By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Three games into the 2013 football season, UVa had two victories to its credit, including one over a well-regarded BYU team.
A turnaround season seemed a distinct possibility for the Cavaliers, who had finished 4-8 in 2012. Instead, they went the other direction. After blowing out VMI 49-0 on Sept. 21, Virginia lost its final nine games last season.
A new year brings new hope, and UVa played well in its 2014 opener, challenging then-No. 7 UCLA before losing 28-20 at Scott Stadium last weekend. Still, the numbers don’t lie.
“We haven’t won a game in a while,” UVa football coach Mike London said this week.
By about 7 p.m. Saturday, the Wahoos hope, that statement no longer will be true. At 3:30 p.m., UVa takes on Richmond (1-0) at Scott Stadium. The `Hoos lead the series 27-2-2.
“I feel like everybody’s hungry,” senior tailback Kevin Parks said Monday. “We’re ready to get our first win, get that winning taste back in our mouth.”
The Cavaliers, picked to finish last in the ACC’s Coastal Division this season, posted an impressive rally against UCLA after allowing three defensive touchdowns in the second quarter and falling behind 21-3.
“We’re a new team,” Parks said. “We don’t get down. We just keep playing, we keep fighting.”
Virginia’s defense dominated for much of the game, and the offense found its rhythm after backup quarterback Matt Johns replaced starter Greyson Lambert late in the first half. Johns threw two touchdown passes to lead the Cavaliers’ comeback.
“We showed what we can do Saturday,” junior wide receiver Canaan Severin said. “We gotta keep going. At the end of the day we lost the game. In my eyes there’s no moral victories. We’re going to play Saturday with a chip on our shoulder, because 10 straight [losses], that isn’t fun. Losing isn’t fun.”
UVa competes in the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision, UR a level down in the Football Championship Subdivision. Matchups between FBS and FCS teams are rarely compelling, but storylines abound in this game. To wit:
* London is a Richmond graduate who spent two years as head coach at his alma mater. In the first, he guided the Spiders to the FCS national title in 2008.
* Richmond head coach Danny Rocco is a former UVa assistant who worked with London on Al Groh’s staff. Two of Rocco’s assistants at UR — Fontel Mines and Byron Thweatt — are former Virginia players, and two others (Bob Trott and Levern Belin) are former Virginia assistants.
* Each team plans to play two quarterbacks Saturday, and all four have worn the orange and blue. Danny Rocco’s starter, senior Michael Strauss, transferred to UR from UVa in January 2012. Strauss’ backup, Michael Rocco, switched from Virginia to Richmond, where his uncle is head coach, about 11 months later.
“It’s unique relationships all the way around,” Michael Rocco told reporters Wednesday at UR.
Rocco was the Cavaliers’ starting quarterback in 2011, when they won eight games and advanced to the Chick-fil-A Bowl. In 2012, he split time at quarterback with Phillip Sims, who later left the program, too. Rocco sat out the 2013 season at UR.
“I’ve had a lot of thoughts about this week for a while,” Rocco said, “but now that it’s here, I’m just trying to remember my good times at UVa, trying to focus on the positives. After that, it’s really just a football game.”
Strauss started all 12 games for the Spiders in 2013 and was named to the All-Colonial Athletic Association third team. He set UR single-season records for completions, attempts, passing yards and touchdown passes.
“He’s a guy that can make a lot of throws,” London said. “He believes he can put the ball where it needs to be. He’s very confident, and you can see that in his play.”
The Spiders opened last weekend with a 55-10 rout of Morehead State, a victory that stretched their winning streak to five games. Strauss threw three touchdown passes to raise his career total to 38.
“They have a good offense, so we can’t take them lightly,” said UVa outside linebacker Max Valles, who had two sacks against UCLA. “We have to go at them like anybody else.”
At UVa, Lambert and Johns each worked with the first team in practice this week. London declined to reveal which quarterback will start against Saturday. Both will play, however, and both can expect the support of their teammates.
“Whoever the quarterback is, whoever starts, we’re just going to be on his side,” defensive lineman Mike Moore said.
Valles said: “Every quarterback we have on our team is a leader, so whoever goes out there and is our quarterback, we’ll play for him, no matter who it is.”
Virginia’s players should be most concerned, Parks said, with doing their jobs.
“As running backs, when we get the ball we have to hit the holes,” Parks said, “and we have to block and catch out of the backfield. Receivers gotta catch and block too, and the offensive line, they gotta do their job. That’s how that goes: Everything’s gotta be hand in hand.”
In the opener, UVa outgained the heavily favored Bruins and kept quarterback Brett Hundley, a Heisman Trophy candidate, from taking over the game. The `Hoos sacked Hundley five times.
“We brought it the first game,” Valles said, “but we have to bring it at least 10 times more the second game and keep building off of that.”
London liked much of what he saw from his team in the opener. The offense’s mistakes were costly — UCLA returned two interceptions for touchdowns and also scored on a fumble recovery — but “you look at a lot of effort, and lot of guys played well,” London said. “You take that and use it as kind of a spark to continue the flame in the fire.”
After the UCLA game, London said, he looked around the locker room and was pleased to see his team was not satisfied with a near-upset. The Cavaliers’ effort was good, the players knew, but it wasn’t good enough.
“That was really gratifying,” London said, “that older guys are now holding other guys accountable and responsible and talking about winning football games and getting better and correcting mistakes and moving forward.”
Parks said: “We have to have wins. I felt like going out of that game we should have won that game. Everybody can talk about, `Ah, y’all did good,’ but at the end of the day we still didn’t win. That’s what we want to do. We want to improve each week and find ways to win games like that.”
Valles said: “Honestly, we just want to win, no matter how we get it. It’s just been so long.”