September 27, 2005
CHARLOTTESVILLE -- When people studied Virginia's football schedule before the season, it was hard not to shudder at the month of October: at Maryland, at Boston College, Florida State, at North Carolina. Most rational fans would take 2-2 and move on to November.
Of course, UVa coach Al Groh certainly can't allow himself to think that way. Besides, the one-week-at-a-time approach will work just fine with the Cavaliers (3-0, 1-0 ACC) heading to College Park, where Maryland again looks vulnerable.
Maryland's 22-12 victory at Wake Forest was no more conclusive than UVa's 38-7 triumph over Duke, but the Cavaliers have some injury issues hanging over them, and not just the status of 2004 All-ACC linebacker Ahmad Brooks, who did not play in the team's first three games.
Sources with some knowledge of the situation said that Brooks, a strong-headed former prep All-American whose father played in the NFL, is calling the shots on this one. He reportedly practiced one day leading up to the Duke game, but until he feels comfortable he isn't going to play.
Brooks thought he might need arthroscopic knee surgery when he underwent an offseason examination in which it was determined that a bone in one of his knees had deteriorated. From all indications, doctors felt they were successful in regenerating bone growth, but it's a scary proposition.
In Brooks' absence, long-time linebacker partner Kai Parham emerged as a big-time player, racking up three sacks in one quarter in a 27-24 win at Syracuse. Parham had a game-high 12 tackles against Duke, two for loss, and would have gotten his fifth sack of the season had Blue Devils quarterback Mike Schneider not fumbled the ball forward.
Aside from Brooks, UVa's defense has been injury-free, but the offense sustained two rather serious blows when All-ACC left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson was helped from the field with 1:20 remaining in the first quarter and fifth-year center Brian Barthelmes followed him to the bench moments later. Neither returned to the game.
Barthelmes rode a stationary bike for most of the remainder of the game, an indication that UVa might have been tempted to use him under dire circumstances. Ferguson, meanwhile, had an injury to his left knee but was able to walk to the locker room under his own power.
Some comparisons were made to the injury suffered last year by defensive end Chris Canty, whose torn ACL derailed Virginia's season after a 4-0 start. However, it was apparent right away that Canty had something seriously wrong with him. On his way off the field at the end of the game, Ferguson told concerned on-lookers that he would be fine.
At the very least, Ferguson's streak of consecutive starts has been threatened. With 42 apiece, Ferguson and defensive end Brennan Schmidt are on pace to break the school record of 47. (It's 48 if you count former UVa punter Will Brice.) Schmidt struggled through the 2004 season with labrum and thumb problems that required offseason surgery, but apparently he's had no negative after-effects.
In Ferguson's absence, four-year starter Brad Butler moved from right tackle to left tackle, anchoring a unit that included true freshman Branden Albert at left guard, sophomore Jordy Lipsey at center, sophomore Marshal Ausberry or true freshman Eugene Monroe at right guard, and sophomore Eddie Pinigis at right tackle.
Many of those players will have to pick up the slack next year, when Ferguson, Barthelmes and Butler will have departed, and the early returns were favorable. The Cavaliers heard boos at halftime as they left the field with a 10-0 lead, but they responded with four touchdowns in less than 16 minutes to start the second half.
Williams, Santi Among Highlights
If people want to talk about a player who will be hard to replace, it should be quarterback Marques Hagans, who against Duke threw four touchdown passes for the first time at any level. The only time Hagans had thrown three TD passes in a college game was in 2003 at Western Michigan, where he made the first start of his career in place of an injured Matt Schaub and then was back at wide receiver for the next game.
Hagans was intercepted five times in the first two games -- as many interceptions as he yielded in 251 attempts last year -- but there was no problem with his accuracy versus Duke. He completed 13 of 23 passes against the Blue Devils, and that was with five dropped balls, including four in a row during the first quarter.
"If anybody is questioning his accuracy," Groh said after the Duke game, "it was not the head coach or the coaching staff or his teammates."
Nevertheless, the ball sailed on Hagans on several occasions at Syracuse, one on a ball that was intercepted and the second on a pass over the middle to Deyon Williams, who was alone at the Orange five-yard line.
Williams had one of the drops in the first quarter against Duke, but he came back with four receptions for 49 yards and two touchdowns. That marked the first two-TD game by a UVa wide receiver since 2002. Williams, who had 19 receptions during the 2004 season, had 16 catches through three games this year.
The coaches were so disenchanted with Williams last year that he was benched for the MPC Computers Bowl. He was replaced by true freshman Bud Davis, who had worked at defensive back for most of the season. Williams, who played in the game but did not catch a pass, apparently got the message and rededicated himself in the offseason.
Williams, who didn't turn 20 until the day of the Duke game, has never lacked for athletic ability. He has the speed of a former trackman and, at 6-3 and 188 pounds, good size. (In fact, he may be bigger than 188; UVa has not furnished updated heights and weights.) He's also starting to get some toughness to him.
Hagans has been looking for Williams, and he's been looking for Tom Santi, a 6-5, 225-pound (but probably bigger) sophomore tight end who caught a 46-yard touchdown pass from Hagans on a seam route that was one of Heath Miller's favorites. Santi was not hit on the play, but he was coughing up blood as he returned to the bench and probably will be the object of some testing this week.
Even without Miller, who would have been a fifth-year senior this fall if he had not made himself available for the 2005 NFL draft, UVa is blessed with tight ends. Newcomer John Phillips (6-6, 240) had been on the field for one play from scrimmage when he caught an 11-yard TD pass from Hagans, dragging three Duke defenders into the end zone.
After rushing for 348 yards against Duke in 2004, when Alvin Pearman went for 223, the Cavaliers had only 110 this time. Wali Lundy, making his return after missing most of two games with a sprained foot, started but rushed for only 20 yards on 10 carries.
There is talent behind him in the form of junior Michael Johnson and redshirt freshman Cedric Peerman. Peerman (different spelling, no relation) looks to be the Cavaliers' tailback of the future, but Johnson, a speedster, remains a big-play threat. He had a 70-yard touchdown run against Syracuse and a 68-yard kickoff return against Duke.
Johnson occasionally lands in Groh's doghouse because of his fumbling, a trait he has shared this season with fullback Jason Snelling, who took a short pass in Duke territory in the second quarter, only to have the ball fly out of his hands as he headed upfield.
UVa ranked 114th out of 117 Division I-A teams in turnover margin after two games but had only the one turnover against the Blue Devils. On the flip side, the Cavaliers forced four turnovers, three of them on intercepted passes.
From all indications, the shift of defensive coordinator Al Golden to the secondary has been a good move. The defensive backs are tackling better, and they do not hesitate to turn around and check for the ball on long passes, a deficiency that grated on fans in the past.