By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — In the home locker room at Scott Stadium, the mood was somber Saturday afternoon after fourth-quarter breakdowns led to a one-point defeat for the University of Virginia football team.
“It hurt,” senior middle linebacker Henry Coley said Monday of UVa’s 28-27 loss to North Carolina. “That’s one of those games that hurt, down to your soul, just the way it happened.”
The Tar Heels didn’t take the lead until the 4:05 mark of the final quarter, and the manner in which the Cavaliers lost, said Coley, a team captain, was more disheartening than the loss itself. But the Wahoos are determined not to dwell on the setback.
“Definitely you don’t want to lose a game like that. We came in so ready and inspired to really go to work on UNC, but what happens, happens,” sophomore offensive tackle Sadiq Olanrewaju said Monday at John Paul Jones Arena.
“That’s in the past now, and we’re just focused on the games ahead and just seeing how we can improve. I feel like you can get too caught up in past games that you can never really move on and improve.”
After winning eight games and playing in the Chick-fil-A Bowl in 2011, Virginia slumped to 4-8 in 2012 and 2-10 last season. The Cavaliers lost their final nine games in 2013, but they say there will be no such collapse this fall.
“This is a different team than last year’s team,” said Mike London said, who’s in his fifth season as Virginia’s head coach.
Olanrewaju said: “Last year I guess we would have a few moments where it would look like things were not going our way, and I guess we couldn’t really move forward from that. But the team this year is just all about, `Listen, next-play mentality, let’s just get after it,’ especially knowing that every play won’t be perfect out there, but it’s always about how you’re going to react and respond.”
Coley said: “We’re stuck in the present and we’re looking towards the future of what we still want to accomplish, and we still know the dream is there.”
For UVa, the dream has always been to win the ACC’s Coastal Division. But back-to-back losses have dropped the `Hoos into a four-way tie for third place in the Coastal, and three of their remaining four regular-season games are on the road.
The first comes Saturday at 3:30 p.m., when Georgia Tech (6-2, 3-2) hosts Virginia (4-4, 2-2) at Bobby Dodd Stadium. The Cavaliers haven’t beaten the Yellow Jackets in Atlanta since 2008.
“The biggest thing right now is unity, staying together,” UVa punter Alec Vozenilek said Monday. “There’s a lot of football left. Four games left in the regular season, and then hopefully a bowl game after, so we just gotta stay together.”
HUMBLING EXPERIENCE: In their most recent game in Atlanta, UVa lost 56-20 to Georgia Tech on Sept. 15, 2012.
Coley, then an outside linebacker, made his fourth career start in that game, and it didn’t go well.
“It was definitely a blur, and most of it was my fault,” he recalled Monday. “First impression is everything, and we came in there and I gave up a 70-yard play, I believe, for a touchdown, and then after that the [Jackets’] offense was able to roll.”
Under head coach Paul Johnson, the Jackets’ trademark has been their triple-option offense, but after forcing UVa into a three-and-out on the game’s first series they went to the air.
On Georgia Tech’s first play, fullback Zach Laskey beat Coley on a wheel route, caught a pass and sprinted untouched to the end zone to complete a 70-yard scoring play. On their second series, the Jackets scored on a 77-yard run by tailback Orwin Smith.
“You have to stop them early,” Coley said. “They’re going to come out with something that’s for us, but we just have to be able to make the adjustment to stop it early in order to get out of it.”
The teams’ meeting last year in Charlottesville was closer, but Georgia Tech totaled 507 yards and never trailed in a 35-25 victory, despite turning the ball over five times.
The `Hoos started four true freshmen on defense in that game — tackle Donte Wilkins, linebacker Max Valles, cornerback Tim Harris and, in his college debut, linebacker Zach Bradshaw — which is not ideal against such an unconventional offense.
“Not at all,” Coley said. “You definitely need experience if you want to beat `em.”
VETERAN CREW: Of the players in defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta’s regular rotation, only one is new this season: free safety Quin Blanding, who leads the Cavaliers in tackles with 76.
“We have guys that have played against [Georgia Tech’s] style of offense,” London said.
That collective experience should pay dividends Saturday, as should the players’ improved understanding of Tenuta’s system. Last season was the defense’s first under Tenuta.
“A lot of guys are more comfortable,” Coley said.
Virginia’s defense will face a major challenge in Atlanta. Among ACC teams, Georgia Tech ranks first in total offense (481.9 yards per game) and third in scoring offense (37.1 points per game).
The Jackets rank third among Football Bowl Subdivision teams in rushing offense (326.1 yards per game). The key to their attack is quarterback Justin Thomas, a 5-11 redshirt sophomore who has rushed for 717 yards this season.
“He runs the system,” Coley said. “Stop the system, you stop him.”
Coley and Co. prepped for the Jackets’ triple option during Virginia’s bye week early this month.
“You have to,” Coley said. “They’re just one of those teams where you have to. I wouldn’t say too much time, but we definitely spent time on them.”
London said: “You try to do as much as you can [in advance], because it’s hard in just one week’s time — we practice on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday — it’s hard to try to simulate [Georgia Tech’s offense]. You never do it. You never get it exactly how you want it. The more times you can look at it and see it, the more you feel prepared for it.”
Junior David Watford, who started every game at quarterback for the Cavaliers in 2013, will run the scout-team offense in practice this week.
“That will be a challenge for us,” London said, but Watford, an excellent athlete, “can execute that style of offense.”
HITTING HIS STRIDE: Kevin Parks, a fifth-year senior who entered the season as the ACC’s top returning rusher, has carried 70 times for 355 yards and two touchdowns in UVa’s past three games.
“You definitely love to block for a guy like that who’s always looking for the extra yard and looking to score on every play,” Olanrewaju said. “He makes us look good … I appreciate having him back there. He definitely helps me, being a young lineman. So I just work the hardest I can for him.”
Olanrewaju, who splits time at left tackle with sophomore Michael Mooney, is part of an inexperienced line that continues to exceed expectations.
“This is a selfless offensive line, in that all we want to do is open holes and create first downs and touchdowns for guys,” Olanrewaju said. “We just come in every day with that mindset, that we’ve got to be the best we can be, no matter if you’re playing or not. I think the sky’s the limit for the offensive line.”
CLOSE CALLS: UVa hasn’t lost by more than eight points this season. Before losing to UNC, Virginia fell 28-20 to UCLA, 41-33 to BYU and 20-13 to Duke.
“The margin for error in college football this year is unbelievable,” Vozenilek said. “It’s one play a game. You literally look at one play [in each of] the four losses we have, and we could be 8-0, and it’s unbelievable to look at it like that. But we gotta forget about what’s happened in the past and know that going forward, with four games left, those one plays have got to be ours and not the other teams’.”
London said: “This is a better team than we were last year, but in order to go to another level, we gotta be able to win more of those close games at the very end and be on the positive sides of those critical plays.”
NEXT MAN UP: Conspicuously absent from the depth chart UVa released Monday was wide receiver Miles Gooch, a fifth-year senior from the Atlanta area who has caught 24 passes for a team-high 371 yards and one touchdown this season.
Gooch suffered a knee injury against UNC, and Virginia’s medical team won’t be able to determine the severity until “the swelling goes down a bit,” London said.
With Gooch sidelined, wideouts whose roles could grow include true freshman Jamil Kamara, who has one reception for 6 yards.
MAN WITH A PLAN: Olanrewaju, who was born in Nigeria and became a U.S. citizen in 2007, is from a family that stresses education. His mother is a retired physican who now runs a clothing company, and his father is an attorney.
“Obviously I love the game of football,” Olanrewaju said, “but a huge part of it for me was that I wanted to go somewhere where I can also work hard in the classroom and be challenged in the classroom, and ultimately UVa was that choice for me. I felt that I could get the best of both worlds.”
Olanrewaju, a graduate of Salisbury School in Connecticut, plans to major in politics, after which law school might be a possibility, perhaps at UVa.
“It all depends on how things pan out,” he said. “I’m working hard in the classroom, so I’m definitely trying to open as many opportunities for myself as I can. I guess we’ll see how things go.”