By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Had the Virginia Cavaliers started the season against an opponent from the NCAA’s Football Championship Subdivision, their record might well be 1-0 and not 0-1 as they prepare to host No. 9 Notre Dame at Scott Stadium.
Instead, UVa opened against No. 13 UCLA, which won 34-16 at the Rose Bowl on Saturday afternoon. As painful as that defeat was for the Wahoos, they believe the experience will pay dividends for them Saturday against the Fighting Irish, who are coming off a 38-3 rout of Texas in South Bend, Ind.
“I thought this game provided an opportunity for us to get better and get used to playing against people that are top-caliber players in the country,” junior linebacker Zach Bradshaw said Monday at John Paul Jones Arena.
“I think being out there and playing a team like UCLA certainly helps prepare us for Notre Dame and then other teams we have on our schedule, too.”
The opener showed Virginia “the caliber of team that we’re going to be playing this week again,” junior quarterback Matt Johns said. “And so I guess it’s good going into it, because we’ve seen that type of team and how capable they are, the playmakers they have and what they have up front. I think that sets a tone for our team and [shows] how we have to elevate our game.”
At 3:30 p.m. Saturday, in a game ABC will televise, Virginia hosts Notre Dame at 61,500-seat Scott Stadium, where a capacity crowd is expected. This will be the Irish’s first football game in this state.
“I’m sure the atmosphere will be electric,” UVa head coach Mike London said.
“I think it’s going to be nuts,” junior safety Kelvin Rainey said. “I think it’s going to be crazy.”
Johns, who’s from the Philadelphia area, said: “This is why you come here, to play in big-time games. For me it’s actually a little more special. I have two friends on their team: Josh Adams, he played at my high school, and their right tackle, Mike McGlinchey, I grew up and played lacrosse with him.
“So those are two guys I know pretty well, and I’m excited to compete against them. It’ll be fun for our community back home to have a lot of ties to this game.”
In every sport offered by the Atlantic Coast Conference except football, Notre Dame competes as a full member of the league. In football, the Irish play five games each regular season against ACC opponents.
The ACC announced in December 2013 that Notre Dame would visit Scott Stadium this season.
“It’s finally here,” Rainey said.
Notre Dame has not won a national title in football since 1988. Even so, the Irish remain one of the nation’s marquee teams, year in and year out.
“Obviously, everyone knows who they are,” Rainey said. “They’re a huge program. They’re just Notre Dame. Notre Dame is Notre Dame.”
There figure to be plenty of green-clad fans at Scott Stadium on Saturday, but Virginia’s players say that won’t bother them.
“Notre Dame’s a team that travels well,” Johns said. “They have fans all over the country. It’s going to be a packed house, and that’s what we came here to play in front of, big crowds, and we’re really excited for the opportunity ahead of us.
“We’ve just got to play with confidence and play to the best of our ability.”
For the `Hoos, that will mean playing considerably better than they did in Pasadena, Calif. The Cavaliers’ lone touchdown came with 3:29 left in the fourth quarter, long after the outcome had been settled, and they rushed for only 98 yards.
On defense, UVa surrendered 503 yards, forced no turnovers and sacked UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen only once.
“We were disappointed in our performance overall,” said Bradshaw, speaking for the defense.
On offense, the `Hoos moved the ball well at times, especially in the first two quarters, but three of their first-half possessions ended in Ian Frye field goals.
“You’re not always going to get a touchdown,” said Johns, who completed 21 of 35 passes for 238 yards and one TD, with one interception.
“That’s just football. But when you’re in the red zone three times, we needed to put the ball in the end zone. I think that’s a game-changer. That turns into 21 points instead of nine, and that flips the switch and maybe gives us some more momentum going into the second half.”
To come away with a field goal is not always a bad thing, Johns noted, but it’s “frustrating when you do it three times. When it happens once, it’s like, `You know what, they made a good stop. They’re a good defense. It’s going to happen.’
“Fortunately we finished the game strong. That’s a credit to our players. We’re not going to give up. We scored on our last drive, and we’ve got to build off of that.”
Four players fielded questions from media members Monday at JPJ: Johns, Bradshaw, Rainey and senior fullback Vincent Croce. Like Johns, Croce was asked about the Cavaliers’ struggles to reach the end zone.
“It just comes to execution down there,” Croce said. “Especially when you’re so tight in the red zone, there’s even less room for error. They say football’s a game of inches. When you get in the red zone, I would say it’s probably a game of centimeters. You have to be on your Ps and Qs down there.”
Croce said it’s important for the players to remember that field goals have value.
“Seven [points], of course, that’s the way to go, that’s what we want, but coming away with three is better than zero,” Croce said. “It’s better than a turnover, it’s better than a three-and-out.”
Croce is one of Virginia’s captains, along with offensive guard Ross Burbank, wide receiver Canaan Severin and defensive tackle David Dean. Croce is confident the Cavaliers will keep the loss to UCLA in perspective.
“We started this in the offseason, the core leadership group on the team,” Croce said. “I think it’s been so effective because we’re all on the same page and we all try to preach the same message to the team. So we’ve just been assuring the team that it’s not the end of the world. Yes, we lost a game. Do we want to win `em all? Absolutely. But we lost to a very good team. We’ve all seen the corrections. We know what we have to do moving forward, and it’s our job as leadership to ensure that everybody is doing their part in getting those things corrected.”
THE REAL DEAL: UCLA, which opened last season with a 28-20 win over Virginia at Scott Stadium, finished with a 10-3 record. Expectations for the Bruins are higher this year, and for good reason, it appeared Saturday.
“We played them last year, we played them this year, and in all honesty they were honestly a lot better [this year],” Johns said Monday. “There was a noticeable difference. They just played more as a unit, and they played a complete game. A lot of broadcasters have them playing in the College [Football] Playoff, and after playing them I would not be surprised if they do.”
NOTHING TO IT: Croce, who starred at Good Counsel High School in Maryland, has lined up at several positions during his football career. Not until Saturday, however, had he carried the ball in a game.
The 6-4, 260-pound Croce took a handoff from Johns midway through the first quarter and bulled his way to a 7-yard gain. Late in the game, Croce caught a pass from Johns for a 6-yard gain, his first reception as a Cavalier.
“I was happy for him,” Johns said. “He’s a guy that’s come such a long way … He got two touches, and both were productive plays.”
Coming into this season, Croce had played primarily on special teams at UVa.
“It’s been a ride, and it’s been a long ride,” he said. “A lot of changes. Came in as a defensive end, moved to D-tackle, and then flipped sides of the ball, to fullback, then to tight end, now back to fullback. But to finally be nailed down in one position with a more defined role is definitely nice. It allows me to focus in a lot more and be more productive and more consistent in what I’m doing.”
STEP FORWARD: Junior Taquan Mizzell, who started at tailback Saturday, rushed for only 47 yards on 16 carries against a talented UCLA defense. Another junior, Albert Reid, a transfer from Maryland, gained 31 yards on 12 carries.
Still, Croce said, the “numbers don’t reflect the job that our running backs did, especially [Mizzell]. He ran the ball much better, much more like a college football running back: one cut, downhill. We just have to get our guys on blocks for a little bit longer, seal off the backside a little longer, and these runs are going to start to pop.”
Mizzell was more effective in the passing game Saturday, finishing with eight receptions for 100 yards, both career highs.
“It was a good game for him,” London said, “and we look forward to more progress from him.”
DUAL THREAT: Rosen, a true freshman, played brilliantly at the Rose Bowl, completing 28 of 35 passes for 351 yards and three TDs, but he wasn’t a threat to run.
That won’t be the case this weekend with Notre Dame quarterback Malik Zaire. A junior from Kettering, Ohio, Zaire rushed for 96 yards and a touchdown in Notre Dame’s win over LSU in the Music City Bowl last season. Against Texas on Saturday, he completed 19 of 22 passes for 313 yards and three TDs.
“We’re trying to keep him contained,” Bradshaw said.
The Cavaliers also will be trying to rattle Zaire with a strong pass rush. That was noticeably absent against UCLA, which gave Rosen ample time to survey the field and find open receivers.
“It’s hard for DBs to cover for [extended periods],” Bradshaw said. “The longer they gotta cover, the better chance that [the quarterback is] going to be able to complete a pass.”
MEDICAL REPORT: Tarean Folston, Notre Dame’s leading rusher last year, suffered a season-ending knee injury against Texas.
For Virginia, London said Monday that offensive linemen Jake Fieler and Eric Tetlow are out for the season with injuries. Neither played against UCLA. Fieler, a redshirt freshman, worked with the first team at tackle for much of training camp last month.
London also said another offensive lineman, junior Ryan Doull, would play this season. Doull, who started six games at left guard last season, missed the opener Saturday for medical reasons.