By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — As glorious as their heartstopping victory in this city was for Mike London and his football team, it occurred nearly three years ago and will have little, if any, bearing on Virginia’s next game.
At 6:30 p.m. Saturday, at 82,300-seat Doak Campbell Stadium, UVa (4-5 overall, 2-3 ACC) meets second-ranked Florida State (8-0, 5-0). That stadium, of course, is where the Cavaliers, on Nov. 19, 2011, stunned the No. 23 Seminoles 14-13.
“It was an amazing feeling,” recalled cornerback Brandon Phelps, who was a true freshman on that Virginia team.
London would not disagree. But he’s realistic, too.
“What happened in 2011 was a great moment personally, professionally, but that was 2011,” London said Monday at John Paul Jones Arena. “Here we are in 2014, and there are a lot of guys on their team that weren’t there. There’s a few guys on our team that played in that game or that were there, but now it’s about 2014.”
Since that 2011 defeat, the Seminoles have gone 36-2. They won ACC titles in 2012 and ’13 and also captured the national championship last season. FSU enters Saturday’s game, which ESPN will televise, on a 24-game winning streak.
The Wahoos, by contrast, have gone 10-25 since their win in Tallahassee. They capped the 2011 season — their second under London — by playing in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, but then dipped to 4-8 in ’12 and 2-10 last season.
“It’s definitely tough,” Phelps, a senior, said this week, “but we want to stay together as a team and keep trying to get closer. We all share a common goal. We want to win games, we want to win championships, we want to go to a bowl game.”
That the `Hoos would end the season in a bowl game seemed likely after they defeated Coastal Division rival Pittsburgh on Oct. 4 to improve to 4-2 overall and 2-0 in the conference. Since then, however, Virginia has dropped three straight games: to Duke (20-13), to North Carolina (28-27) and, last weekend in Atlanta, to Georgia Tech (35-10).
With three regular-season games left — against FSU, Miami (6-3, 3-2) and Virginia Tech (4-5, 1-4) — the Cavaliers’ margin for error is perilously thin, and they know it. Still, they don’t lack motivation.
“We’re playing for Coach London,” senior tight end Zachary Swanson said. “We’re playing for our teammates. We’re playing for the season. We’re playing for a bowl game. We have three more opportunities to win two. It’s a big thing for us to get these wins, and play hard, for whatever our reasons may be. I think everybody plays for something a little bit different.”
The defense’s prowess at forcing turnovers fueled the Cavaliers’ fast start. In the past three games, however, UVa has come up with only two takeaways.
“Definitely, takeaways change the momentum of the game, and they give our offense a better opportunity to score,” senior linebacker Daquan Romero said. “We just have to create more opportunities for our defense to make those kind of plays.”
Virginia’s offense, meanwhile, has turned the ball over five times during the losing streak.
“You’ve got to take care of the football,” London said. “You’ve got to make smart decisions when you’re carrying the ball or you’re throwing the ball. We haven’t been smart in that regard in terms of giving the ball up.”
With 21 takeaways, UVa is tied with Louisville for the ACC lead. But the Cavaliers have turned the ball over 19 times, the most of any team in the league.
Moreover, in its past four games, UVa has scored only six second-half points, on a pair of Ian Frye field goals.
“I don’t know what it is,” Swanson said, “because [at halftime] everybody’s focused, everybody’s locked in, coaches are making adjustments. It’s not like we’re in there messing around.”
Swanson said the `Hoos must have the mindset that “this is the second half, it is a critical part of this game, and we have to be focused on finishing no matter what obstacles come into play.”
When the defense forces turnovers, it helps the offense, but that’s a bonus, Swanson said. The offense has to produce no matter how the defense is playing.
“I can’t point fingers at anybody,” said Swanson, who had a touchdown reception against Georgia Tech. “In no way in my mind is it like the defense is not [doing its job]. It is my job, the offense’s job, a team job, that we need to get this thing going.”
The Cavaliers are likely to be without two of their top offensive linemen Saturday, tackle Michael Mooney and guard Ryan Doull, who were listed as doubtful on the injury report released Thursday. Even at full strength, Virginia would be facing a formidable defense.
The Seminoles, UVa offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild said, are “very good, very talented. They’ve got some NFL guys.”
That’s true for Florida State’s offense, too, starting with quarterback Jameis Winston. A 6-4, 235-pound redshirt sophomore, Winston won the Heisman Trophy last season and has continued to shine this fall, despite being embroiled in off-the-field controversy.
“They’re a very complete team,” London said of the `Noles. “That’s why they are where they are right now.”
Swanson said: “We all know what they are. They won the national championship last year. They have Jameis Winston. They have a great offense. They have a great defense.
“We know we have to bring our A-plus game. It’s going to be a tough game, but it’s a great opportunity for us.”
UVa tailback Taquan Mizzell, a sophomore, has seen highlights from the 2011 game in Tallahassee, and he’s heard about the victory. Mizzell and his teammates are eager to test themselves on the national stage Saturday.
“We’re in a little slump right now as a team,” Mizzell said, “but of course these are the games that we came to Virginia for, to prove that we can change the program around and that we can compete with the best of them.
“We believe that we can get ourselves out of this slump and put ourselves in a better situation.”
Romero, a true freshman in 2011, remembers the game in Tallahassee well.
“They breathe football down there, and their fans are 100-percent fans,” Romero said. “It’s just a rowdy environment, but someone like myself, I love to play in those type of environments.
“It’s just a great environment to play in. A great opportunity for us to show not just our fans and ourselves what we can do, but the world what we can do.”
Phelps said: “I feel like we have a really special team, and I think we’re going to bounce back and finish the season strong.”