October 20, 2003 CHARLOTTESVILLE In its breakthrough 9-5 season in 2002, Virginia won six games when it was the underdog. If the Cavaliers are to make anything of this season, they'll have to do it as an underdog again.
Virginia certainly didn't take advantage of its perceived advantage in the first half of this season. The Cavaliers were the favorites in their first six games and went 4-2.
How many more times will they be favored this season? This week against Troy State at home. Probably on Nov. 22, when Georgia Tech comes to Scott Stadium. UVa usually beats Tech in Charlottesville, although the Yellow Jackets have been better than expected, with victories over Auburn, N.C. State and Wake Forest.
In all fairness, Virginia was not a big favorite in any of its first six games, nor was it a heavy underdog against Florida State, a game the Cavaliers could have won.
The Seminoles out-gained Virginia 385-321 in a 19-14 victory, but it was mistakes that killed the Cavaliers. An interception and a fumble both led to Xavier Beitia field goals, and a Kevin Bailey snap zoomed past surprised quarterback Matt Schaub on a crucial third-and-three play midway through the fourth quarter.
Virginia had just one first down and 11 yards of total offense in the fourth quarter, when Florida State got the ball after a UVa punt with 6:19 remaining and never gave it back. The Cavaliers had not distinguished themselves in the fourth quarter one week earlier against Clemson, when the Tigers turned a 17-10 deficit into a 24-17 lead. UVa also had a disastrous fourth quarter in a 31-7 loss at South Carolina earlier this season.
Opposites: Punting, Kicking Games
A common thread running through the Florida State and Clemson losses was the lousy punting of sophomore Tom Hagan. Against the Seminoles, Hagan punted eight times; the longest effort went for 31 yards, with four punts under 30. He had five punts of 32 yards or less against Clemson.
Hagan was eighth in the ACC in punting as a freshman in 2002, when his 36.7-yard average was the lowest by a UVa punter in 29 years. The Florida State game dropped him to 34.4, which, if he maintains that pace, would be the Cavaliers' lowest since 1961.
Virginia coach Al Groh has been designating kickoff specialist Kurt Smith as his backup punter, but in reality Hagan hasn't had any competition. Sean Johnson, who punted in the 2002 spring game while Hagan was still in high school, left UVa after that semester for a two-year Mormon mission. Johnson will return to Charlottesville in the fall and could challenge for the starting job, but that won't help the Cavaliers this year.
In the week leading up to the Florida State game, Groh said walk-on Noah Greenbaum had caught the coaches' eye, and he got a longer look in the days leading up to the Troy State game. Greenbaum was taking snaps during the FSU game, but Groh gave no indication afterward that he had considered making a change.
It was interesting to hear Hagan say he welcomed the competition and enjoyed the interaction with younger punters in the program. Virginia special teams coach Corwin Brown is a former NFL defensive back who came to the position with little background in kicking mechanics.
It should be noted that sophomore placekicker Connor Hughes has been as unerring as Hagan has been erratic. Hughes is 10-for-10 on field goals this year, including a 33-yarder at Clemson that gave UVa a short-lived 27-24 lead to start the overtime.
Kudos To Pearman, Miller, Schaub
The Cavaliers went into the Clemson game with the ACC's top rushing offense and the leading individual rusher (Wali Lundy), but they had game-long problems in short-yardage situations.
After picking up 53 yards on the ground at Clemson, UVa had minus-five rushing yards against Florida State. That included a 17-yard loss on the ill-fated, late-game snap, as well as a 12-yard loss on a sack. Moreover, Lundy was not in uniform after suffering a sprained ankle in the third quarter against Clemson. Junior Alvin Pearman, sixth in the ACC in rushing, took his place.
Of the 63 offensive plays Virginia had against FSU, 54 were passes and another two were called passes. Pearman had seven carries for 24 yards but shattered a school record and tied a school record by catching 16 passes (for 134 yards and one touchdown). With anything resembling a normal playload in the fourth quarter, when Virginia had just six offensive plays, Pearman might have finished in the 20s.
Pearman had a total of eight receptions in the first six games this year, but he is a quality receiver who came into the season with 46 career catches, even with an injury that caused him to miss five games last season. Lundy and Pearman had 58 and 21 receptions, respectively, in 2002.
Lundy had only nine receptions in the first six games, but Pearman's evening against Florida State will give opposing defensive coordinators an extra area to consider. It also might take some of the pressure off tight end Heath Miller, who had a career-high nine receptions for 77 yards against FSU.
Miller, a redshirt sophomore, had 17 catches in the last two games and 39 for the season. His eight-yard touchdown reception against FSU gave him 13 scoring catches for his career, a record for ACC tight ends. Miller, a converted quarterback, accomplished that feat in his 21st game. Also an outstanding blocker, he's by far the most complete tight end in the conference and certainly deserving of All-America consideration.
An early season injury knocked Schaub out of the Heisman Trophy race, in all probability, but his accuracy this year (72.5 percent) is even higher than it was during the 2002 season, after which he was named ACC player of the year. Schaub completed 68.9 percent of his passes last year.
Schaub's accuracy has remained high despite a group of wide receivers that lacks speed and either dropped passes or let the ball go through their hands on six of Schaub's first seven incompletions against FSU. Even the normally sure-handed Miller had an uncharacteristic drop.
Said Florida State coach Bobby Bowden: The quarterback. Get rid of him. Too good. Pro material all the way. He was so successful with that other stuff, why use the running game? He was just killing us with passes.
Hoops: Up-Tempo, Without Clark
Virginia was down to three post players, two of them freshmen, in the absence of 6-7 junior Jason Clark.
Clark is enrolled in classes and is listed on the Cavaliers' roster, but he's not practicing with the team and is not expected to play until the end of the first semester at the earliest. Clark apparently has academic issues to take care of, although nobody is talking for the record. According to some interpretations of federal law, school officials are not permitted to comment on athletes' academic or medical status without their permission.
Virginia earlier lost its top returning rebounder, Nick Van Der Laan, who transferred to an NAIA program in his native California. Van Der Laan had expressed reservations about playing time in light of speculation that Virginia will switch this season to a four-quick offense, featuring one post man (usually slimmed-down Elton Brown) and four perimeter players.
Coach Pete Gillen essentially confirmed such speculation on media day, indicating that the Cavaliers wanted to return to the up-tempo style that helped them enjoy some success a few years ago. Gillen previously said UVa needed to find more post players and shooters, to help the team become more effective in half-court situations and on the glass, but he later said a quicker pace was more true to his long-held basketball philosophy.