By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Many UVa fans are unhappy with the state of the school’s football program, and Mike London understands why they’re frustrated.
UVa gave up 35 unanswered points Saturday in a 35-22 loss to Duke, 28 in the second half. Heading into this weekend’s game against another ACC foe, Georgia Tech, the Cavaliers are 2-5 overall and 0-3 in conference play, and they’re in danger of finishing with a losing record for the third time under London.
Athletics director Craig Littlepage recently expressed confidence in London, however, and Virginia’s fourth-year head coach spoke with conviction Monday when asked about his job security.
“I believe that I’m the right man for the job,” London told reporters at John Paul Jones Arena. “I believe that the process that’s going on here is one that, although painstakingly slow, is a process that will be successful. I’m very appreciative that the administrators and people that make those types of decisions have the utmost confidence in me. I’m 100-percent committed to winning.”
Before returning to UVa, where he had two stints as an assistant under Al Groh, London spent two seasons as head coach at the University of Richmond, his alma mater. UR won the NCAA’s Football Championship Subdivision national title in 2008, his first season. The Spiders finished 11-2 in 2009.
“I know how to win,” London said. “So I’m always excited about the challenge that presents itself of whether there’s negativity or whatever it may be. It’s embrace the adversity, embrace it, look it in the eye, and tell the players, `Let’s go, because the only thing you can do is get ready for the next game, get ready for the next challenge.’ ”
The Wahoos’ next challenge comes Saturday at 12:30 p.m., when they host the Yellow Jackets (4-3, 3-2), who are coming off a 56-0 rout of ACC newcomer Syracuse. That was the Orange’s first encounter with Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson’s trademark triple-option offense.
Syracuse wasn’t the first ACC team to struggle against the option. In 2011, at Scott Stadium, the Cavaliers defeated Georgia Tech, but the Jackets ran wild in Atlanta last season, winning 56-20.
“I think guys took it as a learning experience,” UVa safety Anthony Harris said Monday. “We got a lot of guys coming back who faced it last year, so they know what to expect. It’s not going to be as much of a surprise when you’re out there playing against it. Hopefully guys who played in the game a lot for us last year can bring some experience and help us this year.”
The loss in Atlanta started a six-game losing streak for the `Hoos, who finished the season with a 4-8 record.
“Last year is last year, and we’re trying to get this year going,” junior tight end Jake McGee said Monday. “It’s taking a little while, but we’re going to try to get it going.”
The official attendance for the Duke game was 39,071, and the crowd at 61,500-seat Scott Stadium is likely to be small again Saturday. London’s players say they can’t worry about that.
“If it’s a packed house, it’s a packed house,” junior offensive guard Conner Davis said. “If not, it’s not.”
McGee said: “If there’s no one there or it’s a packed house, it’s on us to get up for the games and get the guys motivated to win. Regardless of who’s in the stands, it really starts with the players and coaches to achieve the success we want.”
GROWING PAINS: In only his second college start, true freshman cornerback Tim Harris generally acquitted himself well Saturday. But he was burned on Duke’s final touchdown, a pass play that covered 24 yards.
On second-and-8, Duke quarterback Anthony Boone threw to tight end Braxton Deaver inside the UVa 10-yard line. Harris reached out for the ball but whiffed, allowing Deaver to run untouched to the end zone.
“I mistimed it,” Harris said Monday. “I tried to go for the interception and missed. Next time I’ll probably just try to bat it down.”
That turned out to be Johnson’s only reception of the game. The Cavaliers didn’t throw to him again until the 10:00 mark of the final quarter. Johnson caught Watford’s third-and-13 pass for a 17-yard gain, but a penalty on another UVa wideout, Kyle Dockins, nullified the play.
Johnson, who has started all three games he’s played for UVa, has six catches for 83 yards.
“Keeon is talented,” London said Sunday night, “and you recognize the fact that he’s got tremendous skills, and we need to utilize him, particularly when you have a 5-foot-9 or 10 corner assigned to him and playing either three-deep or playing man.”
REVISED ROLES: Fifth-year senior Tim Smith started Virginia’s first four games at wideout, as did junior Darius Jennings. Since then, however, Smith has caught only three passes — though one went for 45 yards and another for 51 — and Jennings only one (for 21 yards). But both are contributing on special teams.
Smith took over as UVa’s primary punt-returner after the fourth game, and Jennings ranks fourth among ACC players in kickoff returns, with a 23.9-yard average.
“All players want to play, and they are guys that had had significant roles [at wide receiver],” London said. “But what they have done is embraced the roles that they have right now, and they know in the … kicking game, that’s a one-play opportunity to change the course of the game, and they embrace the fact that if that’s their role right now at this point of the season, then they will do the best they can to make it happen for us … They’ve been great teammates.”
OVERSHADOWED: Virginia’s wide receivers have played minor roles in the passing game this season. Of the eight Cavaliers with at least 11 receptions, only three are wideouts: Jennings (15 catches, 128 yards, one TD), Smith (13-199-1) and junior Dominique Terrell (12-91).
McGee leads the Wahoos with 31 catches, followed by junior tailback Kevin Parks (25). Junior tight end Zachary Swanson and junior tailback Khalek Shepherd have 14 receptions apiece, and true freshman tailback Taquan Mizzell has 11 catches.
“We’re looking for development from the receivers,” London said. “You have to be able to go deep with your receivers. Receivers are there to catch the ball, to block and do other things that can help your offense, your overall offense. That is an area that we’ve got to continue to keep working on and improving.”
McGee said the wideouts are “working hard. I know it’s been tough for them, too, with not as much production as they would like. But they’re working as hard as anyone to improve as much as possible, whether it’s one guy or a group of guys out there, to step up and really do big things.”
SOLDIERING ON: Shoulder and knee injuries have slowed the 6-6, 250-pound McGee this fall, and he’s not likely to get significant relief until after the season.
“It’s Week 8 now,” McGee said. “Like most everybody out there, I’m just trying to stay together, stay in the cold tub, stay in the hot tub and stay loose for the games.”
Against Duke, McGee limped noticeably at times. He still finished with four catches for 32 yards.
“This game was tough for me physically,” he said, “but it’s something that I just gotta fight through and get as healthy as I can be for the rest of the season.”
The nagging injuries are unfortunate, London noted, “but Jake is a gamer.”
That was evident late in the first quarter Saturday, when McGee ran a fade route to the right side in the end zone on second-and-goal from the 6. Watford’s pass was off the mark, but McGee came down with the ball. He was well out of the bounds, though, and he crashed into the shrubs in the corner of the field before vanishing from sight for a few seconds.
When he emerged, he still had the football in his hands.
“I avoided the steps and I thought I’d rather go into the bushes than slam into the steps,” McGee said with a smile Monday. “I got stuck in there a little bit, and some people asked me if I was just going to stay in there or I was going to come out eventually. It was definitely one of the weirder plays I’ve had.”
UNSUNG HERO: After an injury to sophomore Ian Frye during the Sept. 28 game at Pittsburgh, Dylan Sims began kicking off for Virginia, and the redshirt freshman from Lynchburg has been “probably the biggest surprise out of everyone,” London said.
Sims, who like UVa assistant coach Anthony Poindexter graduated from Jefferson Forest High, has kicked off 19 times this season. Eight have been touchbacks. Of Frye’s 14 kickoffs, three were touchbacks.
A walk-on, Sims has embraced his role, London said, “and again, I’m proud of him. He’s done a very nice job of handling that chore.”