By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — A football series that began in 1919 will end, at least for the foreseeable future, Saturday evening at Byrd Stadium, where Virginia has won three straight games over Maryland.
The Terrapins are leaving the ACC to join the Big Ten next year, and UVa wants “to get the last one from them before they move on,” junior tailback Kevin Parks said.
A fourth consecutive victory in College Park would do more than ensure many years of bragging rights for the Cavaliers. It would stop a skid that began with a 14-3 loss at Pittsburgh on Sept. 28. A week later, at Scott Stadium, Virginia imploded in the second half and lost 48-27 to Ball State.
In those two losses, the Wahoos (2-3, 0-1) totaled six turnovers, including five fumbles, and 18 penalties.
“If you look at the last two games … we met the enemy and it’s us,” Tom O’Brien said, echoing the famous line from the Pogo comic strip.
“There’s no excuse for fumbling the football,” O’Brien, UVa’s associate head coach for offense and tight ends coach, said Wednesday, and the offense has been working in practice to fix that problem.
Also unacceptable, O’Brien said, are the pre- and post-snap penalties called on Virginia. “Those are the mistakes that can be corrected and have to be corrected,” he said.
A former head coach at Boston College and NC State, O’Brien was among the most prominent additions to Mike London’s staff after a 2012 season in which the Cavaliers finished 4-8. O’Brien was characteristically blunt in his teleconference with reporters this week.
“Losing becomes a habit,” he said. “We have to change that. We have to get in to win and learn how to win a football game … Forget all the noise going on on the outside and around us and just take care of our business. We gotta button up our chinstraps and hitch our britches up and tighten it up a little bit and be a little bit tougher both mentally and physically.
“We’re going to find a way to win football games.”
A season ago, the `Hoos lost six straight during one agonizing stretch. One of the holdovers from that team is defensive line coach Vincent Brown, who worked with UVa’s linebackers in 2012.
“Last year’s team was last year’s team,” Brown said Tuesday. “This is a new team. And so, again, we’re just trying to build on those things that we can control: our energy, our effort, our attitude, our knowledge of our assignments, each and every day. This is still a young team with players still learning how to work within the framework of the system.
“We’re not concerned about what happened last year. We’re just focused on this week’s opponent.”
Maryland (4-1, 0-1) has problems of its own. The Terrapins are coming off a 63-0 loss at Florida State in which their starting quarterback, senior C.J. Brown, suffered a concussion.
Brown was listed as doubtful on the injury report Maryland released Thursday night. If Brown, a dangerous runner, is not available Saturday, sophomore Caleb Rowe will start for the Terps.
In his four appearances this season, Rowe has completed 14 of 24 passes for 163 yards and no touchdowns, with one interception. He’s carried seven times for 11 yards.
“We just go out and prepare for what their offense does, regardless of who’s the man pulling the trigger behind center,” Vincent Brown said. “They do some really unique things, and they have a really challenging system to defend. So we don’t worry about whether it’s Brown or Rowe. We just want to line up and play and prepare to defend their offense.”
Maryland’s No. 1 weapon is sophomore Stefon Diggs, who returned the opening kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown last year at Scott Stadium. The Terps went on to win that game 27-20.
“He is an explosive player,” Vincent Brown said, “and although I coach the defensive line, you see explosive players jump off the tape, and he’s one of those guys that can wreck the game for you.”
The Terps get the ball to Diggs in a variety of ways. He’s returned five kickoffs (for 105 yards) and two punts (for minus-1 yard) this season. A starting wide receiver, Diggs has 20 catches for 424 yards and three touchdowns, and he’s rushed five times for 48 yards.
“He’s a good player, but he’s not the only good player on that team,” said junior linebacker Daquan Romero, Virginia’s leading tackler.
Another Maryland wideout, junior Deon Long, has 24 receptions for 348 yards and one TD, and junior tailback Brandon Ross averages 4.8 yards per carry.
“I’m quite sure we’ll get [the Terps’] best effort,” London said. “They’re back at home. Players on both teams have played either with or against each other, and you forget about what happened the week before and everything like that. I believe it’s about the game this week, about the players that have played against each other, about where the teams are, where they want to go, and about performing on Saturday.”
For a team heading into its sixth game, UVa is in good health overall, but the `Hoos will be without junior cornerback Demetrious Nicholson on Saturday. Nicholson, who was injured in the Ball State game, has started 30 consecutive games for UVa. Virginia still has two veteran corners in junior DreQuan Hoskey and sophomore Maurice Canady, but Nicholson’s absence will mean an increased role for true freshman Tim Harris.
Not all the medical news is bad for the Cavaliers. Offensive guard Conner Davis is expected to play after missing the past three games with a hamstring injury. Davis, a junior, started against BYU and Oregon. Also, junior tight end Zachary Swanson was listed as probable on UVa’s injury report Thursday.
Swanson, who suffered a knee injury Sept. 21 against VMI, has eight catches for 75 yards this season, and he’s also the best blocker among UVa’s tight ends.
“Zach Swanson can’t get back soon enough to help this football team,” O’Brien said.
Likewise, the Cavaliers can’t get another victory soon enough. They still have ambitious goals for a season that began with a stirring comeback win over BYU.
“We just gotta believe in ourselves and believe in our team,” said Parks, who has rushed for 398 yards and five touchdowns.
The Ball State game “is in the past,” Romero said. “There’s nothing we can do about it but learn from our mistakes and move on, and that’s what we’re doing.”