By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — More than six weeks have passed since the UVa football team walked off the field victorious. That was on Oct. 4, when Virginia held off Coastal Division foe Pittsburgh 24-19 in an ACC game at Scott Stadium.
The Cavaliers limited sophomore James Conner, the Panthers’ star tailback, to 83 yards rushing. That’s still a season low for Conner, who ranks third nationally at 156.2 yards per game.
To end its four-game losing streak, UVa may need to have similar success against another elite running back. At 7 p.m. Saturday, in a Coastal Division game at Scott Stadium, Virginia (4-6 overall, 2-4 ACC) hosts Miami (6-4, 3-3). The Hurricanes have a stable of talented tailbacks, led by Duke Johnson.
“Defensively, we know it’s going to be another challenge,” defensive lineman Mike Moore said Monday at John Paul Jones Arena.
Johnson, who rushed for 249 yards in Miami’s Oct. 23 rout of Virginia Tech at Lane Stadium, is averaging 134.3 per game, second only to Conner in the ACC.
Conner is listed at 6-2, 250 pounds. Johnson, a 5-9, 206-pound junior, is “a little bit different in his running style [than Conner], a little more explosive,” Moore said.
Mike London, who worked on the defensive side of the ball before becoming a head coach, knows well the threat Johnson poses for the Cavaliers.
“You look at him, he runs hard,” London said Monday. “He’s a physical runner. He’s a downhill runner who can also jump cut and run to the outside. So he’s a special talent. He runs away from guys, he runs through arm tackles … You’re going to have to hit and wrap up on him, because he is a guy that can make extra yardage for himself just by sheer effort alone.”
Among ACC teams, UVa ranks fourth in rushing defense, having allowed an average of 118.6 yards per game.
The Wahoos’ defensive linemen “have been very physical and have been very productive in terms of creating negatives, tackles for losses, and things that can disrupt running lanes,” London said. “That’s going to be critical for us, because Miami is a team that will line up with two tight ends and a fullback in the back and say, `We’re going to run the ball right here and you’ve got to stop us.’
“There is no pretense about what they do. So it’s going to be important that when we line up, whatever defense that we have called, that we beat blocks, that we have our hats in the gap and then we tackle Duke Johnson. Not only Duke, they have other running backs that come in as well.”
This will be the Cavaliers’ first night game at Scott Stadium since Pitt’s visit Oct. 4.
“It was successful,” senior wide receiver Darius Jennings said Monday, “so hopefully we can kind of bring that same magic back.”
SENIOR DAY: Jennings, who leads UVa’s wideouts with an average of 19.4 yards per reception, is one of 34 fourth- and fifth-year players who will be honored before the game Saturday night.
Others include fellow receiver Miles Gooch, who was having a breakout year before suffering a season-ending knee injury Oct. 25 against North Carolina. In honor of Gooch, Jennings will wear No. 17 instead of his customary No. 6 in the Cavaliers’ home finale Saturday. (UVa closes the regular season Nov. 28 at Virginia Tech.)
“I just thought it was only fitting that his jersey and his number would be on the field for our final game in Scott Stadium,” Jennings said.
On a close-knit team, the receivers are especially tight.
“Just me personally with Gooch, we’ve been through a lot,” Jennings said. “I’ve been here four years, he’s been here five. We’ve both kind of seen the ups and downs, and we’ve both kind of grown together.”
In eight games this season, Gooch caught 24 passes for 371 yards and one touchdown.
TIME TO REGROUP: Virginia, which lost 34-20 to No. 2 Florida State in Tallahassee on Nov. 8, was off this past weekend. The Wahoos need to beat the Hurricanes and the Hokies to become bowl-eligible for the first time since 2011.
“Coach London has a saying: We have two games to make three,” Jennings said. “We just want to go out on top. We had those four losses in a row, but there’s still football left, and a chance to kind of right your wrongs. We’re just trying to move forward and put one more W on the board this week.”
The bye week came at a good time for the `Hoos, Jennings believes.
“It [allowed] guys to get their juices going again, get refocused,” he said. “We got two big games, starting with this one. It kind of gives us a chance to get mentally right. Just focus on the task at hand, take it one day at a time, one rep, one play at a time, and just always give our best.”
SUNSHINE STATE BLUES: Like UVa, Miami is coming off a loss to Florida State. The Hurricanes, whose head coach is former Virginia defensive coordinator Al Golden, blew a 16-point lead Saturday night and fell 30-26 to the visiting Seminoles.
The loss was disheartening for the `Canes, but how it will affect them in their remaining games, London said, is difficult to predict.
“They played a good team,” said London, who worked with Golden at Virginia and Boston College.
“Florida State, until somebody else beats them, is playing well enough to win all their games. So I have no idea about what [Miami’s] mindset will be. I know our mindset will be it’s our last home game for our seniors. And it’s a 7 o’clock game. Our students and fans have an opportunity to come out on a Saturday night. I’m hoping we’ll come out and play this last home game for these seniors.”
Under London, the `Hoos are 3-1 against Miami. That record should give his team confidence, London acknowledged Monday, but “it all boils down to still executing on game day.”
WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN: The Cavaliers have been blown out only once this season, in a 35-10 loss to Georgia Tech in Atlanta on Nov. 1.
Against North Carolina, Virginia squandered a fourth-quarter lead in a 28-27 defeat at Scott Stadium. Against Duke, UVa was tied midway through the fourth quarter but lost 20-13.
“You always look at things that could have, should have, would have — the bottom line is, they didn’t occur,” London said. “Football is always a game of four or five plays away.”
The `Hoos easily could be 6-4, but “the reality is we are where we are right now,” London said. “The only thing we can control now is the next two games, and the most important game is the next game that’s coming up, against a very good Miami team.”
INSTANT IMPACT: Quin Blanding, a 6-4, 215-pound safety from Virginia Beach, leads UVa with 102 tackles. That’s the most by a Virginia true freshman since linebacker Ahmad Brooks totaled 117 in 2003.
“I just went out there and played my game,” Blanding said of his transition to the college game. “I knew I had to go out there and be physical.”
The more he plays, Blanding said, the less he feels like a newcomer.
“Being in front of big crowds, little crowds, it doesn’t matter,” he said. “It just feels comfortable being out on the field.”