October 25, 2006
CHARLOTTESVILLE -- If Virginia is to emerge from the 2006 football season with any measure of respectability, it is clear that the Cavaliers will need to restore their home-field advantage at Scott Stadium.
In what figured to be a challenging season to begin with, the Cavaliers' inability to win at home left them in a hole from which they are unlikely to recover fully.
However, it appears that UVa's final two games in Charlottesville, starting with N.C. State, are winnable. The Cavaliers' final home game will be Nov. 18 against Miami, and who knows in what state the Hurricanes will be at that time?
UVa's other remaining games will be Nov. 4 at Florida State and Nov. 25 at Virginia Tech, against opponents that have dropped out of the Top 25 but in venues that generally have not been very favorable to the Cavaliers.
So, after a 23-0 home victory over North Carolina, the Cavs can't count on sustaining their recovery on the road. Anybody looking at UVa's schedule before the season could see that a successful campaign hinged on a three-game October homestand against Maryland, UNC and N.C. State.
Indeed, if Virginia had been able to hold onto a 20-0 halftime lead against Maryland, the Cavaliers (3-5, 2-2 ACC) would be tied for first in the Coastal Division. That shouldn't have been too much to ask, but what followed was the biggest collapse of the six-year Al Groh era and a 28-26 loss.
Nobody could have blamed the fans if they had turned sour on Groh and Co., but it hasn't happened, at least at the turnstiles. There were areas of Scott Stadium where the crowd was somewhat patchy for the UNC game, but the crowd of 56,632 wasn't much under the 59,000-60,000 announced for three other home games.
Who could have blamed the fans for staying home only five days after the Maryland game and with the threat of rain, but the fans seem to have come to grips with the fact that UVa is in a rebuilding mode. There was very little booing after the Maryland game, at least when compared to the mood following a 17-10 home loss to Western Michigan in the season's third week.
Disenchantment with Groh may have hit its peak Oct. 9 when, on his weekly radio call-in show after a 31-21 loss at East Carolina, he fielded six negative calls. That was the night when Groh, in a condescending manner that few find endearing, advised a caller that he travels a lot in airplanes "but that doesn't qualify me to be a pilot."
Of course, that prompted many humorous responses. One fan admitted that he wasn't qualified to be a pilot but still could tell when a plane was flying into the side of a mountain.
Gradually, it has become evident that the team is getting better, particularly as redshirt freshman quarterback Jameel Sewell has continued to develop. Sewell had rushing touchdowns of 36 yards against Maryland and 18 against UNC and was intercepted just once in a span of four games.
Sewell did yield an interception that Maryland returned for a fourth-quarter touchdown, and it is the memory of opposing defenders racing toward the end zone that is certain to haunt this football team. It was the fourth time this season it has happened, a school record, and the Cavaliers have been equal-opportunity offenders. Sewell was the third different UVa quarterback to be victimized.
SNELLING, ALBERT COMING ALONG
At least the early season quarterback controversy is behind the Cavaliers. Now the criticism is not so much of Sewell or earlier starters Christian Olsen and Kevin McCabe, but of a receiving corps whose propensity for dropping passes was particularly glaring at ECU and even in the UNC game.
Sophomore Kevin Ogletree had three catches for 133 yards against Maryland and has emerged as a big-play threat of the future, but he couldn't handle a Sewell pass on an early slant pattern that might have gone 79 yards for a touchdown. Replays showed nothing but green grass between Ogletree and the end zone.
At one point, statistics flashed across the ESPN screen that showed Sewell as 6-for-11, with five drops. Two of the drops came courtesy of junior Tom Santi, generally one of the Cavs' most sure-handed receivers. But, at least UVa was throwing to its tight ends, an overlooked phase of the offense in previous games, and Sewell was becoming particularly comfortable with running back Jason Snelling.
Snelling spent several seasons as UVa's fullback before the decision was made late in 2005 that he would be a 2006 tailback. At this point, nobody could argue with the move. Snelling carried 19 times for a career-high 131 yards against UNC and also had four receptions for a team-high 44 yards.
Granted, this was a Carolina defense ranked among the worst in Division I-A against the run, but it wasn't too long ago that Virginia had one of the nation's worst rushing offenses. UVa has posted a season-high rushing total in each of its last four games, topped by a 194-yard night against the Tar Heels.
It is clear that Virginia's youthful offensive line has started to come together, led by left guard Branden Albert, a 6-7, 315-pound sophomore whose athleticism and ability to mow down defenders on the perimeter has begun to evoke memories of two-time ACC Jacobs Blocking Trophy winner Elton Brown.
Most projections indicated that Virginia would need to rely on its defense early and, for the most part, it was respectable early. However, there were some letdowns, most notably against Maryland, where the defense had several opportunities to make a statement and couldn't.
Even when UVa failed on a two-point conversion attempt that would have tied the score with 2:37 left, the Cavaliers had enough time and enough timeouts to get the ball back, but Maryland was able to run out the clock on plays that were not designed as big gainers.
When the Cavaliers took a 9-0 halftime lead against UNC, it marked the third straight ACC game in which Virginia had shut out its opponent for a half. In two of those, UVa preserved the shutout, including a 37-0 triumph over Duke.
Shutout victories over two teams that are winless in ACC play may not be much to brag about, but there is cause for excitement in young players such as redshirt freshman defensive end Jeffrey Fitzgerald and sophomore cornerback Chris Cook. A big, physical corner with speed, Cook caused a fumble and had an interception against UNC.
This Virginia team has not yet showed that it can stand prosperity, but there have been enough signs of hope that gloomy projections of a four-game, season-ending losing streak won't necessarily come to fruition.