September 11, 2007
CHARLOTTESVILLE For a football coach whose job future was being debated widely, a quarterback controversy was a handy diversion.
Virginia hasn't started a true freshman quarterback since 1978, but that day may be coming.
Coach Al Groh had indicated that he would use 2007 signee Peter Lalich against Duke, but he may not have anticipated having Lalich on the field with the game on the line.
Lalich played the whole fourth quarter, leading the Cavaliers on a 15-play, 82-yard touchdown drive after the Blue Devils had closed the gap to 17-13.
Sophomore Jameel Sewell has started 11 straight games dating back to last season and, if you can believe Groh, Sewell will start in game three, at North Carolina. But patience with Sewell clearly is wearing thin.
Many UVa fans have a similar feeling about Groh, particularly in the aftermath of a 23-3 loss at Wyoming in the season opener. The team had not returned to Charlottesville before "Groh Must Go!" had been painted across the 50-foot span of Beta Bridge, a school landmark that links the main campus with the fraternity district.
The loss to Wyoming was the 10th in 11 road games for the Cavaliers, whose disparity between home and road winning percentages has been the largest in the ACC during Groh's tenure.
The Cowboys out-gained Virginia 471-110, so it was hard to blame the loss on one person. But Sewell was terrible in the opener, repeatedly overthrowing receivers and finishing 11-of-23 for 87 yards, with two interceptions.
Sewell had not thrown a touchdown pass in seven games until he connected with tight end Tom Santi on Virginia's first possession against lowly Duke.
Sewell did some good things against the Blue Devils, and he mirrors his team because he's much better at home than on the road. However, at an important juncture of the Duke game, Sewell inadvertently read the wrong play off his wrist chart and threw a five-yard pass on a third-and-14 play.
The offense was met with boos as it left the field, and Sewell did not return. Lalich entered the game with 57 seconds remaining in the third quarter and converted three third downs after the Cavs had made one of eight to that point.
Lalich lacks Sewell's running ability, but he is decisive in choosing his targets and quick in delivering the ball. He wears the same No. 7 as former UVa quarterback Matt Schaub, but his throwing style is more reminiscent of former N.C. State QB Philip Rivers, which is not a bad thing. Lalich seems to short-arm the ball but can get away with it because he's 6-5 and a listed 235 pounds, although he appears slimmer.
Groh talks frequently about a quarterback's ability to see the field, which has to be one of the issues about Sewell. Lalich earlier had replaced Sewell with 5:58 left in the second quarter and had directed the Cavaliers on a field goal drive before the half, but Groh said that Sewell was experiencing cramps prior to that move.
It was interesting to note that Sewell and Lalich both were awarded Duke game balls, possibly to make the former feel better after he was replaced.
It was hard for Virginia fans to get excited about a victory over a Duke team that now has lost 22 games in a row, but it was a start. Remember, it took a blocked field goal for eventual ACC champion Wake Forest to beat the Blue Devils in Winston-Salem last year.
QUESTIONS FOR DEFENSE, OFFENSE
The defense was improved against Duke, yielding 229 yards, but how could it have been much worse?
The 471 yards against Wyoming surpassed the Cavaliers' highest yield in a game last year, when they were scorched for 432 yards at East Carolina but did not give up 400 in another game and had an average of 289.5 yards per game.
Duke's only offensive points came on touchdown and field goal drives of 16 yards, both deriving from special-teams mistakes by Virginia. The Blue Devils also got a safety when UVa freshman Danny Aiken snapped a ball over punter Ryan Weigand's head and out of the end zone. It was one of three bad snaps by Aiken, who eventually was replaced.
Groh's chief complaint about the defensive play against Wyoming came after his review of the game film showed that UVa had hit Cowboys quarterback Karsten Sweet on 18 occasions. Three of those hits resulted in sacks, but the fact that Sweet was 25-of-34 for 243 yards spoke to the Cavaliers' continued inability to finish.
Preseason All-American defensive end Chris Long is one of the most respected defensive players in the ACC, but Long entered the season with only seven career sacks, as compared to 47 quarterback pressures. He already has four sacks this season, including two on the same late-game series against Duke, when, in a three-play span, he also drew a holding penalty.
Long, who has never made first-team All-ACC, seems poised to have his best season. The Virginia defense returns 10 starters from a unit that finished 17th in Division I-A last season, but the Wahoos had problems defending the deep ball last season and gave up a 44-yard completion to Wyoming, which also had a 49-yard touchdown run.
Still, Groh is quick to point out that "production in the passing game has been the central issue with this team for 13 games now."
That 13-game span, during which the Cavaliers were 5-8, coincided with the promotion of Groh's son Mike to offensive coordinator. The younger Groh had been a coach for only five years until that point, all at Virginia, although he did serve as an "offensive assistant" and "quality-control coach" in his father's one season (2000) as the head coach of the New York Jets.
Al Groh's first two offensive coordinators at Virginia were Bill Musgrave and Ron Prince, which gave Mike Groh hard acts to follow. Musgrave was the master of the trick play, but both he and Prince had offensive talents such as Matt Schaub, Heath Miller and Billy McMullen, as well as tailbacks Wali Lundy and Alvin Pearman.
The younger Groh does not have the offensive talent that his predecessors enjoyed, although the Cavaliers have an impressive tight end corps that had been largely forgotten until Lalich started playing. A season-ending injury to Kevin Ogletree robbed the Cavaliers of their one playmaker at the wide receiver spot, although true freshman Dontrelle Inman has flashed that kind of potential.
In reality, few of these father-son coaching arrangements work. Lou Holtz had to get rid of his son Skip at South Carolina. It now appears that was the best thing for Skip, who has done good work as the head coach at East Carolina. Bobby Bowden's son Jeff gave his resignation as Florida State's offensive coordinator before the end of the 2007 season.
If there is one unit that has not lived up to expectations over the past two seasons, it has been the UVa offensive line, which this season returned all five starters, not to mention three veteran tight ends. That's the group over which Mike Groh has the least direct control, but when things go wrong, the head coach's son is generally the easiest target.