October 23, 2007
CHARLOTTESVILLE When the college football season started, the biggest question about Virginia was whether seventh-year coach Al Groh could win enough games to keep his job. No one was talking about the Cavaliers as championship game contenders.
With only half the ACC schedule completed, that speculation is still somewhat premature, but remember, this is the same league that had Georgia Tech and Wake Forest in its title game last year.
Virginia still has such a small margin for error that it can't look past N.C. State on Oct. 27 in Raleigh, but there's also no looking past the Cavaliers' record 7-1 overall and 4-0 in the ACC. Moreover, UVa hasn't been the train wreck on the road that caused it to lose 10 of 11 road games prior to a 23-3 setback at Wyoming in the 2007 season opener.
Since then, the Cavaliers have reeled off three consecutive road wins by a total of five points. That includes an 18-17 victory on Oct. 20 at Maryland, which followed a 17-16 triumph over previously unbeaten Connecticut in Charlottesville the previous week.
Virginia has persevered despite a string of injuries that included the loss of a starting player on the first offensive play in back-to-back weeks.
Against Connecticut, it was fullback Rashawn Jackson, who came up lame almost as soon as he hauled in a pass from quarterback Jameel Sewell. At Maryland, it was preseason All-ACC tight end Tom Santi, helped from the field with a sprained ankle after a nine-yard reception.
At that point, Virginia was without its 2006 leading receiver, Kevin Ogletree, who tore an anterior cruciate ligament during the spring, its 2007 leading receiver, Santi, and its 2007 leading rusher, Cedric Peerman.
Peerman limped off the field with a foot injury before the end of the first quarter Oct. 6 at Middle Tennessee and has not played since. Backups Andrew Pearman and Keith Payne filled in ably in a 23-21 victory at Middle Tennessee, but there was little production from the running backs against Connecticut.
SUDDEN STARDOM FOR SIMPSON
When Pearman missed practice time in the week leading up to the Maryland game, Groh had little choice other than to move sophomore wide receiver Mikell Simpson to tailback. He'll never have a move work out any better.
Simpson, who had been on the field for only one play against Connecticut, came off the bench to catch three passes on Virginia's first drive against Maryland and carried the Cavaliers for the rest of the night, finishing with a whopping 271 all-purpose yards.
A 6-1, 197-pounder from Harrisburg, Pa., Simpson rushed 16 times for 119 yards and caught 13 passes for 152 yards. Running or receiving, he got the ball on 14 straight plays the last 14 on UVa's 15-play, 90-yard, game-winning drive. On the final three plays, he lunged for a first down on a four-yard reception on a fourth-and-four play, then he took a shovel pass to the goal line, and finally he went airborne for the game-winning score from the one.
Simpson was a SuperPrep All-American in high school, rated one of the top 15 running backs in the country. He picked Virginia over Alabama, and it's easy to ask why Groh hadn't been using him. In this case, it was hard to fault the coach.
Simpson had looked tentative in previous action and was relieved of his return duties. Reporters had joked about Groh's preseason contention that Simpson might be a "secret agent" this season. He had looked soft and not very fast, but he was none of those things at Maryland, where his 44-yard run before the half got the Cavaliers back into the game at 14-10.
It couldn't have come at a better time, because there is no indication that Peerman will return to action anytime soon. Ten days after the injury at Middle Tennessee, he was still on crutches and wearing a protective boot.
Virginia, which had not gained close to 400 yards in any of its first seven games and ranked 108th out of 119 Division I-A teams in total offense, out-gained the Terps 439-233. But this is a team that will go only as far as its defense allows, and coordinator Mike London's unit was up to the task at Byrd Stadium, holding Maryland to a single field goal over the final 41 minutes.
It was an opportunity for ESPN2 viewers to see UVa defensive end Chris Long at his finest. Long, who has been named to every midseason All-America team that has been selected, took over the game defensively and finished with 10 tackles, including 3.5 for loss, two sacks and two pass break-ups.
On his second sack, he pinned Maryland quarterback Chris Turner for a safety, which, depending on how you look at it, eventually prevented the game from going into overtime.
"Clearly, there's no better player in college football than Chris Long," said Groh, who earlier in the week had put Long in a class with the defensive player who always has stood at the top of his list, Lawrence Taylor.
Long's play overshadowed another strong night by inside linebacker Jon Copper, whose team-high 12 tackles included 2.5 for loss.
SEWELL MUST CARRY LOAD
The Cavaliers might have expected that they would have a stout defense this year, but the key for the rest of the season is the play of Sewell.
A sophomore, Sewell finished 22-of-35 for 243 yards against the Terrapins and was not intercepted. He doesn't have a lot of weapons, and the return of previously injured receiver Maurice Covington resulted only in a late interference call against the Terps, but Sewell is still maddeningly streaky.
After an 8-for-9 start at Maryland, where his only miss came on a drop, Sewell completed three of his last 10 passes to end the half. He had yielded a potentially disastrous interception against Connecticut on a bad read, and he frequently overthrows or underthrows receivers badly.
There are periodic calls for true freshman Peter Lalich, who had one pass attempt against Maryland, his first in four games. However, without a consistent deep threat in the receiver corps, Virginia needs all the weapons it can muster, and Sewell has the potential to hurt people with his feet.
Against Middle Tennessee, it was Sewell's execution of the option that ultimately may have made the difference, and he scrambled 18 yards on a third-and-seven play at a crucial point in the Connecticut game. There's no questioning his toughness; at Maryland, he was knocked senseless on the Cavaliers' final drive but missed only two plays.
With Sewell at the controls, Virginia's win streak now stands at seven. The schedule gets tougher now, and there is no game remaining that the Cavaliers can't lose at N.C. State, Wake at home, at Miami, Virginia Tech at home.
A lot of people didn't think UVa could win at Maryland, where the Cavaliers were a four-point underdog. It was the third game Virginia has won as an underdog, including its trip to North Carolina and a home game with Georgia Tech.
The Cavaliers also have won four games in which they trailed in the fourth quarter, no small feat. Whatever happens the rest of the way, it's been a remarkable run.