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Schedule, Defense Support 5-0 Chatter

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff

  September 6, 2004

CHARLOTTESVILLE — No one really believed that Virginia would lose its season-opening football game with Temple, but it was the Cavaliers' only road game in the first five.

Now Virginia's mission is to hold serve at home as it goes through a welcoming stretch — North Carolina, Akron, Syracuse and Clemson — that could leave the Cavaliers at 5-0 prior to an Oct. 16 visit to Florida State.

Virginia has stumbled in the second week during each of the past two seasons, although trips to FSU and South Carolina were more danger-filled than the mid-September visit from the Tar Heels, who are seeking their first victory in Charlottesville since 1981. Since then, every other long-standing ACC program, plus one of the newcomers (Virginia Tech), has won at Scott Stadium.

In the week leading up to the UNC game, UVa no doubt was reminded of the teams' matchup in 2002. Carolina took a 21-0 first-half lead, only to lose quarterback Darian Durant, a blow from which the Tar Heels did not recover that day or for the rest of their (3-9) season. Now Durant returns with his once-broken wrist intact, fresh off a 49-38 shootout with William and Mary that at least reflected some of the Tar Heels' offensive potential, although he might find a little more resistance from the Cavaliers than he did from their Old Dominion academic rival.

An improved pass rush was one of Virginia's chief offseason goals, and the Cavaliers got it done in a 44-14 rout of Temple. The Wahoos were credited with five sacks and would have had a sixth if the Owls hadn't been able to recover and advance a fumble caused when defensive end Chris Canty stripped quarterback Walter Washington.

As opposed to 2002, when then-freshman Darryl Blackstock was the Cavaliers' chief — some might say only — pass-rushing threat, Virginia now comes at quarterbacks from various angles. Canty has become a marvelous college player, tall and powerful at 6-7 and 295 pounds, and the college programs in his native North Carolina should be embarrassed that none of them recruited him out of Charlotte in the 2000 signing class.

Canty had nine tackles against Temple, two for loss, on a day when no other Virginia player had more than five tackles. (UVa had 81 offensive plays to the Owls' 59.) Linebacker Ahmad Brooks was one of three UVa players with five tackles, including 1.5 sacks, which wasn't bad for a non-starter who began the day as a kickoff returner.

Groh had termed the use of Brooks as a kickoff returner a "coach's play toy," but when Brooks rambled 40 yards with the opening kickoff, he looked more like a weapon than a toy. Brooks stands 6-4 and, at 260 pounds, admittedly can't stop gaining weight. What's more implausible than a linebacker returning kickoffs is the notion that this kickoff returner might grow into a defensive end at the next level.

Brooks is an interesting case in that he might be UVa's most gifted athlete but did not start at linebacker against the Owls. Apparently, that decision was made even before Brooks left the team for two days during the preseason to address undisclosed "personal issues." Brooks had been running with the second team since the start of preseason drills, and that didn't change when fifth-year senior Rich Bedesem (a Pennsylvania product) joined Kai Parham as UVa's inside linebacker tandem for the first series in Philadelphia.

"I'm not stupid enough not to play him a lot of the time," said Groh in reference to Brooks, who apparently did something over the summer, almost certainly non-football-related, that caused Groh to drop him to the second team. All sorts of rumors have been circulated, but it may have been something as innocuous as inattention to conditioning workouts. On a team of veterans gearing for one last hurrah, Brooks' workout habits aren't exactly legendary.

While the pass rush took its toll on Washington, identified as the Big East's best athlete in Street & Smith's preseason annual, there were some breakdowns in a UVa secondary that returns only one player who started as many as half the games last year, safety Jermaine Hardy. And Hardy's start against Temple came less than nine months after reconstructive knee surgery.

Hardy and converted running back Marquis Weeks had an uneventful day at safety, as did sophomore and first-time starter Marcus Hamilton at one of the corner spots. Temple, which trailed 30-0 at the half, beat the other corner, Tony Franklin, for completions of 45 and 26 yards to set up its two second-half touchdowns.

By the time Temple scored for the second time, UVa was ahead 44-7 and had a defensive unit on the field that included a heavy sprinkling of second-teamers. That included end Chris Long, who was one of four true freshmen who got in the game. Long is the son of Howie Long, the NFL Hall of Famer and popular network TV analyst.

Receiving Corps Causing Concern

Offensively, Virginia rushed for 286 yards, fulfilling senior Alvin Pearman's prediction that UVa would "pound the rock," and the Cavaliers went over the 500-yard mark in total offense.

However, they suffered a troublesome loss when sophomore wide receiver Fontel Mines left the game before halftime with what Groh described as "a long-term injury," probably to a shoulder, although that was not immediately clarified. The Virginia coach has a long-standing policy of making only murky comments on most injury matters, although in this case a final diagnosis may not have been known immediately after the game.

Who's Fontel Mines? That might be the natural response of anyone who's not a diehard Virginia fan. Mines had two receptions for 29 yards against Temple before his injury, but the more pertinent observation might be, "What's Fontel Mines?"

Mines entered the season as one of just five UVa scholarship receivers, only four of whom made the trip. The Cavaliers lost top returning wideout Ottowa Anderson to an academic suspension, and the second-leading wideout among returnees was Marques Hagans, who's now the starting quarterback.

If senior Michael McGrew and sophomore Deyon Williams hold up, McGrew after a broken foot caused him to miss the 2003 season, UVa should be OK. Redshirt freshman Emmanuel Byers had a nice catch and run against Temple and definitely has skills, but UVa has little beyond that. Speedster Ron Morton did not make the trip to Philadelphia, and the two-deep for Temple included walk-on Imhotep Durham, a senior who had not played in a college game before getting some second-half action against the Owls. Durham had been awarded a scholarship earlier in the week.

Actually, Pearman began his UVa career as a wide receiver, and Lundy was an all-state wideout during in his junior year in high school, but Groh steadfastly has rejected the notion of Pearman, in particular, playing wide receiver this season. He could point out that Lundy caught 58 passes in 2002 and Pearman had 63 receptions in 2003, so they obviously don't need to be playing wide receiver to be catching the ball.

The only area in which Virginia was less than sharp against Temple was in the placement game, where Connor Hughes missed his first extra-point attempt since 2002 and was wide left on field goal attempts from 44 and 49 yards. Hughes missed only two field goals during the entire 2003 season, and nobody expects a huge dropoff.