By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — For the UVa football team, the first third of the regular season has been as challenging as predicted.
The three Football Bowl Subdivision opponents Virginia (2-2) has faced — UCLA, Louisville and BYU — have a combined record of 11-1. The only Football Championship Subdivision team on the Cavaliers’ schedule, Richmond, is 2-2.
In the latest Associated Press poll, UCLA is ranked No. 11 and BYU No. 20. Each defeated the Wahoos by eight points — the Bruins 28-20 on Aug. 30 and the Cougars 41-33 last Saturday. Virginia battered Richmond 45-13 on Sept. 13 and then closed a three-game homestand by upsetting then-No. 21 Louisville 23-21 a week later.
UVa coach Mike London believes his team will be better for having played such stout competition. His players understand “the things that you have to do in order to execute and perform,” London said.
“We’ve played some tough opponents, very good opponents that have had skilled players, big players and fast players.”
Virginia’s next foe, Mid-American Conference member Kent State (0-3), does not look as fearsome. The Golden Flashes, who were off last weekend, have lost to Ohio (17-14), South Alabama (23-13) and Ohio State (66-0).
Still, London said, a “lot of this is about us getting better, eliminating mental errors and assignments and things that caused issues [in] some of these games that we didn’t win.”
UVa closes the regular season with seven consecutive ACC games. First, though, the `Hoos host the Golden Flashes at 3:30 p.m. Saturday at Scott Stadium.
This will be the first time these schools have met in football.
Kent State lacks the national reputation of a UCLA or BYU or Louisville, but that’s fine, Virginia wide receiver Darius Jennings told reporters Monday at John Paul Jones Arena.
“I think the motivation this week is just to get a win,” Jennings said. “You always want to come out in that W column. We lost last week, and we definitely didn’t like that feeling. I’ve been here four years and I’ve seen ups and downs, so we’re just trying to stay consistent and just trying build on what we’ve started.”
The Cavaliers are coming off a game in which they totaled 519 yards on offense, picked up 35 first downs and ran a program-record 102 plays in the high altitude of Provo, Utah.
“It was definitely a good showing offensively,” London said.
Quarterbacks Greyson Lambert and Matt Johns combined to complete 35 of 58 passes for 327 yards, and seven players had at least three receptions apiece for Virginia. The `Hoos weren’t as effective running the ball, but reserve tailback Khalek Shepherd rushed 14 times for 73 yards — both career highs — and one touchdown at LaVell Edwards Stadium.
“I definitely feel as though we can build on that,” said senior wideout Miles Gooch, who had six catches for 65 yards. “Our offense, we definitely came up short in the red zone a few times, as you can see from the game, but there were definitely some positives to take away from that game, and we’re just going to build on that and keep getting better every week, because that’s really the key to our entire season: making sure you get better week in and week out.”
The Cavaliers met Sunday, reviewed videotape of the BYU game and “then just threw it behind us,” Shepherd said. “We’re focused on this week and trying to get better as an offense to help our defense out, because they’re playing phenomenal.”
Lambert, a redshirt sophomore who has started every game this season, sprained his ankle in the second half against BYU and won’t play Saturday unless he’s 100 percent, London said.
If Lambert isn’t available against Kent State, his classmate Johns appears fully capable of running the offense effectively. Johns has played in every game this season, completing 34 of 58 passes (58.6 percent) for 367 yards and four touchdowns, with two interceptions, and has the confidence of his teammates.
“He’s a great leader,” sophomore linebacker Max Valles said after the UCLA game. “Even though he’s been a backup quarterback his whole [college] career, Matt’s one of the biggest leaders in the locker room. Very positive kid.”
On defense, senior cornerback Demetrious Nicholson could make his 2014 debut Saturday. Nicholson, who leads the `Hoos with 30 career starts, has been slow to recover from a toe injury that limited him to five games last season, but he’s practiced well this week and might be cleared to play against the Golden Flashes.
Virginia usually plays three cornerbacks and two safeties at a time. At corner, senior Brandon Phelps and junior Maurice Canady have played well, but sophomore cornerback Tim Harris struggled early against BYU, after which senior DreQuan Hoskey replaced him. Another option at cornerback is sophomore Divante Walker, who has played primarily on special teams.
“We have to perform at that position,” London said.
Blanding arrived at UVa with sterling credentials, and has not disappointed. He’s second on the team in tackles with 33 and has broken up three passes.
“Coming here I knew it was going to be a challenge, especially with our schedule,” Blanding said. “I knew we were going to have some tough opponents, but that’s what I signed up for. I feel like I took on the challenge and I feel like I’m doing pretty well.”
So too are the `Hoos, who have paid little mind to the prognosticators who picked them to finish last in the ACC’s Coastal Division.
“I’m confident where we’re at with our team and with every guy that’s in that locker room,” Shepherd said. “We have great potential. We’re staying on top of each other, making sure we don’t have any lulls.”
This is London’s fifth season as Virginia’s head coach and the fifth time his team has carried a 2-2 record into its fifth game. Only once in London’s first four seasons did the `Hoos improve to 3-2: in 2011.
The Cavaliers finished 4-8 in 2010, 8-5 in `11, 4-8 in `12, and 2-10 last season.
“We’ve been in the same spot for the last two years, and we don’t want the same thing to happen,” Shepherd said. “So the seniors, myself included, are staying on top of everybody, making sure we’re focused in and locked in and seeing that we have the opportunity to do great things this year. We don’t want that to slip away. You can see it in practice with everybody’s work ethic, or in the weight room or in the film room or out in practice.”
Jennings said: “We feel as though that we’re a new team that has a new focus, and we have a new mindset. Like I said before, we’re just going to attack each week with the same mindset, with the same aggression. Just make sure that we give our best effort, no matter who our opponent is.”
UVa, 1-0 in the ACC, resumes league play Oct. 4 against Pittsburgh (3-1, 1-0) at 7:30 p.m. at Scott Stadium. Pitt hosts Akron (1-2) on Saturday afternoon.