Oct. 16, 2015

By Jeff White (jwhite@virginia.edu)

CHARLOTTESVILLE — The mood in the locker room remains upbeat, and the players have stuck together during a disappointing start for the University of Virginia football team.

“The commitment’s still there,” junior quarterback Matt Johns said Thursday morning.

Johns pointed to teammates scattered around the field next to the McCue Center. “Look, these guys are still staying after practice, getting some extra work in, and everyone’s having fun and everyone’s staying positive.”

Even the most resilient team’s resolve, though, can weaken. And so their next victory can’t come soon enough for the Cavaliers, whose lone win was over William & Mary, which competes in the NCAA’s Football Championship Subdivision.

“We’re close, but close isn’t good enough,” Johns said. “It’s just a matter of going out and doing it. That’s what we’ve been talking about all week: Just go do it. Quit being close. Let’s go win a game.”

Another opportunity comes Saturday for Virginia, which has seven regular-season games left. UVA (1-4, 0-1) hosts ACC foe Syracuse (3-2, 1-0) in a 3:30 p.m. game at Scott Stadium.

A victory over the Orange “would mean a lot,” Johns said. “It’s time to get going and get over that hump.”

UVA had hoped to break through last weekend in Pittsburgh. But Virginia stumbled early against Pitt and trailed after 17-3 after the first quarter. The Wahoos fought back, but their rally fell short in a 26-19 loss to the Panthers.

“It was a disappointing loss up there at Pittsburgh, but I tell you what, I’m so proud of this football team,” head coach Mike London said. “I’m proud of the resolve, the resilience, the not-quit attitude. Our guys showed a lot of character.”

Alas for the `Hoos, that wasn’t enough at Heinz Field.

“I thought we left some plays out on the field,” said Johns, who threw four straight incompletions to end Virginia’s final possession.

“It’s just a matter of execution. The coaches called a great game, we had a great plan going in, we moved the ball pretty well, but it was a matter of those big plays we needed to hit and score an extra touchdown or two.”

Injuries have depleted UVA’s offensive line, but the receiving corps, led by T.J. Thorpe and Canaan Severin, is as healthy as it’s been all season. The running backs and tight ends are in good health, too.

“We definitely have enough weapons,” Johns said. “It’s just a matter of going out there and executing.”

Among ACC teams, Virginia ranks fourth in pass offense (246.4 yards per game). In rushing offense, though, the Cavaliers (102.8 yards per game) are last. UVA’s leading rusher, junior tailback Taquan Mizzell, is averaging only 39.2 yards per game on the ground.

If the `Hoos are to break out offensively, they’ll need more production in the running game.

“Obviously we want to do our best to establish our ability to run the ball,” said Jack English, a redshirt sophomore who’s taken over for the injured Michael Mooney at left offensive tacke.

“I think we definitely have the schemes and we have the guys to do it. It’s just a matter of putting it all together and pounding the rock, and it’ll break eventually.”

The most recent football game between Virginia and Syracuse took place a decade ago. Back then, the Orange belonged to the Big East. After pounding Syracuse 31-10 at Scott Stadium in 2004, UVA prevailed 27-24 in the 2005 rematch at the Carrier Dome on a Connor Hughes field goal as time expired.

This Syracuse team starts a true freshman at quarterback, Eric Dungey, who directs an option offense. It won’t be the same as facing Georgia Tech’s trademark triple option, but the Orange will show looks the `Hoos don’t see every weekend.

“It’s really going to come down to playing our techniques and being technically sound,” defensive tackle Andre Miles-Redmond said.

Dungey, who missed one game with an injury, is averaging 165 yards passing and 34.2 yards rushing.

“He definitely presents a good challenge,” Miles-Redmond said.

Challenges have abounded this season for UVA. The Cavaliers already have played three teams ranked in the latest Associated Press poll: No. 14 Notre Dame, No. 18 UCLA, and No. 21 Boise State. Moreover, Pitt is 4-1 overall, with a loss to No. 17 Iowa.

Through it all, Virginia’s players say, they’ve maintained a close bond forged in grueling offseason workouts.

“Whenever times like this happened the past couple seasons,” junior wide receiver Keeon Johnson said Wednesday, “the locker room would be dead and everybody would kind of start breaking off into groups. But this year it’s different. It’s way different.

“The more the season goes on, the more everybody is working and upping their level at practice each day. You can see it in the locker room. Everybody’s encouraging one another, so that’s something that’s very positive.”

When the team gathered at Heinz Field after the Pitt game, senior defensive end Trent Corney said Monday, “obviously no one was excited about losing, but I felt like no one felt any panic toward the season. I remember years in the past, when we lost a few games in a row, guys in the locker room were extremely shellshocked, rattled, emotional.

“I never saw any guys after the game with a depressed look on their faces. I felt like guys were still positive after the game, even though we lost — as positive as you could possibly be after a game like that. So I still feel really good about the season.”

To lose as UVA did at Pitt is painful, but it’s “more fuel,” Johnson said, “and it’s more motivation for us to work even harder.”

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