By Jeff White (email@example.com)
PROVO, Utah — On its descent into this city Friday afternoon, the plane carrying the UVa football team flew over majestic mountain ranges and within sight of BYU’s LaVell Edwards Stadium.
Head coach Mike London did not take his team to the stadium after the Cavaliers landed, but his players already know something about what awaits them Saturday afternoon.
At 3:30 p.m., Virginia (2-1) takes on No. 21 BYU (3-0) in a game ESPN will broadcast. Back in Charlottesville, in practices leading up to the game, London periodically played BYU’s fight song, “The Cougar Song,” at full volume.
“I didn’t want them to hear it for the first time when we got out there,” London said Thursday at the George Welsh Indoor Practice Facility.
The Wahoos haven’t played in Provo since 1999, when they defeated the Cougars 45-40 in a shootout that wasn’t decided until the final minute. Welsh was UVa’s coach then, and his BYU counterpart was Edwards.
In 2000, the Cougars avenged that loss with a comeback victory in Charlottesville. The series lay dormant until last year, when the `Hoos rallied to beat BYU 19-16 at Scott Stadium in a bizarre season-opener that included a 129-minute weather delay.
“There are a lot of things that went into that game that made it a unique and crazy game out there,” BYU quarterback Taysom Hill recalled this week.
The Cougars rebounded from that defeat to win eight regular-season games and earn an invitation to the Fight Hunger Bowl. The Cavaliers won only once more in 2013. And so UVa’s players and coaches know the team’s 2-1 start is no guarantee of a successful season.
After losing to then-No. 7 UCLA in the Aug. 30 opener, Virginia pounded Richmond 45-13 and then rallied to beat then-No. 21 Louisville 23-21 last week.
“Guys are really excited about those two wins, but I think the biggest thing is this upperclassman leadership we have,” senior punter Alec Vozenilek, UVa’s special teams captain, said Thursday.
“We have a lot of guys that have played a lot of games and a lot of guys that are good leaders. While we’re excited about those two wins, we’re really humble, and we know that two wins isn’t enough, and that’s not our goal this season.”
With about 2:45 remaining and UVa trailing 16-12, Harris picked off a Hill pass intended for tailback Jamaal Williams. Harris returned the interception 6 yards and then, when a BYU player tried to tackle him, lateraled the ball to Coley, a former high school tight end who carried it 27 yards to the Cougars’ 13.
On the next play, Parks bulled his way into the end zone.
“I wasn’t going to be denied,” Parks said after the game.
Asked this week about his late-game heroics in 2013, Coley said, “I just got as many yards as I could. It paid off for us last year. Hopefully we have something magical happen this year also.”
LaVell Edwards Stadium seats 63,470, and a strong turnout is expected Saturday. For the `Hoos, this is their first game away from Charlottesville this season.
“You gotta silence the crowd as much as possible,” Coley said Monday.
A veteran team is not as likely to be affected by opposing fans, and that’s reassuring to London.
“But as we always talk about: It’s a 100-yard field here at Scott Stadium, it’s a 100-yard field there, it’s a 100-yard field at high school stadiums,” London said Thursday in Charlottesville. “It’s about what happens between the white lines and making sure we handle all the distractions that come with travel and everything.”
Hill, one of the nation’s most accomplished dual-threat quarterbacks, is a lock to start Saturday. Virginia has played both Greyson Lambert and Matt Johns in every game this season, and offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild did not publicly divulge his plan for the BYU game.
Against Louisville, Lambert completed 13 of 24 passes for 162 yards and one touchdown, and he also had a 10-yard TD run.
“I can say that Greyson had one of his better games [against Louisville], and that whole competition thing has made the both of them better,” London said. “When that happens, it makes us a better football team.”
Lambert, a redshirt sophomore, has started all three games.
“It will be a play-it-by-ear situation,” London said. “We’re committing to [playing] the best quarterback, the best guy that can handle the situation as the game unfolds.”
Hill, who has rushed for 356 yards and six touchdowns this season, always has been a dangerous runner. But at Scott Stadium last year, Hill completed only 13 of 40 passes. This season, he’s 67 of 98 (68.4 percent) for 689 yards and four TDs, with three interceptions.
The Cavaliers don’t intend to give Hill much time to throw Saturday. UVa has forced 13 turnovers this season, the most of any Football Bowl Subdivision team, in part because of a ferocious pass rush led by Eli Harold and Max Valles, who between them have 6.5 sacks.
“The quarterback doesn’t really have that much time to sit back and read what we’re doing,” UVa cornerback Brandon Phelps said, “and it kind of forces them to make some ill-advised throws.”
London said: “A lot of times your best pass defense is your pass rush, your pass rushers, and I believe Max and Eli do an outstanding job of providing that.”
What will unfold in Provo on Saturday afternoon, London can’t predict with any certainty. But he likes his team’s spirit and attitude heading into its first road test.
“It’s still a very young season, but at the same time there’s a lot of maturity, a lot of leaders in the locker room setting a good example,” London said. “It makes it easier. We’re focused, and this opportunity to be on the road against another ranked team, a very good team, is something that these guys embrace.”