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Nov. 22, 2013

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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Off the airplane and into the warm South Florida air walked members of the University of Virginia football team Friday evening.

Brent Urban was among them, and so was Maurice Canady. And that’s good news for the Cavaliers, who will try Saturday afternoon to end a seven-game losing streak.

Urban, a senior tackle, and Canady, a sophomore cornerback, are two of the standouts on a defense that acquitted itself well for most of the season’s first month.

In five of its past six games, however, UVa has allowed at least 35 points, in part because of injuries to key players, including the 6-7, 295-pound Urban, an All-ACC candidate before a high-ankle sprain sidelined him Oct. 12 in College Park, Md.

“That’s a big dude, so us losing him hurt a lot,” junior linebacker Daquan Romero said Monday at John Paul Jones Arena. “We looked at him as someone who would just dominate that one space, and we knew that he would be there.”

Another starter, junior cornerback Demetrious Nicholson, suffered a foot injury in Virginia’s fifth game, and he’s lost for the season. But Canady and Urban returned to practice this week and are expected to play Saturday against Miami after missing three and four games, respectively.

The Wahoos (2-8 overall, 0-6 ACC) meet the Hurricanes (7-3, 3-3) at noon at Sun Life Stadium.

“It feels pretty good,” Urban said Thursday in the George Welsh Indoor Practice Facility, glancing at his heavily taped ankle. “I’m definitely comfortable playing on it now, and I think I’ll be back to how I was playing before.”

The `Hoos are thrilled to have him back.

“He’s a very important part of this defense, this team overall, and he’s been missed,” defensive line coach Vincent Brown said. “He brings tremendous strength, knowledge of assignment, maturity.”

Two games remain for UVa, which closes the season Nov. 30 against Virginia Tech (7-4, 4-3) at Scott Stadium. Nearing the end of their fourth season under Mike London, the Cavaliers say they still have much to play for.

“What’s happened in the past, it’s all a learning experience, whether good or [bad],” sophomore quarterback David Watford said. “We’ve had our ups and we’ve had our downs. All we can do is continue to grow from each moment that we have as a team and continue to build.

“It hasn’t been the best season, that’s without question, but there’s still positives in the season, and we can still finish the season strong, going into next season and going into winter workouts and spring ball.”

Most of the Cavaliers’ top players will be back in 2014. The depth chart for the Miami game includes only seven seniors: Urban, defensive end Jake Snyder, safety Rijo Walker, offensive tackle Morgan Moses, center Luke Bowanko, wide receiver Tim Smith and fullback Billy Skrobacz.

“We’re looking at these two [games] as opportunities to prove everyone wrong,” linebacker Zach Bradshaw said. “We’re 2-8 right now. We’re obviously not going to be playing in a bowl game. Looking in from the outside, there’s really nothing to play for, but as players we’re playing for each other, we’re playing for our seniors.”

Bradshaw is one of 12 true freshmen to play for Virginia this season.

“We’re obviously still focused on these last two games,” he said, “but we’re looking forward to what we’re going to be able to do in the future.”

Coming off a bye week, the `Hoos are embarking on what they see as a two-game season.

“That’s sort of how you have to look at it right now,” junior tight end Jake McGee said. “We’re sort of looking at it as, you’ve got two big games left, and the season’s been kind of disappointing thus far, but you win these last two and you’re able to at least get some momentum going into next year and get some positives out of this year.”

The Hurricanes, in their third season under former UVa defensive coordinator Al Golden, are trying to generate some momentum too. After winning its first seven games, Miami has dropped three in a row. In each loss the `Canes have allowed at least 41 points.

Miami’s defensive linemen include fifth-year senior Justin Renfrow, who began his career at UVa. Renfrow transferred to Miami after graduating from Virginia in May.

“Both sides decided to go separate ways,” London said.

The Hurricanes’ beleaguered defensive coordinator has ties to UVa, too. Mark D’Onofrio, like Golden, worked with London at Virginia when Al Groh was head coach there.

“I know him to be a very good coach, good man, good husband, good father and a friend,” London said of D’Onofrio.

Offensively, the `Canes haven’t been the same since their star tailback, sophomore Duke Johnson, suffered a season-ending ankle injury Nov. 2 in a 41-14 loss to Florida State.

“Any time a team loses a player with the dynamic ability that Duke Johnson has, it’s going to affect your offense,” Brown said. “I don’t care who you are, you lose a guy that talented it’s going to have some impact. With that being said, I don’t think you can put everything solely on that, because they’re a tremendously talented team. They have guys very capable of making plays.”

London said: “We’ve experienced our fair share of losing some of the best players on our team, and hopefully we get some of our guys back, but you can tell that they do miss a guy like Duke.”

The series is tied 5-5, but UVa has won three straight over Miami: 24-19 in 2010, 31-13 in 2011 and 41-40 in 2012.

In last year’s game at Scott Stadium, McGee scored the winning touchdown with six seconds left, leaping in the back of the end zone to catch a 10-yard pass from Michael Rocco.

“I’m sure those guys will have a little target on me,” McGee said Monday. “We’ll try to just get down there and hopefully make some more plays like that this weekend.”

As for the winning streak against Miami, McGee said the `Hoos will “try to build on what we’ve done. For some reason we’ve done pretty well against them, but it’s a new team for us and for them, so I don’t think there’s any real advantage to having beat someone the year before. But we’ll try to do the best we can, and it’s always nice going to Miami in the middle of November. I think we’re all happy about that.”

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