September 13, 2006
CHARLOTTESVILLE -- Take 'em any way you can get 'em. At least for the foreseeable future, that has to be the motto of Virginia's football team.
"We look around and see what happened to Colorado (in a loss to Division I-AA Montana State), and I'm told what happened to another team in this conference today," coach Al Groh said after a 13-12 overtime victory over Wyoming. "What we've learned is, you better be ready to bring your best game every week."
Groh's reference was to N.C. State, a 20-17 loser to visiting Akron. The Zips play in the Mid-American Conference, the same league that furnishes Virginia's next opponent, Western Michigan.
"Our team, in the circumstances that we're in, we feel strongly that we have a chance to put a good season together without being a dominant team," Groh said. "It's about finding a way to win."
The Cavaliers were lucky to beat Wyoming, or at least lucky to beat the Cowboys in the first overtime, when Wyoming freshman Aric Goodman missed an extra-point kick that could have forced a second OT. Both teams had failed to score a touchdown until the first overtime, when UVa struck first on a 25-yard touchdown pass from Kevin McCabe to wideout Kevin Ogletree.
McCabe, a redshirt junior with 17 career passing attempts, had entered the game with 12:58 remaining in the fourth quarter. By that point, Groh had seen enough of Christian Olsen, who was 12-of-21 for 89 yards.
Olsen wasn't single-handedly responsible for UVa's inability to score a touchdown to that point, but the Cavaliers needed a spark, having squandered a chance to take the lead after a punt blocked by Josh Zidenberg enabled them to take possession at the Wyoming 14.
McCabe had played for one series in a 38-13 loss at Pittsburgh, where his last pass was returned 78 yards for a touchdown. The Panthers also returned one of Olsen's passes for a TD, and there wasn't much faith in any of the UVa quarterbacks going into the Wyoming game.
UVa's worst fears were confirmed as the offense gained only 206 yards against the Cowboys, 181 in regulation. But McCabe looked better than Olsen, completing eight of 13 passes for 85 yards. His game-winning pass was the best ball thrown by any of the quarterbacks, including Wyoming's Jacob Doss.
McCabe's relief outing was the stuff of which quarterback controversies are made, but Groh wanted no part of it.
"We're not going down that road," Groh said. "That's something we're going to address (internally). We decide each week who our quarterback will be, and the quarterbacks will know first, the team will know second, and everybody else will know third."
Based on Groh's comments, it shouldn't be a foregone conclusion that McCabe will move ahead of Olsen, a transfer from Notre Dame who became a starter for the first time in his fifth year.
"We made sure to tell Chris when he came out that we weren't down on him," Groh said. "When (Tom) Glavine or the Big Unit or those guys get knocked out, you put a relief pitcher in for them. It didn't mean they were going to miss their next start."
If Olsen does keep the starting job, look for Groh to have a much quicker hook. He anointed Olsen as the No. 1 quarterback in January, but that was as much an effort to avoid controversy as it was an endorsement of Olsen. However, from all accounts, Olsen was the most impressive UVa quarterback in spring practice and during the preseason.
OFFENSIVE LINE LEADS PROBLEMS
Certainly, if Virginia is to have any chance at a winning season, it will need better quarterback play. But this is a team that has a lot of problems offensively, starting with the line.
Only left guard Branden Albert and right guard Marshal Ausberry were starters last year, and, by the opening game, Ausberry had lost his job to Ian-Yates Cunningham.
Eddie Pinigis had been projected as the starter at right tackle, after starting three games in 2005. But when Pinigis noticed that he had dropped below redshirt freshman Will Barker on the depth chart, he requested a late August meeting with Groh. Within 24 hours, Pinigis was gone, headed to Division I-AA Liberty to play for former UVa assistant Danny Rocco.
When Barker struggled against Pittsburgh, it gave credence to comments made by Pinigis' mother, who said Groh had never liked his son and had been angling for two years to move Barker ahead of him. For his part, Eddie Pinigis said he had an open mind going into the meeting with Groh but got no indication that he was in the Cavaliers' plans.
On the left side, UVa may have thought it was set with Albert at guard and Eugene Monroe at tackle, although Monroe was coming off surgery to repair a dislocated kneecap suffered in the spring. Monroe was rated the No. 1 prospect in the country by SuperPrep in 2004 and should get more comfortable with his knee as the season progresses, but he hasn't been very good so far.
The defense failed to live up to expectations against Pittsburgh, but two of the Panthers' five touchdowns came on interception returns. Two others came on pass completions of 72 and 78 yards, leaving Virginia to wonder if it might be decent defensively if it could avoid big plays.
Aside from gains of 29 and 31 yards by Wyoming on back-to-back fake punts, the Cavaliers did not allow a gain of more than 20 yards. The only time the Cowboys came close to scoring a touchdown in regulation, Virginia got an end zone fumble recovery from opportunistic cornerback Marcus Hamilton, who also had the 11th interception of his career.
"That game right there, that's the kind of game we've been trying to have here for six years," Groh said. "That is, to get our defense playing so we can win a game on defense. On a team that's going to do something, during the course of the year, there is a time when every one of your units has to do something, whether it's score 40 points or return a kick for a touchdown. That was a terrific job by our defense."
Groh also had to like the performance of junior Chris Gould, the first UVa kicker since the 1970s to handle placements, punts and kickoffs. Gould averaged more than 45 yards on five punts, reached the end zone with all three of his kickoffs and had two field goals, his third and fourth of the season.
Wyoming, less than two years removed from a Sun Bowl victory over UCLA, might be pretty good. Or the Cowboys might be the team that lost its last six games last year after a 4-1 start. Either way, it was a win for a Virginia team that might not have many of them.
After entertaining Western Michigan, Virginia will visit Georgia Tech on Sept. 21 for a Thursday night game that wide receiver and top offensive weapon Deyon Williams has targeted for his return from preseason surgery. It will be a daunting task for a UVa team that has lost 15 straight games as a road underdog, because the Cavaliers certainly will be the underdog in Atlanta.