Stage Set for Season Finale
Nov. 27, 2015
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Virtually all of the players who are now fifth-year seniors on the University of Virginia football team joined the program in the summer of 2011. That fall, when most of the newcomers redshirted, Virginia played in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, and the freshmen figured such postseason appearances would be the norm during their college careers.
That hasn’t been the case. This marks the fourth consecutive year the Cavaliers’ season will end in November. In 2012, when the Wahoos finished 4-8, they lost four games by a touchdown or less. In 2014, when they finished 5-7, the `Hoos dropped five games by eight points or fewer.
“That’s been the most frustrating part,” cornerback Demetrious Nicholson said Monday, “because I know we’ve got the talent. I know guys want to win.”
Nicholson, who played as a true freshman in 2011 (and redshirted in 2014), is among the seniors who will be honored Saturday at Scott Stadium. The Cavaliers have an opportunity to send that class out in memorable fashion.
“It’s going to be a very emotional game,” UVA head coach Mike London said. “Highly charged, a lot of energy.”
At noon, Virginia (4-7 overall, 3-4 ACC) hosts Virginia Tech (5-6, 3-4) in the rivals’ annual battle for the Commonwealth Cup. The Hokies have won 11 straight in this series since losing at Scott Stadium in 2003.
“That’s the reality,” said UVA quarterback Matt Johns, a redshirt junior, “but this is a new year, and we need to focus on this year. If you focus on [the past] too much, then you get caught up in that and it affects your play. So we’re going to the best our ability just focus on us and our seniors.”
The class includes cornerbacks Nicholson and Maurice Canady, wide receivers Canaan Severin and T.J. Thorpe, offensive linemen Ross Burbank, Jay Whitmire and Rob Burns, fullback Vincent Croce, tight end Charlie Hopkins, defensive linemen Trent Corney, Mike Moore, David Dean and Kwontie Moore, and kicker Ian Frye.
The Cavaliers’ captains are Severin, Burbank, Croce and Dean, and London marvels at how they, along with Johns and others, kept the team united through the low points of an often-frustrating season.
“I can truly say that we had a never-quit mentality,” London said. “And now you’re playing a game … against a Hall of Fame coach at your place. I’m quite sure Scott Stadium will be filled and it will be an exciting game. It’s something you want to be a part of, so I look forward to it.”
Virginia Tech head coach Frank Beamer announced on Nov. 1 that he would retire at the end of this season. When, exactly, that will be has yet to be determined. The Hokies must win Saturday to become eligible for a 23rd straight bowl appearance.
To end Tech’s bowl streak, Johns acknowledged Monday, would be satisfying for the Cavaliers, but “if you focus on things like that, you get away from what you’re doing. It takes away from your focus as a team, and sometimes you get too caught up in that rather than executing your own game plan. So, I think we focus on ourselves, and if that happens that’ll be great, but we’ll just focus on ourselves and let the rest take care of itself.”
Another storyline is the status of London, whose record in six seasons as the Cavaliers’ head coach is 27-45. He stressed Monday that his focus is on the regular-season finale and Virginia’s seniors, and his players say speculation about London’s future won’t distract them.
“I think we’ll do a good job of blocking that out,” Johns said.
The `Hoos have won two of their past four games, and the losses were by six points [at Miami] and seven points [at Louisville]. In those games, Johns said, “I thought our focus was pretty strong, and if we could do it the past four weeks there’s no reason we can’t do it this week.”
In 2014, Johns played the final 80 seconds of Virginia’s season-ending loss to Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, entering the game when starter Greyson Lambert left with a concussion. Lambert had led the touchdown drive that put the `Hoos ahead 20-17 with 2:55 remaining, but their lead was short-lived. The Hokies needed only 67 seconds to drive 75 yards for the TD that lifted them to a 24-20 victory.
Lambert transferred to Georgia after going through spring practice at Virginia, and Johns has started every game this fall. For the season, he’s completed 229 of 365 passes (62.7 percent) for 2,639 yards and 19 touchdowns, with 15 interceptions.
In Virginia’s most recent game, a 42-34 win over Duke at Scott Stadium, Johns threw for two touchdowns and a career-high 344 yards.
“I think he’s progressively gotten better each game,” said Steve Fairchild, who’s in his third season as UVA’s offensive coordinator. “He didn’t start a whole lot last year. So it’s like anybody that’s really a first-year starter. They mature as the season goes.”
Like Beamer, defensive coordinator Bud Foster has become renowned for his work at Virginia Tech. For more than a decade — a period in which they’ve employed several offensive coordinators and played more than a half-dozen quarterbacks — the Cavaliers have struggled to move the ball consistently against Foster’s defenses. Virginia isn’t likely to reclaim the Commonwealth Cup without a strong showing from Johns.
“We’ll need his best game,” London said. “His efficiency rating the last couple games has been outstanding. This is a good defense that’s going to get after him, [with] pressure and all those things, and his ability to handle that and make the proper decisions to get the ball out will be critical.”
The Hokies “do a great job of getting pressure on the quarterback,” Johns said. “I can’t force anything. I can’t force runs; that’s when bad things can happen. It’s a matter of taking what they give me and just being smart with the football. If they give me a run, maybe I’ll take it. If not, I’ll try to get the ball down field to one of our receivers.”
Those targets include Severin, Thorpe, true freshman Olamide Zaccheaus, junior Keeon Johnson and junior Taquan Mizzell, a tailback who leads Virginia with 68 receptions. Severin leads the Cavaliers in receiving yards (713) and touchdown catches (seven).
Emotions will run high Saturday among players on both teams, Severin said, but he’ll do his best to keep himself, and the other Cavaliers, on an even keel.
It’s important, Severin said, to not “overreact. It’s going to be a chippy game on Saturday. … I’m not really going to buy into that. I’m going to play my game, I know Matt Johns is going to play his game, I know [Mizzell] is going to play his game. The O-line, everyone. … Just play their game and we’ll be rolling.”
Mizzell was asked Monday if the `Hoos consider this their bowl game.
“I wouldn’t say a bowl game, but just a big game for us,” he said. “Definitely a big game. Eleven years or whatever [the streak is]. We can’t control the past, but it’s definitely a chance for us to take a big step.”
Nicholson, who like Mizzell graduated from Virginia Beach’s Bayside High School, agreed.
Nicholson said he sees this not “as a bowl game, but as a great stage to go out on for our seniors and for our coaches and even for our young guys. This is going to be their first time playing against Virginia Tech. They might not understand the rivalry but it’s a great rivalry, it’s a great stage, it’s going to be a great atmosphere, and it’s also at home.”
The game will be shown nationally on ESPNU, and nothing would please the Cavaliers more Saturday than a win over the Hokies.
“It would be huge,” Croce said. “I really feel like it would round out my football experience and bring everything full circle.”
A victory, Nicholson said, “would be great for this program, great for Coach London, great for our seniors going out, and especially for Charlottesville and the community here.”