September 30, 2002 CHARLOTTESVILLE — Until Al Groh gets his football program where he wants it, any wins the Cavaliers get will be a bonus. That was the case at Wake Forest, and it will be the case again at Duke. Few people look at Virginia as a bowl-caliber team, but the Cavaliers had a chance to go 4-2 with a win at Duke, which clearly was on an upswing after a 43-17 triumph at Navy. After that, the Cavaliers return home to face Clemson and North Carolina, neither of which will be a prohibitive favorite.
If Virginia looks back at its opener and thinks it should or could have beaten Colorado State, the Cavaliers need to realize how close they came to falling to — and maybe even getting blown out by — Wake Forest. Even the halftime score, 27-10, may not have accurately represented the Deacons’ utter dominance over the first 30 minutes, when they got off 56 plays to the Cavaliers’ 19 and had the ball for nearly 21 minutes.
To account for UVa’s comeback, it is necessary to start with junior quarterback Matt Schaub, who has come back from a benching after the Colorado State game to throw 14 touchdown passes in the last four games — actually less than four, going back to a relief performance against Florida State.
Schaub entered the Wake game ranked seventh in Division I-A in passing efficiency and did not hurt himself by going 22-of-27 for 312 yards. Schaub, prone to dangerous interceptions early in the season, threw eight touchdown passes and was not intercepted against Akron or Wake Forest.
The Cavaliers won three games in a row — the longest winning streak of Groh’s tenure — at least partly because of Groh’s penchant for trick plays. Tight end Heath Miller threw a touchdown pass in Virginia’s 34-21 victory over South Carolina, and running back Wali Lundy tossed a touchdown pass against the Deacons.
The go-ahead touchdown, a 13-yard run by backup quarterback Marques Hagans, wasn’t exactly a trick play. However, it was the only snap Hagans took at quarterback on a night when he lined up at wide receiver on several occasions and also returned punts. Hagans also played tailback briefly in Virginia’s 48-29 win over Akron.
Like Wake, Virginia had been playing four tailbacks, but true freshman Michael Johnson suffered a sprained ankle against South Carolina and sophomore Alvin Pearman broke a hand in a practice before the Wake Forest game. Johnson did not make the trip and, while Pearman was in uniform, he was wearing a cast the size of a boxing glove.
Lundy took virtually every snap at tailback, coming out of the game only for an occasional breather when UVa used fullback and fellow true freshman Jason Snelling in a one-back formation. Lundy had nine receptions, one shy of this year’s ACC high, for 62 yards. However, he was able to gain only 25 yards on 17 rushes.
The Cavaliers played the entire second half without blossoming run-blocker Ben Carber at left offensive guard, and you have to wonder how many more injuries the Cavaliers will sustain — and can absorb — over the next eight games. UVa has been without its most experienced and most talented offensive lineman, Kevin Bailey, since he suffered a season-ending knee injury at Florida State in the Cavaliers’ second game.
That was the day five Virginia players were helped from the field with knee injuries. One of them, wide receiver Billy McMullen, played the next week. However, three of the others — Bailey, outside linebacker Raymond Mann and cornerback Marcus Hamilton — have not returned. A fourth, offensive lineman Mark Farrington, was back in uniform by week three but saw almost no playing time until he replaced Carber at Wake Forest.
UVa’s starting center for the past three games was former long snapper Zac Yarbrough, who, if the depth chart had been extended far enough, might have been the Cavaliers’ No. 4 center at one point behind Bailey, Jay Green (who left the program this spring) and Farrington. Yarbrough is a former championship swimmer and tight end from Winter Park, Fla., whose long snapping probably was responsible for him getting a scholarship out of Fork Union Military Academy, although his father was a standout offensive lineman at Florida in the 1960s. An uncle, Nelson Yarbrough, was an ACC passing champion for UVa in the 1950s.
Virginia also has received unexpectedly solid performances from players such as Carber and fourth-year junior wide receiver Ryan Sawyer, whom many had written off. Sawyer, whose bio in the UVa media guide includes only defensive stats from when he was a seldom-used safety and special teams player, had two receptions in his college career before catching two touchdown passes against Wake Forest. The second came on a Lundy pass that was tipped by Miller, a redshirt freshman.
Miller, who clearly would attract some attention for All-ACC if the team were selected at this point, became the first tight end in UVa history to catch touchdown passes in four consecutive games, then added his first two-touchdown game in game five. Miller is a former state player of the year in Group A, Virginia’s smallest classification, who made the transition from quarterback to tight end while he was being redshirted in 2001.
Defense Remains Trouble Zone
While the offense scored 29 points or more in four of its first five games, the defense remained a concern — a huge concern. For the second game in a row, Virginia gave up 495 yards in total offense. The Cavaliers were ranked 109th out of 117 Division I-A teams in rushing defense, and that was before Wake Forest rushed for 349 yards against them.
The Deacons rushed for 251 yards in the first half, when the Cavaliers repeatedly were fooled by Wake’s misdirection and the ball-handling of quarterback James MacPherson. Wide receiver Fabian Davis carried five times for 74 yards in the first half alone, but the Deacs went away from him in the second half, when he gained 16 yards on his lone carry.
Groh credited his coaching staff for its halftime adjustments and said Virginia had nearly “a whole new defensive game plan” in the second half. Nevertheless, a youthful UVa defensive line has been overmatched, a promising linebacker crew has been depleted and experience in the secondary has been mistaken for outstanding ability.
One of UVa’s top 2002 signees, linebacker Ahmad Brooks, is at Hargrave Military Academy after failing to meet NCAA eligibility guidelines. Another promising linebacker, Kai Parham, arrived with a back problem and will be redshirted. Dennis Haley, a first-game starter at outside linebacker, has not been in uniform since the first game as the result of undisclosed, non-injury-related reasons.
Under a different scenario, UVa might be tempted to make a hardship appeal for Mann, who has never been redshirted. But before the season’s over, the Cavaliers are going to need every semi-able body they can find.