By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — It’s become a familiar refrain among Mike London’s players. To have a dream season, they say, UVa has to play a dream schedule. And that’s what the Cavaliers are facing.
Virginia opened against BYU, which has won at least 10 games in five of the past seven seasons. The Wahoos rallied to defeat the Cougars 19-16 last weekend at Scott Stadium, and now comes a greater challenge.
At 3:30 p.m. Saturday, UVa hosts No. 2 Oregon (1-0) in a game that will be televised nationally on ABC/ESPN2. The Ducks are the highest-ranked team to visit Scott Stadium since No. 1 Florida State in 1999.
“Being a college football player, that’s the kind of schedule you want, that’s the kind of opponents you want,” junior linebacker Henry Coley said.
“I’m not afraid of anybody,” sophomore defensive Eli Harold said. “I don’t care who we’re playing. I’m just up for the challenge.”
Oregon finished 12-1 last season after routing Kansas State 35-17 in the Fiesta Bowl. The Ducks haven’t lost a true road game since Nov. 7, 2009, and they’re favored to win Saturday. That doesn’t faze the Cavaliers.
“It’s just another chance to put us on the map,” senior offensive tackle Morgan Moses said. “Being the underdog, that’s what you love to be. Everybody sleeps on you. Of course, Oregon’s a top-5 team, they’re all-world to everybody, but having them come in Scott Stadium, a place that they have never played in, is special to us.”
In January, Chip Kelly left Oregon to become the Philadelphia Eagles’ head coach. Little appears to have changed in Eugene since his departure. Kelly’s successor, Mark Helfrich, was Oregon’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach from 2009 to ’12.
Under Helfrich, the Ducks still run the fast-paced, no-huddle spread offense for which they are famous.
“It’s a scheme and system they’ve been running for so long, they’ve perfected it,” said London, who’s in his fourth season as Virginia’s head coach.
Many other teams run plays similar to Oregon’s, UVa defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta said, but not at the same tempo.
“That’s what we have to prepare for,” Tenuta said.
BYU went with a no-huddle offense last weekend, and UVa forced 11 punts. Virginia also recorded a safety and came up with a game-changing interception late in the fourth quarter.
“Obviously our guys did a good job,” said Tenuta, who’s in his first season as coordinator at his alma mater. “Anytime you have eight three-and-outs … and you hold a team to 16 points, you did a good job. But obviously now you gotta move on to the next one.
“You gotta move forward. The speed of the game’s going to be a lot faster. [The Ducks] got three veteran offensive linemen that are back … They got an outstanding tight end. They got good receivers. Obviously their running back’s very fast, and their quarterback’s done of a heck of a job in their system.”
Oregon’s weapons include junior tailback De’Anthony Thomas, who rushed 18 times for 128 yards last weekend in a 66-3 rout of Nicholls State, and sophomore quarterback Marcus Mariota, who made the All-Pac 12 first team in 2012.
“They are as good as advertised,” London said. “The thing for us is, to make sure we are sound, we have gap integrity, and we’re going to have to tackle in the open field.”
To upset Oregon, UVa also will have to be more productive offensively than in the opener. Against BYU, the `Hoos totaled only 223 yards, and junior Alec Vozenilek punted a career-high 13 times.
“We definitely can’t turn the ball over, and every time we have the ball we have to try to put some points on the board,” said junior wide receiver Darius Jennings, who caught an 11-yard pass from sophomore quarterback David Watford for Virginia’s first touchdown.
“It would be great if we could put 40 points on the board, but if we only had 10 and they had nine, then we’d still come out with a W.”
Holding the Ducks to single digits, of course, may not be a realistic goal. “Oregon’s going to score points,” Jennings said. “That’s just their type of offense. But our defense was very stout this past Saturday, and I expect them to do the same this upcoming Saturday.”
The defense’s message to Watford and UVa’s other offensive players? “I was like, `Just try your hardest to sustain drives, and I think we can get the job done,’ ” Harold said. “If the offense holds the ball long enough, if we can get like 10-, 12-, 15-play drives, I really believe that we can beat Oregon.”
Harold led UVa with 3.5 tackles for loss, including two sacks, against BYU. The keys to slowing Oregon’s offense, he said, are playing a physical game and getting penetration.
“You look at all the teams that beat Oregon in the past,” Harold said. “You look at the Stanfords, they just shoot their gaps and get a lot of penetration.”
Virginia’s opener included a 129-minute weather delay, and that wasn’t the only adversity London’s team faced that day.
“With the two-hour delay and everything that happened in the game, for us to come out and pull a win like that, it definitely shows how tough our team really is,” Jennings said.
Coley agreed. “For us to be resilient and make the adjustments that we needed to make throughout the game in order to come out with the victory, it definitely showed how the team could respond to adversity.”
For UVa, coming off a 4-8 season, the importance of the win over BYU cannot be overstated.
“We needed it, because we had to get that ball rolling,” Coley said. “We didn’t want to go into Week 2 facing a top-5 opponent and then be trying to get the ball rolling now. The ball’s rolling.”