October 9, 2007
CHARLOTTESVILLE Virginia has seen two completely different Jameel Sewells over the past two seasons, frequently in the same game.
Never was that more apparent than in the Cavaliers' recent 23-21 victory at Middle Tennessee, where Sewell misfired on 8 of 9 passes during one span and yielded an interception that nearly led to a loss, then went 5-for-5 on a game-winning drive.
One week earlier, Sewell had followed a 13-for-17 start with a 3-for-14 finish in a 44-14 home win over Pittsburgh.
"Neither Jameel nor the staff wants to say, That's great, we'll just take a stretch in there where we miss five or six in a row,'" Virginia coach Al Groh said. "We'd like to hit 12 or 15 in a row, but, staff-wise, we understand, it is what it is. This is who the player is."
Sewell, with no experienced or clearly gifted wide receivers at his disposal, was good enough for the Cavaliers to put up a 5-1 record over the first half of the season. Nobody expects Virginia to repeat that record in the second half, when the schedule becomes much tougher, but the Cavs have a chance to be better than anybody was predicting.
Before the season, and even following a 23-3 opening loss at Wyoming, there was talk about what kind of record Groh, now in his seventh year, would need to keep his job. The consensus was that Groh would be gone if the Cavaliers finished 4-8 or worse, would be in big trouble at 5-7, probably would keep his job at 6-6, and would be safe at 7-5 or better.
The Cavaliers already have matched their win total from a 5-7 season in 2006 and would be bowl-eligible with a victory in the next game, against Connecticut (5-0). The Huskies are probably the least highly regarded of the 11 remaining Division I-A unbeatens and will travel to Scott Stadium, where UVa has won six games in a row and is 27-5 over the last 32.
Virginia has home games remaining with Connecticut, Wake Forest and Virginia Tech and goes on the road to play Maryland, N.C. State and Miami. The Cavaliers benefit from an unbalanced ACC schedule that this year will not require them to play Boston College, Florida State or Clemson.
INJURIES A GROWING CONCERN
Injuries have begun to mount, however, and the Middle Tennessee game was particularly damaging in that respect.
ACC rushing leader Cedric Peerman limped off the field before the end of the first quarter, not to return, and cornerback Chris Cook had to be helped from the field in the final period with an apparent knee or ankle injury. Cook generally is considered the Cavaliers' best defensive back.
Virginia already was without junior offensive tackle Eugene Monroe, maybe the Cavaliers' best offensive lineman over the first month of the season. Monroe injured his left knee late in a 28-23 victory over Georgia Tech on Sept. 22 and missed the next two games, although he was in uniform and participated in warmups before both.
The Cavaliers dealt with Monroe's injury by moving left guard Branden Albert to left tackle and inserting fifth-year senior Gordie Sammis at Albert's old spot. An offseason appeal to the NCAA was needed for Sammis to be eligible this fall, and he was required to sit out the first two games.
Sammis had played three plays at the end of a 51-0 victory over Akron early in the 2004 season, and that was the extent of his playing time that year. However, because he was not injured that season, he was not eligible for a routine hardship waiver. Groh said after the Pittsburgh game that he wasn't sure if Sammis had played 10 plays from scrimmage in his career before that night.
The most critical injury to hit the Cavaliers since the 2006 season occurred when wide receiver Kevin Ogletree suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament early in spring drills. Ogletree had become UVa's go-to receiver during a break-out sophomore season in 2006, when he had a team-high 52 receptions.
Ogletree underwent reconstructive surgery and has been running routes almost since the start of this season, but Groh routinely has deflected questions about Ogletree's return, possibly with the memories of Deyon Williams flying through his head. Williams had a team-high 58 receptions in 2005, suffered a broken foot early in the preseason, came back too soon, and was a non-factor as a fourth-year senior in 2006.
If Williams had been redshirted, UVa would have been looking at a possible tandem of Ogletree and Williams as their top two wideouts this season. Maurice Covington would have been a serviceable No. 3, but he has missed three games since sustaining a broken hand late in a 22-20 victory at North Carolina.
Groh said of Ogletree, "Anybody who thinks he's going to play any time soon probably has seven fantasy football teams. ... I don't see any signs of it right now."
But then Groh gave himself some wiggle room: "He's at a stage right now where sometimes players can get enough work and develop enough strength to where their circumstance can change dramatically over the course of a few weeks, but right now it's not something that is imminent."
Most Virginia fans would like to see Ogletree redshirted, because the Cavaliers have had a history of wasting players' redshirt years during the Groh era, although Williams and people close to him were pushing for him to participate in 2006.
It is clear that Virginia will redshirt another player who suffered a torn ACL between seasons, cornerback Mike Brown. Brown would have challenged Vic Hall for one of the starting cornerback spots and was the top returning punt returner, although Hall has filled in diligently.
Hall entered the Middle Tennessee game as the leading punt returner in Division I-A and as the reigning ACC special teams player of the week. He did not pick up a single yard on three punt returns against the Blue Raiders but would have had a 62-yard return for a touchdown if true freshman Ras-I Dowling had not been called for a block in the back.
Hall is the Virginia High School League record-holder for passing yardage and total offense, and a lot of UVa fans would like to see him on offense, possibly as a slot receiver if not at quarterback. After six games, true freshman Dontrelle Inman led the team's wide receivers with 10 catches, and he doesn't start.
The Cavaliers would be lost without their stable of tight ends, including seniors Tom Santi and Jon Stupar, who rank 1-2 on the team in receptions. A third tight end, talented junior John Phillips, had three receptions at Middle Tennessee, including a 20-yarder for UVa's first touchdown.
Otherwise, UVa has had to get by with the likes of walk-on wide receivers Staton Jobe and Cary Koch, the latter a transfer from Tulane in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Against Pittsburgh, 24 of Sewell's 31 passes went to tight ends or running backs.
For the time being, the quarterback controversy involving Sewell and freshman Peter Lalich has died down, although it is a little mysterious how Lalich could play in the first four games and have a major role in a 24-13 victory over Duke but not get off the bench against Pittsburgh and Middle Tennessee.
As much as the quarterbacks have dominated conversation, one of the lesser-told stories of the Middle Tennessee trip was the play of reserve running backs Keith Payne and Andrew Pearman after Peerman went down to injury.
Payne, a 6-3, 234-pound redshirt freshman bull, led all rushers with 70 yards on 18 carries. Pearman (5-10, 168) carried five times for 45 yards and two touchdowns, and he also had five receptions for 56 yards in the biggest night of his much-traveled four-year college career.