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Acc Championship Suddenly Possible

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff

  November 1, 2004

CHARLOTTESVILLE — Maryland's recent upset of 10-point favorite Florida State certainly added to the intrigue surrounding the Terrapins' visit to Virginia on Nov. 6.

As recently as the last week of October, most observers would have chalked up the Maryland game as a win for the Cavaliers, and Virginia would have had to answer questions about whether it was looking past the Terrapins to Nov. 13 opponent Miami.

Interestingly, the Hurricanes' subsequent loss to 21-point underdog North Carolina gave the Cavaliers an unexpected chance to control their destiny. If Virginia wins the remainder of its ACC games, it would claim its first outright ACC championship (UVa had co-championships in 1989 and 1995) because it would have to beat the other two ACC teams with one conference loss, Miami and Virginia Tech.

On the other hand, Virginia (6-1, 3-1 ACC) could lose to any of its four remaining opponents, and that goes for previously punchless Maryland. The Terps' 20-17 victory over the Seminoles stands in stark contrast to Virginia's 36-3 loss at Tallahassee. Just going by comparative scores, which everyone knows is a good idea only for idle speculation, UVa could be in a heap of trouble against the Terrapins.

Amazingly, Virginia has not played a game yet that has been decided by fewer than 20 points. You could make the case that UVa is ill-prepared to play in a close game, but upon closer examination the Cavaliers' last three victories have come in games decided in the second half. UVa beat Syracuse 31-10 in a game that was 21-10 prior to a UVa goal-line stand in the third quarter. The Cavaliers beat Clemson 30-10 in a game that was 16-10 in the fourth quarter, and they beat Duke 37-16 in a game that was 23-16 in the fourth quarter.

You also could say that Virginia struggled to put away a Duke team that has not beaten a Division I-A opponent and entered the game as a 24-point underdog, but the Blue Devils went to Wake Forest the next week and gave the respected Deacons a 24-22 game. UVa had 511 yards in total offense against Duke, including 348 on the ground.

Maryland-UVa Angles Everywhere

The Cavaliers can't expect that kind of offensive domination against a stingy Maryland defense that entered the FSU game ranked 21st in Division I-A in total defense. In losing three straight games, the Terrapins (4-4, 2-3) allowed a total of four touchdowns against Georgia Tech, N.C. State and Clemson. They lost because they scored a total of just two touchdowns in those three games.

The home team has won the last four games in the Maryland-Virginia series, and the Cavaliers have beaten the Terps six times at Scott Stadium since 1990, when then-No. 2 Virginia, a 22-point favorite, blew a 14-point and lost to the Terrapins 35-30. One of the most impressive UVa performances of the Al Groh era came in 2002, when the unranked Wahoos destroyed then-No. 18 Maryland 48-13 and knocked the Terps out of a possible BCS slot.

Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen probably would say that the 2002 UVa game was one of the most bitter losses of his head coaching career, which has had remarkable similarities to Groh's. Both arrived at their alma maters four years ago with NFL backgrounds, and while Friedgen has produced a few more wins than his UVa counterpart, both have enjoyed success and generated considerable enthusiasm in their programs.

In the process, they have built up a healthy rivalry, although some might call it unhealthy. The 2003 game at Byrd Stadium did not get underway until officials had marked off a 15-yard unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty against the Terrapins for a pre-game confrontation between Groh and Maryland assistant James Franklin.

Since Franklin also is the Terps' recruiting coordinator, there is no telling what that conversation might have entailed. For talent outside the states of Maryland and Virginia, there are few schools that run into each other more than the Terrapins and the Cavaliers, particularly in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York.

When George Welsh was the Virginia coach, the Cavaliers enjoyed a modest amount of success in Maryland, snagging players such as Tyree Foreman, Darryl Sanders and John Duckett in the 1990s, but the borders haven't been as penetrable since Friedgen replaced Ron Vanderlinden in College Park.

Nevertheless, bad blood between the coaching staffs may have formed in the winter of 1999-2000, when the Cavaliers felt they had a commitment from Florida defensive back Rovel Hamilton, only to have Hamilton renege on his commitment and sign with the Terrapins. UVa always suspected then-Maryland assistant Mike Locksley of negative recruiting, although the Terps could have argued that Hamilton committed to them first.

More recently, there have been little digs, with one coming in an ACC coaches' teleconference this season. When asked by Washington Post stringer Jim Reedy about the Cavaliers' All-ACC tight end, Heath Miller, Friedgen almost seemed to be speaking through clenched teeth before he finally allowed that Miller was a good "receiver."

The inference was that Friedgen didn't think Miller was a complete player, which couldn't be further from the truth. At 6-5 and 254 pounds, Miller frequently serves as a lead blocker for the Cavaliers and has been hailed by Groh and opposing coaches on several occasions for his blocking prowess. Maryland may not throw to its tight ends as much as Virginia does, and maybe there is some resentment over UVa's desire to become Tight End U., but there are absolutely no holes in Miller's game.

Concerns: Defensive Line, Hagans

The Cavaliers do have some holes, however, most notably on the defensive line.

Virginia's defense understandably hasn't been the same since the loss of 6-7, 295-pound Chris Canty, the prototypical end in the Cavaliers' 3-4 scheme. Not only was Canty the top tackler among ACC defensive linemen in back-to-back seasons, topping the 100-tackle mark in 2003, but he was usually a disruptive presence in the backfield when he wasn't making plays.

Since Canty suffered a season-ending knee surgery in the late stages of the Syracuse game in week four, his replacement has been Kwakou Robinson. A 6-4, 327-pound junior, Robinson was a Parade All-American coming out of Brooklyn (N.Y.) Poly but has not lived up to his build-up. Robinson was in for 48 snaps against Duke and was not credited with a single tackle.

Chris Johnson, a redshirt freshman who also sees time at Canty's old spot, was in for 20 snaps against the Blue Devils and was credited with two assists. True freshman Chris Long, the son of NFL Hall of Famer Howie Long, showed Canty-like athletic ability in the first three games of 2004 but has been out for six weeks with mononucleosis. It would be unreasonable to think that he could play like Canty this year, even if he does return.

The key for Virginia against Maryland, as it has been against most teams, could be junior quarterback Marques Hagans. After being sidelined by a bruised hip for the fourth quarter against FSU, Hagans was ineffective in the early stages against Duke and threw an assortment of what Groh described as "ground balls" or "bounce passes."

There was speculation that Hagans also may have hurt his throwing hand against the Seminoles, but in all likelihood the absence of practice time before the Duke game had the greatest impact on his play. He completed his last five passes, finishing 11-of-20, and entered the Maryland game with a 67.3 completion percentage at a time when nobody else in the conference was over 60.