Sept. 5, 2015

By Jeff White (

PASADENA, Calif. — Even in the quiet of a weekday afternoon, with no spectators in the seats, the majesty of the Rose Bowl is undeniable.

UVa’s football players saw that for themselves Friday afternoon when they held a short walk-through at the historic stadium. But if they are to perform well Saturday, head coach Mike London reminded them, their focus must be on football and not on their surroundings.

“This field is 100 yards,” London said, “just like it’s 100 yards back in Charlottesville.”

In the season opener for both teams, 13th-ranked UCLA hosts Virginia at 3:30 p.m. Eastern. Fox is televising the game, only the second for the Cavaliers in the Golden State.

The first was in 2010, when UVa fell 17-14 to 16th-ranked Southern California at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

This is London’s sixth team at Virginia, which is coming off a 5-7 season that began with a loss to UCLA at Scott Stadium. In that game, the Wahoos surrendered three defensive touchdowns and fell behind 21-3 in the first half.

“Never seen anything like that in my life,” Virginia wide receiver Canaan Severin said this week. “I don’t plan on seeing it again.”

Even down 18 points, though, the `Hoos “didn’t flinch,” Severin said. “We kept playing.”

The Cavaliers’ comeback began after quarterback Matt Johns replaced starter Greyson Lambert late in the second quarter. Johns threw two touchdown passes to help UVa pull to 21-17, but the Bruins pulled away for a 28-20 victory.

In the end, the three first-half turnovers proved too much for Virginia to overcome against a UCLA team that went on to finish the season 10-3.

“I’ve been in a lot of football games and seen a lot of great finishes, tough losses, great victories. That was a tough loss because [the turnovers] resulted in touchdowns [for UCLA],” London said.

“There’s a mindset when we play good teams [that] in order to have special seasons, you have take care of the little things that can cause you to win or lose a game, and for us it’s hanging onto the football.”

In all, Virginia turned the ball over 24 times last season. If the rematch with UCLA is to end differently for the Cavaliers, they know they must take better care of the football.

“It’s vital,” Severin said. “It’s vital to our success. That’s what we preached on all summer.”

Johns said: “That’s how it to has to be every game. You can’t put your defense in bad situations, and vice versa … That is part of the game plan, and it’s part of the game plan every week.”

UCLA will start Josh Rosen, a true freshman who enrolled at the Pac-12 school in January, at quarterback. It’s difficult to predict how Rosen will perform in his college debut.

“The college game is so much faster,” London said.

UVa defensive tackle David Dean echoed that comment.

“There’s a lot of pressure, and a lot’s going to be happening fast [for Rosen],” said Dean, one of the Cavaliers’ captains. “Those mistakes he makes, we have to take full advantage of that.”

For Johns, this will be his fourth career start. The first three, though, came when Lambert was sidelined with an ankle injury last fall. Johns won the starting job in spring practice this year, and Lambert transferred to Georgia after graduating from UVa this summer.

“I believe in Matt Johns,” London said.

So do his teammates. “That’s a guy you want leading the troops,” Severin said. “He’s a special guy.”

Virginia’s defense lost many of its playmakers from 2014, among them Eli Harold, Max Valles, Henry Coley, Daquan Romero and Anthony Harris. But defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta’s group benefited from good health throughout the preseason.

UVa’s offense has dealt with more adversity, a reminder to coordinator Steve Fairchild that “you can never have too many players at any position.”

Still, Fairchild said Thursday, the injuries have provided “an opportunity for other guys to get in and step up and play. We’ve had a really good week this week.”

The preseason “has been productive,” Fairchild said. “As far as the run game, pass game, all the things that we’ve set our eyes on, we’ve had a nice month of practice to get a lot of things done. I think we’re ready to play.”

Johns, a redshirt junior, continues to display the qualities that earned him the starting job, Fairchild said. “He’s protected the ball well [in practice], which is a key thing. We’ve had to roll a lot of different combinations of receivers in there, but that’s going to help us in the long run.”

Virginia’s coaching staff has made no secret of its desire to establish a power running game this season. Their core of veteran offense linemen makes the Cavaliers confident they’ll be able to do so.

“Those guys have gotten just overall a lot nastier, and I think that’s what you want to see out of an offensive line,” middle linebacker Micah Kiser said, “just [toughness], grittiness and getting after you. We’ve seen that a lot in our nine-on-seven drills, starting in the spring.”

Johns said: “There’s been a lot more consistency on the offensive line. They’ve had a great camp, and I’m really excited to play behind them on Saturday.

“We’re excited to run downhill and play like that. Hopefully that opens up more play-action and things along those lines. It’s really more about just getting our run game going, and that can change a game.”

This marks the first time since 2007 that UVa will open a season away from Charlottesville. The Cavaliers have lost 10 straight road games since winning at NC State on Nov. 3, 2012.

The players are aware of that losing streak, junior tailback Taquan Mizzell said, but this is “a new team. We don’t think about the past as much. Of course we know that it’s been a while since we’ve won on the road, but we feel very confident in the team that we have right now, and we’re not going in the game looking at ourselves as an underdog. We’re going in the game to try to win.”

London said: “The mindset of this team is different, different than what it’s been in the past, and we welcome the challenges that are presented to us.”

The first challenge of the new season comes Saturday at a stadium where only one current UVa player, tight end Charlie Hopkins, has appeared in a game. Hopkins, a graduate student, transferred from Stanford to Virginia after the 2014-15 academic year.

“It’s exciting,” Severin said of playing in the Rose Bowl. “I’m excited about the opportunity.”

Mizzell said: “That’s a place that anybody would want to play in before their college career is over. But at the end of the day it’s a business trip, so I can’t go in there star-struck.”

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