November 6, 2007
CHARLOTTESVILLE No matter what happens the next two weeks, Virginia will be playing for a spot in the ACC championship game when it entertains Virginia Tech on Nov. 24.
The Cavaliers (8-2, 5-1 ACC) would be more than happy to leave Miami with a victory in the final game at the Orange Bowl, but that wouldn't sew up anything.
As long as Virginia Tech (7-2, 4-1) keeps winning, the Hokies will keep alive their playoff hopes. But even if the Cavaliers lose to Miami, they could do no worse than tie the Hokies with a win in the final game.
And, if that were to happen, Virginia would win the tie-breaker. The Cavaliers also have an open date before the Hokies come to town.
Virginia Tech still has games remaining with Florida State and Miami at home before traveling to Charlottesville, where the Cavaliers are 5-0 this season and 21-6 in ACC games during Coach Al Groh's seven seasons.
It hasn't been easy at Scott Stadium or anywhere else for the Cavaliers this year, not that they're complaining. A 17-16 victory over Wake Forest left them with five victories by either one or two points, a Division I record.
The Cavaliers were listed in ESPN.com's bottom 10 after a 29-24 loss at N.C. State, a not-so-subtle slap, considering that none of the other bottom 10 teams had more than two wins.
N.C. State's subsequent 19-16 overtime victory at Miami was the Wolfpack's third in a row and might lead some to believe that a five-point loss in Raleigh was not the height of embarrassment.
In that loss, Virginia had taken a 24-23 lead to start the fourth quarter of the game and, had that score held, maybe the Cavaliers would have four one-point victories instead of three. However, Virginia's inability to contain N.C. State wide receiver and one-time Cavalier recruiting target Donald Bowens proved to be its undoing.
Bowens repeatedly beat UVa true freshman Ras-I Dowling in the fourth quarter, but the Cavaliers think that Dowling can be a big (6-2, 180) as well as big-time corner. Dowling tied a UVa record with five pass break-ups against State and had interceptions against both the Wolfpack and Deacons.
Also, the Cavaliers lost quarterback Jameel Sewell to cramps with 7:09 remaining in the fourth quarter in Raleigh and had to insert true freshman Peter Lalich, who had taken two snaps one week earlier at Maryland Lalich's first action since Sept. 22.
Lalich entered the game for a third-and-10 play that failed to yield a first down and he wasn't much more successful in two subsequent series, finishing 2-for-8 and falling victim to three sacks.
PASSING GAME MAKING COMEBACK
Sewell can look awful or he can look special, frequently in the same game or the same half. After connecting on just one of his first eight pass attempts in the third quarter against Wake, Sewell had runs of 10 and 11 yards, as well as a 10-yard completion to Maurice Covington on fourth-and-2 on UVa's game-winning drive.
Sewell has passed for 200 yards or more in three straight games after not having as many as two consecutive 200-yard games previously in his career. A big factor in that has been the emergence as receivers of sophomore running back Mikell Simpson and junior wideout Covington.
Covington broke the third metacarpal in his left hand during UVa's 22-20 victory at North Carolina on Sept. 15 and did not return until the Maryland game Oct. 20. He did not catch a pass in that game, but he drew an interference penalty in the Cavaliers' winning drive.
He caught three balls for 45 yards at State, then had four catches for a career-high 76 yards and his first career touchdown against Wake. More than that, he did not drop a ball on an afternoon when his colleagues could not hold onto it, and he provides Sewell with a big target at 6-4 and 218 pounds.
Simpson, who came out of nowhere with a 271 all-purpose night at Maryland, hasn't been able to reprise his 100-yard rushing night against the Terps, but he now has 25 receptions in the past three games. It couldn't have come at a more critical time, given the continued injury problems of early season ACC rushing leader Cedric Peerman.
RUNNING GAME IS STILL SHAKY
Hardly anybody noticed Peerman limp off the field under on Oct. 6 at Middle Tennessee State, but he has now missed four full games and most of a fifth. Groh, while acknowledging only that Peerman has a ligament injury in his right foot, does concede that Peerman might not return this season.
Virginia has failed to rush for 100 yards in each of its last two games, which doesn't make sense, given the talent and experience that the Cavaliers have on their offensive line. Sewell has had a career-high 43 pass attempts in each of the Cavaliers' last two games, and Lalich's stint gave them 51 attempts at State.
Shovel passes and screens to Simpson aren't much different from runs, but the Cavaliers aren't getting much between the tackles, as they were with Peerman. At 6-3 and 234 pounds, redshirt freshman Keith Payne is a big back, but not a punishing back, at least not in the Peerman mold. Payne did not play against Wake.
Nobody ever said this Virginia team would win with offense and it hasn't, prevailing in three games when it has failed to score 20 points (17-16 over Connecticut, 18-17 at Maryland and 17-16 over Wake). And, don't forget the luck factor. Wake's Sam Swank hadn't missed a field goal under 50 yards all year until he came to Scott Stadium, where he missed two of them.
On the other hand, senior defensive end Chris Long was the best defensive player in the ACC through nine games, racking up 18 tackles for loss and 12 sacks despite persistent double-teams. He also has ranked among the ACC leaders in pass break-ups, a defensive category normally reserved for defensive backs.
Who knows that Virginia will even get a second All-ACC player? Tight end Tom Santi was a preseason first-team All-ACC selection, but Santi was injured on the Cavaliers' first offensive play at Maryland and essentially missed two full games. Fellow tight end Jon Stupar has replaced him as UVa's receiving leader.
Given all the close wins, there is still a lot of reluctance to give UVa its due. Groh has alienated a few people over the years, but through 10 games, he at least belongs in the conversation for ACC coach of the year. More important, he has stabilized a program at a crossroads going into the 2007 season and made UVa football relevant again.