September 26, 2006
CHARLOTTESVILLE -- There was little doubt among people who watched Virginia in its first four games that the Cavaliers were capable of losing any of their remaining contests, including the upcoming one at Duke.
The Blue Devils may have lost 11 consecutive games over the past two seasons, but when a team can't move the football and is averaging exactly one touchdown per outing, there are no givens.
A 24-7 loss at Georgia Tech wasn't as ugly as it could have been. After all, the Cavaliers have lost 16 straight games as a road underdog. But a 17-10 home loss to Western Michigan may have represented the low point of coach Al Groh's six-year tenure.
The Western Michigan affair also may be viewed as the day Groh committed to redshirt freshman Jameel Sewell as his starting quarterback. His decision to insert Sewell to start the second half wasn't as unpopular as his decision to stay with him throughout a scoreless second half.
Going into the Duke game, Sewell had been on the field for 20 possessions and produced exactly one touchdown, that coming on a 29-yard drive at Georgia Tech that was aided by a facemask penalty.
Virginia fans would have preferred that Groh stay with junior Kevin McCabe, who had thrown the winning touchdown pass in a 13-12 overtime victory over Wyoming and then directed the Cavaliers on an 83-yard touchdown drive -- their longest of the season -- against Western Michigan.
McCabe was intercepted twice against Western Michigan, the second resulting in his benching for the remainder of the day. The Broncos scored their first touchdown after returning McCabe's first interception to the UVa 21, then returned the second interception 34 yards for their only other TD.
It was the third interception a UVa opponent had returned for a score in three games, but the interception came off a deflection and at a time when McCabe was 13-of-15 for the day. More surprising than his benching against Western Michigan was his demotion to third string for the Georgia Tech game.
"I'm not a Kevin-basher; I'm not mad at Kevin," said Groh, who couldn't have proven it by his actions. "I don't quite see it the same way, apparently, as everybody else does.
"Kevin had one drive the other day, which was a very good drive, and I'm pleased for it and I was happy for him and I appreciate what he did. Frankly, the two negative plays outweighed it."
In a Roanoke.com poll prior to the Western Michigan game, 53 percent of the respondents said they wanted to see McCabe start. Second in the poll was a player who doesn't even play quarterback at Virginia, Vic Hall, who set state records for passing and total offense as a quarterback at Gretna (Va.) High.
The clamors for Hall didn't die down when word got out that Hall had been playing quarterback on the scout team prior to the Georgia Tech trip, impersonating Yellow Jackets quarterback Reggie Ball.
"He's fast, he's athletic," UVa linebacker Antonio Appleby said, "and there's a lot of things that Ball can do that Vic can do, also."
The knock against Hall has been his height. He's listed at 5-9, but he's not much shorter than Marques Hagans, whose playmaking ability was responsible for multiple UVa wins over the past two seasons. In fact, people say they have seen Hagans and Hall standing back to back, and that Hall may be taller.
When Groh met with the media in his regularly appointed Tuesday news conference, he first showed surprise at the suggestion that Hall might have been working at quarterback. When informed that several players had mentioned Hall's stint at QB, Groh countered by saying it had been for only 10 plays.
OFFENSIVE LINE AMONG MESSES
Kansas State coach Ron Prince was the UVa assistant who took Hall's commitment in the fall of 2003, but Prince was still the Cavaliers' offensive coordinator in the fall of 2005, when Hall was moved to cornerback. Mike Groh was the UVa assistant who recruited Sewell.
The younger Groh was elevated to coordinator after Prince left in December, and, to this point, Prince has been missed more than anticipated. For one thing, he coached the UVa offensive linemen for all five of his years in Charlottesville, and that unit has been a mess this fall.
It didn't help that first-round NFL draft pick D'Brickashaw Ferguson and fellow veterans Brad Butler and Brian Barthelmes used up their eligibility. Then, Al Groh gave the brush-off to returnee Eddie Pinigis, who asked for a meeting with Groh after a late August demotion to the second team.
Pinigis transferred to Division I-AA Liberty when he said Groh gave him a sense that he no longer was part of the plans. A more nurturing approach might have been smarter. Groh was left with only three tackles, including Eugene Monroe, whose lack of mobility after offseason surgery led to his benching after three games.
Virginia was ranked 117th out of 119 Division I-A teams in rushing after three games and wasn't likely to make a big jump after rushing for 51 yards against the Yellow Jackets. On top of that, the Cavaliers were 108th in passing efficiency, and that was before Sewell went 15-of-31 for 115 yards and was intercepted twice.
There seemed to be little question that Sewell would remain at quarterback and, in all fairness, he did do some good things in the second half, when he completed eight of 10 passes during one stretch, including five in a row. He might have done better than that if veteran receivers such as Fontel Mines could hang onto the ball.
Groh likes Sewell's maneuverability and thinks he has a big-time arm, but the Cavaliers don't have a deep threat in the absence of 2005 leading receiver Deyon Williams, who had preseason surgery for a broken foot. Groh has indicated that there is a possibility that Williams will take the redshirt year he has at his disposal, but the Cavaliers usually have not been that forward-thinking.
If Virginia had done a better job of redshirting earlier in Groh's tenure, maybe this year's team would be in better shape. The 1-3 start is the worst by the Cavaliers since 1986, which was the fifth season for another guy who didn't embrace redshirting, George Welsh.
Callers to Groh's radio show have asked about the exact nature of "the plan" that he had been talking about. Part of that plan became apparent after the Georgia Tech game, when he spoke of his commitment to Sewell.
"We knew well back in time that this was what it was going to come to," said Groh, who had not wavered in his preseason support of fifth-year senior QB Christian Olsen, "and now we're there and we're going to follow it through."