By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — In No. 2 Oregon, BYU, Ball State and Maryland, UVa’s football team has already faced four opponents whose combined record is now 21-4.
The schedule gets no easier for the Cavaliers (2-4), who have dropped three consecutive games since blanking VMI 49-0. The six teams left on Virginia’s schedule — all from the ACC — have a combined record of 25-10, and only one of them (North Carolina) is below .500 overall.
First comes Duke (4-2), then Georgia Tech (3-3), No. 3 Clemson (6-0), UNC (1-4), No. 10 Miami (5-0) and, finally, No. 19 Virginia Tech (6-1).
The Cavaliers host the Blue Devils, who have won four of the past five games in the series, at 3:30 p.m. Saturday at Scott Stadium. Both teams are 0-2 in ACC play.
Virginia, on the verge of its first conference victory, fell 27-26 to Maryland in College Park on Saturday. The Wahoos were 6 for 6 in the red zone at Byrd Stadium, but on four of those trips they had to settle for field goals by junior Alec Vozenilek. On his fifth attempt, Vozenilek missed from 42 yards with 10 seconds left.
“As soon as he missed the field goal, I ran out on the field,” sophomore quarterback David Watford told reporters Monday at John Paul Jones Arena. “He was walking off, I told him to just keep his head up, I gave him a hug, I walked with him off the field. Because it’s not his fault. We can’t solely blame that game on Alec. We can’t put that on his shoulders, because if it’s anybody’s fault, it’s our fault as an offense. We didn’t score enough points.
“It’s a team effort. When you lose, you lose as a team.”
On his weekly Sunday night teleconference, London noted that “in life, you’re going to get handed adversity. It’s how you handle the adversity. You can choose to go south with your attitude, with your effort, or you can choose to look at it head-on and say, `You know what? We gotta fight through this thing.’
“How you handle adversity speaks to your character, speaks to how other people perceive you and how your teammates perceive you.”
A day later, London told reporters at JPJ that he believes his team is improving in all three phases, especially on offense. The Wahoos totaled 459 yards against Ball State and 505 yards against Maryland.
Virginia’s players feel the same way.
“The team’s definitely coming together,” junior linebacker Henry Coley said Monday, “and I tried to [put] into perspective for some people [that] yeah, we’re 2-4 right now, but at the same time look at our schedule compared to the other guys that are in the ACC.”
Coley added: “The door’s still open for our football team.”
The loss to Maryland was heartbreaking, defensive end Jake Snyder said in College Park, but “I think everything’s in place, everything’s there. The belief is there. The guys want it. It’s not a question of effort, just little mistakes here and there end up adding up and losing you games.”
A season ago, when the `Hoos finished 4-8, they lost six in a row during one stretch before rallying to win two of their final four games. London’s players don’t see a repeat of that skid coming.
“Guys aren’t hanging their heads down, I can say that,” Coley said. “Guys are not hanging their heads down, because a lot of people see that we’re that close. I know you guys are getting tired of people saying that, but it’s that close. It really came down to one or two plays [at Maryland].”
One of those plays was a 47-yard completion by the Terrapins on third-and-22, with UVa leading 26-20 in the fourth quarter.
“That was the killer right there,” London said. “They punt the ball, and perhaps we’re enjoying a Sunday with a victory. But that’s part of the game.”
The ACC accounted Monday that the Oct. 26 game between UVa and Georgia Tech at Scott Stadium will start at 12:30 p.m.
POPULAR TARGET: Junior tight end Jake McGee, who leads Virginia in receptions (27), receiving yards (233) and touchdown catches (two), is coming off a career game. The 6-6, 250-pound McGee caught eight passes for 114 yards and a TD in College Park.
“I think he’s as good a pass-catching tight end as there is out there,” London said Monday.
McGee, known to teammates as The Kid, had 28 receptions last season, including five for touchdowns, so such feats are not new for him. But Watford redshirted in 2012, when Michael Rocco and Phillip Sims split time at quarterback for Virginia. That Watford and McGee are growing more comfortable with each other on the field is apparent.
“He’s the kind of guy, he’s hard to miss,” Watford said. “He’s a big target. He’s fast. He catches the ball well.
“Jake and I, we’ve put a lot of time in off the field and on the field when nobody else is around, just me and him, throwing and catching, and just getting on the same page. We’ve talked about it a lot. We spent a lot of time in the offseason just around each other, just to build that chemistry off the field as well on the field.
“I have a lot of trust in The Kid, and he trusts me as well. It’s just something, that’s been there the whole time. We’ve just been waiting to show it on the field, and [the Maryland] game was just a prime example of it.”
STEPPING UP: Among UVa’s wide receivers, junior Darius Jennings has the most catches (15) this season. Jennings lost his starting job after Virginia’s 14-3 loss to Pittsburgh on Sept. 28, in part because of dropped passes. Against Maryland, though, he made a leaping catch over a defender for a 21-yard gain on Virginia’s final drive.
“It was good to see Darius make a catch like that,” London said, “because that’s what he can be … He was one of the guys that recognized, that as far as drops and things go, the receiving corps had to step up. He was the first one to step up and acknowledge that, and he has taken his role and embraced his leadership role and said, `Listen, we all have to be accountable for production or lack thereof,’ and he’s done some things in games now that have stepped up his game.”
Jennings also returned two kickoffs, for 49 yards, against Maryland.
NEXT MAN UP: The ankle injury Brent Urban suffered in the second quarter at Byrd Stadium is not season-ending, London said Monday, but it’s too early to say if the fifth-year senior from Canada will be able to play Saturday against Duke.
On the depth chart UVa released Monday, the starter at one defensive tackle spot is listed as Urban or Donte Wilkins. A graduate of Potomac High in Dumfries, the 6-2, 305-pound Wilkins is one of the 11 true freshmen to play for the Cavaliers this season.
“I wouldn’t say I’m excited to play because Brent went down,” Wilkins said Monday.
“That’s the last thing I want to see, because he’s a major part of this defense. I look up to him. I ask him questions all the time if I need anything. I’m just happy that I can help the team out in any way I can.”
The 6-7, 295-pound Urban leads the Cavaliers in pass breakups (eight) and is tied with sophomore end Eli Harold for the team lead in tackles for loss (7.5).
Wilkins came to UVa with impressive credentials. As a Potomac High senior, he was named the Northwestern Region’s player of the year on both offense and defense.
Offensive guards usually aren’t so honored, but Wilkins wasn’t surprised to win the award.
“No, sir,” he said. “Every play, every game I was aiming for it, to be the best player on the field.”
JAKE OF ALL TRADES: A three-year starter at defensive end, Snyder also saw time at tackle after the injury forced Urban to the sideline Saturday. That the 6-4, 270-pound fifth-year senior was able to pull it off surprised no one who knows him.
London, a former defensive line coach, compared Snyder’s “level of understanding and knowledge” to that of former UVa great Chris Long.
Snyder “understands the position, the inside and outside part of playing a defensive end and tackle,” London said. “You may see more of that. And I think his experience in calling out, recognizing line splits, recognizing formations and calling out plays before they’re even run, those are the type of things that a Jake Snyder does for us … It kind of shows you how much of a valued player he is to this defense, because he can do things like that.”
SECONDARY MATTERS: Demetrius Nicholson’s streak of 30 straight starts for UVa ended Saturday. The junior cornerback from Virginia Beach’s Bayside High missed the Maryland game with an injured toe, which meant an increased role for true freshman Tim Harris.
“Any time you have a guy that’s started 30 games for you, his absence is noticeable because that’s a veteran guy that’s been in a lot of games,” London said. “Not having him, obviously, puts you in the situation that you have to rely on the next guy up, or the next two guys that are up. Not having him hurt.”
Junior Anthony Harris’ starting job is not in jeopardy at strong safety, but senior Rijo Walker is pushing junior Brandon Phelps at free safety. Phelps, who has started every game this season, has no interceptions and no pass breakups, and he’s missed several key tackles.
“Safeties have to be great tacklers,” London said, “so we’ll make sure that we put the right people in the game to make that happen.”