September 25, 2007
CHARLOTTESVILLE - Odd as it might seem to have Virginia sitting atop the ACC's Coastal Division at 3-0, fans and foes need to get used to it.
The Cavaliers just entered a three-game stretch in which they will face nothing but non-conference opposition - Pittsburgh at home, Middle Tennessee on the road, and Connecticut at home.
It's not unreasonable to think the Cavaliers will be 6-1 and bowl-eligible before they return to ACC play, but there also is the potential for a slip-up.
The Panthers crushed Virginia 38-13 in the 2006 opener at Pittsburgh, Middle Tennessee presents the on-going Cavaliers' challenge of winning on the road, and Connecticut moved to 4-0 with a 34-14 victory at Pitt.
Clearly, this is an improved Virginia team from the sorry outfit that was humbled by Wyoming 23-3 in the opener. A 22-20 victory at North Carolina was the Cavs' first as a road underdog since coach Al Groh's first year, 2001. UVa then was the underdog again when it beat Georgia Tech at Scott Stadium, 28-23.
There was a little more history involved in that one. Virginia now has beaten Tech eight straight times in Charlottesville, or since the Yellow Jackets ended UVa's hope of an undefeated 1990 season by rallying for a 41-38 victory.
The keys for Virginia in its three-game winning streak were the fast starts that enabled the Cavaliers to take leads of 14-0, 10-0 and 21-7, all by the end of the first quarter. Then, things started to bog down, and even Duke got as close as 17-13 by the fourth quarter.
The Cavaliers came closest to playing a complete game against Georgia Tech, but there was a huge momentum change in the second quarter when punt returner Vic Hall lost a fumble at his 30-yard line. The Yellow Jackets capitalized two plays later for a touchdown that made it 21-14.
Virginia had fallen behind 23-21 before getting a break at virtually the same spot on the field, when redshirt freshman Trey Womack recovered a fumble by Tech return man Andrew Smith. The Cavs needed only one play to score the go-ahead touchdown, on a 25-yard dart from quarterback Jameel Sewell to wide receiver Staton Jobe.
It was the fourth and last time Sewell had entered the game, three after being replaced by true freshman Peter Lalich. Lalich had yielded an interception after the Cavaliers had gotten into field goal territory and twice was sacked in his least impressive performance to date.
It was the best afternoon of the season for Sewell, a sophomore left-hander who was 16-of-25 for 177 yards. Moreover, Sewell was not sacked, an impressive accomplishment in the face of Tech's withering blitzes.
A great deal of credit goes to Virginia's offensive line, which also opened enough holes for junior tailback Cedric Peerman to rush for 138 yards against a Tech defense ranked seventh in the nation against the run. Peerman entered the game as the ACC's leading rusher, no small feat considering that he had seven rushes for 18 yards at Wyoming.
Peerman then had consecutive rushing games of 137, 186 and 138 yards and also proved to be a dependable receiver and return specialist. Offseason efforts to improve his flexibility have left him faster but, at 5-10 and 208 pounds, no less powerful.
Moreover, Peerman has been getting better while the passing game remains a work in progress. At the end of the UNC game, the Cavaliers lost their top wide receiver, Maurice Covington, to a wrist injury that had him in street clothes and a sling against Tech. "He won't be with us for a while," Groh said.
As a result, UVa's starting wide receivers against Tech were Jobe, a redshirt freshman walk-on, and converted cornerback Chris Gorham. It was the third quarter before the Cavaliers completed a pass to a wide receiver, true freshman Dontrelle Inman.
Inman also dropped a pass and Jobe had two glaring drops before his touchdown grab. Fortunately for the Cavaliers, they have a stable of fine tight ends, led by their two leading receivers after two games, seniors Tom Santi and Jonathan Stupar.
OGLETREE MIGHT RETURN SOON?
Virginia might have thought after the 2006 season that Kevin Ogletree would be its go-to guy in the wide receiver group. He had 53 receptions last year as a sophomore, but he suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament on the third day of spring practice.
Groh has made it clear from the spring that ACLs generally take a year to rehabilitate, but Ogletree has never given up on the hope of returning this season and recently started running routes. It is possible that he will be close to 100 percent by the time the Cavaliers return to the ACC wars, and if that were the case, it would be very tempting to use him.
Ogletree has a redshirt year at his disposal, and Groh still has the memory of Deyon Williams fresh in his mind. Williams suffered a broken foot early in Virginia's 2006 training camp and could have been redshirted, but Williams was eager to play and probably returned too early. After catching 58 passes in 2005, he had 10 last year. He'd certainly be valuable now.
Groh's other option is to use two players who started the season as tailbacks, Andrew Pearman and Mikell Simpson. In fact, Simpson has not lined up in the backfield this season and has been described by Groh as a "secret agent." Pearman actually played wide receiver in the first four games, and while he has seen some action as Peerman's backup, that role allowed for only 10 carries in the first four games.
Pearman had a 67-yard kickoff return at Wyoming but has been waiting for another big play. He was replaced by Hall after fumbling a punt that UVa recovered against UNC, but now Hall, who had a 67-yard punt return against Duke, has gotten shaky as well.
MANY SPECIAL TEAMS STRUGGLES
The Cavaliers have missed 2006 punt returner Mike Brown, who was injured in a seven-on-seven drill this summer and underwent ACL surgery that has required him to sit out 2007 as a redshirt. Brown also was expected to compete for the starting job at the corner spot Hall currently occupies.
Virginia has experienced problems with a number of its special teams, including punt and kickoff coverage and punt and kickoff returns.
In the case of the punts, it helps that senior Ryan Weigand was leading the country with an average of 49.4 yards going into the Tech game, in which he punted eight times for a 47.4-yard average, but he doesn't always get excellent hang time.
The Cavaliers have had no complaints with field goal specialist Chris Gould, who is 7-for-8 and had his lone miss when Duke blocked a chip shot. A 5-for-5 afternoon by Gould was critical at UNC, where he had a career-long 51-yarder to go with a disputed 48-yarder eventually ruled good after a challenge.