `Hoos twice converted on fourth-and-7, and Rocco completed three passes to McGee, three to sophomore wide receiver Dominique Terrell, two to senior tailback Perry Jones and one apiece to sophomore wideout Darius Jennings and junior wideout Tim Smith. Rocco also ran 2 yards, to the Miami 10, for a first down in the final minute.

“It’s special. We’ve done it a couple times these past couple years,” Rocco said of the late comeback.

“We’ve been in this situation where our backs are against the wall, and it’s our job as an offense to go down and score, and even in the huddle, I didn’t feel any pressure. I didn’t feel any tenseness out of anybody in the huddle. I just felt like we were going to go get this job done. I kept telling the guys, `One play at a time.’ Do one play and get the chains moving, and the defense kind of gets off-balance at that point.”

The list of players who helped UVa pile up 482 yards of offense is a long one. It includes the linemen, who excelled in pass protection; Terrell, who caught nine passes for 127 yards, both career highs; Jennings, who had seven receptions overall and two touchdown catches, both career highs; and sophomore wideout Miles Gooch, whose first reception as a Cavalier went for a 7-yard TD in the first quarter.

“He’s really worked extremely hard to make the transformation from high school quarterback to college wide receiver,” Lazor said of Gooch, who at 6-3, 220 pounds is the team’s most physically imposing wideout.

“Everyone loves him, because of how hard he’s worked at it, and to see him have an opportunity and take full advantage of it was really exciting.”

Virginia struggled on special teams — Johnson returned a kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown in the first quarter — and on defense for much of the afternoon. When it mattered most, though, the defense came through. Before the drive that ended with The Catch — made by The Kid, naturally — there was The Stop, the series that assured that UVa would get the football back one last time.

A 33-yard kickoff return by Johnson gave Miami the ball on its 47 with 4:19 remaining. On first down, tailback Mike James rushed for 6 yards. On second, UVa dropped James for a 2-yard loss. On third-and-six, with about 2:50 to play, Miami went to its most dynamic player, Johnson, who had carried 15 times for 148 yards.

This time, however, Greer and fellow linebacker LaRoy Reynolds stopped Johnson after a 2-yard gain, and out came the Hurricanes’ punt team.

Miami coach Al Golden, a former UVa assistant, said he believed Johnson “was the guy that could make them miss and get us the first down. We knew that they were bringing pressure and thought it was a safe bet inside, and it’s unfortunate that we came up short.”

Greer said: “We want to create an identity for our defense and be able to get stops, and we knew the offense was depending on us, so we kind of bowed our backs and came up big and got them the ball back, and they came through.”

Miami came in ranked 119th nationally in rushing defense and was missing three starters on that side of the ball. The `Hoos, surprisingly, had little success in the running game, rushing for only 94 yards, but they consistently exploited the Hurricanes’ pass defense.

Drops have been a problem for Virginia’s receiving corps most of the season, but the wideouts were sure-handed Saturday, particularly Terrell, who like Jennings played quarterback in high school.

“What we tell the receivers,” Lazor said, “is that when you’re playing that position, you’ve got to have a concentration level where when the ball is in the air, nothing in the world exists but you and the football, and it’s not easy. It’s not easy if you were a high school quarterback and you’re learning how to do it. It’s not easy if you’ve been a receiver all your life and that ball’s in the air before your head’s around, to find it while you’re getting bumped and while you’re running full-speed. I’m really proud of those guys, because they’ve worked extremely hard this year, and I thought they did a real nice job catching the football today, and they had real nice production.”

Terrell, one of the most heralded members of the recruiting class that enrolled at UVa in 2011, came into the game fourth on the team in receptions, with 22, but his impact had been minimal this season.

“We all see what he can do in practice, but sometimes it doesn’t show during the game,” Jennings said. “For him to perform in that manner [against Miami], especially when he’s had a lot of critics through these last two years, it’s definitely special, just to see him shine like that.”

Rocco’s performance was his finest as a Cavalier, too, and at times afterward he was nearly overcome by emotion.

“I love these guys. I’ll do anything for them,” Rocco said. “They know that. I believe they trust me. They know that I’m going to give it my all, I’m going to lead, and I’m going to give them an opportunity to make a play whenever it counts. So I trusted my playmakers. I trust Jake completely, I trust Dominique completely. We’ve had times this year where we haven’t connected a couple times, and it’s been frustrating for both of us. But I keep telling him, `Dominique, you’re a dynamic player, I’m going to get you the ball, and you’re going to make a play.’ “

UP NEXT: Virginia (4-6, 2-4) hosts Coastal Division foe North Carolina (6-4, 3-3) at 7:30 p.m. Thursday in a game ESPN will televise. Not since 2006, when they blanked the Tar Heels 23-0, have the Cavaliers played on a Thursday night at Scott Stadium.

The `Hoos, like the Heels, face a quick turnaround, but that’s “what you want as a competitor,” Rocco said, “just another opportunity to get back out there, and we’ll be excited about this. The way this season has gone, we’re anxious to get back out there and get another victory.”

UNC allowed 588 yards Saturday in a 68-50 loss to Georgia Tech in Chapel Hill. That’s the most points Carolina has ever given up in a home game.

Virginia’s record in ESPN’s Thursday night showcase is 5-5. A season ago, the `Hoos edged Miami 28-21 on a Thursday night in South Florida.

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