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Better Competition Exposed Some Flaws

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

  October 18, 2004 CHARLOTTESVILLE — Now that it has become evident that the first five games of the football season left Virginia ill-prepared to face Florida State, the question becomes, how much will Florida State prepare the Cavaliers for their next five games?

After laying a 36-3 egg in Tallahassee, Virginia may take a while to regain the prestige it had built up during an ascent to No. 6 in the polls. That was the highest UVa had been ranked since its three-week stay as No. 1 in 1990.

"I have always believed that every game counts just once, until they put a weighted average on every one of them," Virginia coach Al Groh said. "Somebody said, 'Will this be the biggest win in the history of the program?' You don't have big wins in midseason. You have big wins in championship games. All of that other stuff is fan talk. In that respect, every one counts one. This one (FSU) counts one. It's a disappointing one, but it counts one."

Clearly, the Cavaliers had fooled a lot of people, including the oddsmakers, who had UVa as a three-point underdog in a line that did not change from week's start to finish. At least now, the Cavaliers (5-1, 2-1 ACC) will have some time to lick their wounds, starting with a trip to hapless Duke (1-5, 0-3), followed by an open date.

Virginia theoretically could lose to Duke — stranger things have happened — but there will be much tougher tests to follow, against Maryland, Miami, Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech, with the last two games on the road.

A major factor will be injuries, because it is clear that the Cavaliers have been hurt by the loss of senior defensive end Chris Canty, lost for the season after suffering a "significant" (Groh's description) knee injury in a Sept. 25 victory over Syracuse. Canty not only is 6-7 and 295 pounds, but he is a playmaker, a leader and a team captain.

Virginia put very little pressure on Florida State quarterback Wyatt Sexton, as evidenced by his 20 completions in 26 attempts. The incompletions included several drops and no pass breakups by the UVa secondary, which was inexperienced before the season and remains unproven. Starting cornerback Marcus Hamilton gave up a 24-yard touchdown pass to FSU wideout Chauncey Stovall in a jump-ball, fade-pattern situation, in which Hamilton couldn't handle the physical jostling that often occurs on such plays.

When asked about receivers seemingly running wild throughout the secondary all night, Groh observed that FSU's running backs, Leon Washington and Lorenzo Booker, kept the Cavaliers honest and prevented them from committing other people to the pass or the pass rush. Indeed, Virginia didn't exactly contain Washington and Booker, who between them carried 31 times for 191 yards, despite the extra attention up front.

Fact is, Florida State controlled both lines of scrimmage, holding the Cavaliers to 20 net yards (including 52 yards in losses) in rushing offense. Virginia had been averaging 275 yards on the ground, fifth in Division I-A. In the end, the Seminoles steamrolled UVa in much the same manner the Wahoos had hammered their first five opponents.

"I feel the same way I always do when we get beat," Groh said. "Not very good."

The performance at FSU was a poor reflection on an offensive line that had been considered one of the best in the country. The damage had been done before left guard Elton Brown, the 2003 winner of the Jacobs Blocking Trophy as the ACC's best interior lineman, was helped from the field with an injured knee. Brown remains one of the best (if not the best) blockers in the conference, but the Seminoles simply had too many athletic bodies flying around the ball for the Cavaliers' front to handle.

From all indications, Brown did not have a Canty-like injury and should be available for a Nov. 6 visit by Maryland, if not sooner. The Cavs had to be more concerned with quarterback Marques Hagans, who suffered a blow to the hip and did not play in the fourth quarter. Virginia clearly will need his versatility against upcoming opponents Maryland, Miami, Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech.

Backup quarterback Christian Olsen completed six of eight passes against the Seminoles, in his most extended duty of the season. But he is no Hagans, whose second trip to Tallahassee was nothing like his first, when, after seemingly taking Matt Schaub's job, he completed one of four passes for four yards.

Hagans was 20-of-30 for 214 yards this time and, while he did not produce any touchdowns, his scrambling and throwing accounted for every big play the Cavaliers had. That included completions to tight end Heath Miller for 25 yards on third-and-20 and 26 yards on third-and-13. Miller, perhaps the best player at his position in the nation, finished with nine receptions for 110 yards, a few days after FSU linebacker Ernie Sims boasted that he was going to completely "shut down" Miller in their intriguing one-on-one matchup.

If Hagans doesn't have his quickness, it would greatly reduce his effectiveness. UVa's growing injury list also includes starting fullback Jason Snelling, who injured a knee on the first series of an Oct. 7 game with Clemson and missed the FSU game, and 2003 starter Ian-Yates Cunningham, an offensive lineman who underwent offseason hernia surgery and has not played this year.

The significance of Canty's injury was not readily apparent in a 30-10 victory over the Tigers, but the first part of Virginia's schedule provided few scares. You could blame the Cavaliers for scheduling Temple and Akron, but North Carolina, Syracuse and Clemson seemed like worthy opponents, or at least the last two did.

A road trip to attendance-shy Temple, followed by four home games, did not prepare Virginia for the reception it received from 84,155 at Doak Campbell Stadium, but can you blame the Cavaliers for that? The order of the games is determined by the conference office.

Virginia added Temple to the schedule when the ACC expanded and the Cavs were obligated to find a non-conference opponent to replace new ACC colleague Virginia Tech. Presumably, the Wahoos could have added defending national champion LSU, which was looking for a game after losing a scheduled 2004 matchup with Virginia Tech, but that would have been the other extreme from Temple.

While Virginia may not be as good as it appeared in outscoring its first five opponents 212-58, the Cavaliers probably aren't as bad as they looked against FSU. The Seminoles' 19-3 halftime lead came courtesy of a blocked punt and two five-yard facemask penalties that led to 10 points after it appeared that UVa had stopped FSU on downs.

Gillen: Tough Scholarship Decisions

A recent verbal commitment from Stephen Kendall, a 6-4 junior guard from the Blue Ridge School northeast of Charlottesville, left Virginia without any scholarships for the next two seasons — even next year, as the team prepares to move into its new 15,000-seat facility for the 2006-07 season.

UVa already had taken four commitments for this year and could have signed as many as five players, but the entire 2005-06 team, as currently projected, would have been underclassmen. Odds are, somebody could leave. Virginia has lost 14 underclassmen through attrition over the past eight years, but while coach Pete Gillen will keep his eye on available players, he will not sign five this fall.

If a player were to leave during the season or shortly thereafter, Gillen might give out a fifth scholarship in the spring, but the staff felt it was important to make a move on Kendall, a Charlottesville resident whose parents are both UVa alumni, because his development as a shooter was beginning to get the attention of other ACC schools.

That decision caused the Cavaliers to back off a pair of top-75 seniors, power forwards Alfred Aboya and Uche Echefu, with whom they were strongly in the running. Aboya, in particular, seemed particularly interested in Virginia and recently had narrowed the field to UVa, Georgetown and UCLA. He had visited Charlottesville in mid-September along with swingman Mamadi Diane, who subsequently committed to the Cavs.

LINGERING BACKDROP:
LATE-SEASON SLIDES

BLACKSBURG — With all due respect to Andy Williams and the late Nat "King" Cole, Virginia Tech's football team does not share your sentiments. The closer it gets to the holidays for Tech, the less it becomes the most wonderful time of the year.

At least that's the way it has been the last three years for the Hokies. In games played between Oct. 22 and Jan. 1 in the 2001 through 2003 seasons, Tech was 7-13. Of course, the majority of that record was compiled against Big East teams, but two of those perennial back-of-the-schedule games for Tech included contests against Miami and Virginia. Both of those rivals are still on the finishing stretch for Tech this season.

There's ample reason to believe Tech may be in for yet another bumpy ride, as it tries to close out its first season in the ACC. Tech's remaining opponents — Georgia Tech, North Carolina, Maryland, Virginia and Miami — have a combined record of 20-10. Then again, the circumstances are different for Tech this year. For the first time since 1998, the Hokies won't have to worry about trying to defend an Associated Press top-five ranking heading into the late season.

Is there less pressure this season? Or is the pressure greater, considering that Tech needs to finish strong to lock up a 12th consecutive bowl bid? How will Tech's young team handle the meat of its ACC schedule?

The good thing about having a young team is that so many players have no memories of past failures. The bad thing is, they've never faced teams desperate for late-season wins to lock up bowl berths and/or Bowl Championship Series bids. Virginia and Miami, both of which defeated Tech last season, could be teams in BCS-seeking spots. Georgia Tech, Maryland and maybe even UNC will be looking for every opportunity to get closer to qualifying for a bowl bid.

Despite their youth, the Hokies actually could be more focused and prepared for the final six weeks of the season than recent Tech teams have been. A few nailbiters on the slate can do a lot to make a young team grow up fast and play beyond its years in future games. By going 2-1 in close games against N.C. State, West Virginia and Wake Forest this season, Tech proved that it has the ability to finish off opponents when the game is on the line.

Much of that success begins and ends with senior quarterback Bryan Randall. He has made mistakes and been one of the worst quarterbacks in the ACC as far as passing efficiency this season, but he was sharp in late drives against West Virginia and Wake Forest. Considering that Tech likely will be trying to beat ranked teams (Virginia and Miami) in back-to-back weeks for just the second time since 1996, Randall will need to remain poised.

Randall played a role in Tech's only other back-to-back victories against ranked teams since 1996 when he helped the Hokies beat Marshall and Texas A&M in September 2002, his first two career starts. That 2002 stretch actually was part of a three-game winning streak against ranked teams, including a win against LSU to begin the run. The LSU game marked the last start for former Tech quarterback Grant Noel.

Oh, and there's no baiting Tech coach Frank Beamer into talking about how this season's close games have affected his team, or how he plans on making sure Tech doesn't have to go down to the wire against its remaining opponents. It's all pretty vanilla stuff from Beamer these days.

Even in the week heading into Tech's 62-0 demolition of Division I-AA foe Florida A&M, getting Beamer to talk about how he was making sure his team didn't look ahead to the off-week was nearly impossible. Beamer isn't even letting such thoughts enter his psyche at this point.

"We are sticking with getting a win and improving as a team," Beamer said. "If we keep those as our goals and do it, then we stay right on track."

Yeah, it's boring, it's mechanical and it's by the book. But that's the way Beamer wants his team to react to big games off the field for the remainder of the year. Show no emotion. Work on that poker face. Save it all for game day.

Hoops: Good Health, Brutal Road

Speaking of scheduling, the Virginia Tech basketball team will need to be prepared to switch gears in a hurry in December.

It looks as if Tech's first seven games might include at most two or three challenging contests. The eighth game will be the Hokies' first-ever in the ACC, and it could be against a team (North Carolina) that has the potential to be ranked No. 1 in the nation.

ACC schedule-makers didn't do Tech any favors with the UNC game. It will be held on the afternoon of Dec. 19 in Blacksburg. Students will be on holiday vacation. Sure, there's little doubt that a few thousand students will make the trek back to campus for the program's much-anticipated ACC debut, and Cassell Coliseum will be sold out, but weather could be a factor in travel plans.

At least Tech coach Seth Greenberg had one advantage this season as he opened practice that he didn't have last season at this time, and that's a fairly healthy ballclub.

Tech, which has five freshmen and five sophomores on its 15-player roster, entered last season's preseason practice with seven healthy players. The Hokies had to use walk-ons and student managers just to practice five-on-five. They played almost the first month and a half of the season at far less than 100 percent health-wise.

In mid-October, at least, injuries didn't appear to be a serious issue for this year's team. Still, having a full squad in preseason workouts doesn't make preparing to play in the nation's toughest college basketball conference any easier.

"I'm realistic in understanding that we are going into the best basketball conference in America in a year that it may be as good as it's ever been," Greenberg said. "We probably have five or six teams in the top 20 and potentially seven teams, minimum, will earn a berth in the NCAA Tournament. It's exciting and invigorating, and I know our players are looking forward to it."