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Young, Injured Group Somehow Surviving

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

October 14, 2002 CHARLOTTESVILLE — Almost no streaks have been sacred in the two and a half year era that spans the end of George Welsh's tenure as Virginia football coach and the beginning of the Al Groh era. The 2000 season saw an end to UVa's streak of 13 straight seasons with seven victories or more, and the 2001 season brought an end to the Cavaliers' 17-game winning streak over Wake Forest.

One of the few streaks that remains is Virginia's home winning streak over North Carolina, which hasn't won at Scott Stadium since 1981. Ex-UNC coach Mack Brown never won in Charlottesville (neither did Carl Torbush, for that matter), and Welsh never lost to the Tar Heels there.

When Virginia was picked for eighth place in the ACC before the season, the Tar Heels might have figured this was their year — and it still might be — but the Cavaliers (5-2 overall, 3-1 ACC) loomed as the favorite after winning five games in a row.

Virginia is eminently beatable. In fact, the Cavaliers lose most weeks on the stat sheet, where they were out-gained four weeks in a row, but not much has to happen for Virginia to post a winning season and snatch one of the ACC's six bowl spots.

All it will take is two victories — teams with 13-game schedules need seven Division I-A wins to be bowl-eligible — from a group of opponents that includes North Carolina, Maryland and N.C. State at home, and Georgia Tech, Penn State and Virginia Tech on the road. Of course, that may be easier than it sounds.

The Cavaliers will be favored over North Carolina and possibly Maryland as things stand. To have a true break-out season, they probably will have to post one or more upsets, but that wouldn't be a first. Of their first 10 victories under Groh, six came as the underdog.

The latest was over a Clemson team that once owned Virginia but now has a 5-7-1 record against the Cavs since 1990. After a first half in which they were out-gained 251-89, UVa dominated the final 30 minutes, taking a 22-10 lead before the Tigers scored their last touchdown with 1:31 left.

Virginia junior Matt Schaub, ranked for weeks among the leading passers in Division I-A, clearly was the superior quarterback in comparison to Clemson's Willie Simmons. After a potentially devastating interception that led to a go-ahead Tigers touchdown before intermission, Schaub made all the right moves in the second half.

Schaub finished 23-of-32 for 208 yards and a touchdown, but the story of the day was a UVa defense that lost leading tackler Angelo Crowell to an apparent sprained ankle on the first possession. At that stage, the Cavaliers were without three players who ranked among their defensive standouts before the season — Crowell, outside linebacker Raymond Mann and safety Chris Williams.

Most of the Cavaliers' winning streak took place without major players such as center Kevin Bailey, out for five games; Mann, out for four games; Williams, out for three games; and running back-kick returner Michael Johnson, out for three games. Moreover, outside linebacker Dennis Haley hadn't played since starting the first game, because of undisclosed “personal” reasons.

Youngsters, Unknowns Producing

At mid-summer, it looked as if Virginia would have two senior inside linebackers in Crowell and Merrill Robertson, backed up by two of the nation's top linebacker recruits, Ahmad Brooks and Kai Parham. Then, Brooks failed to meet NCAA eligibility requirements and enrolled at Hargrave Military Academy, and Parham arrived with a bad back that will cause him to be redshirted this fall.

On top of that, Robertson was coming off an injury-plagued 2001 season, but so far he's been a rock, recording a key sack late in the Clemson game. Next to him for most of the day was sophomore Rich Bedesem, who had a team-high nine tackles and a late interception that led to the eventual winning touchdown. Bedesem is coming off reconstructive knee surgery after suffering a torn anterior cruciate ligament in the 2001 opener.

Bedesem was the latest in a series of previously obscure Welsh holdovers who made valuable contributions during the winning streak. Some of the others were center and former deep snapper Zach Yarbrough, wide receiver Ryan Sawyer, offensive guard Ben Carber and nose tackle Justin “Snacks” Walker.

Walker is a fourth-year junior who didn't play a snap in his first three seasons. Neither Yarbrough nor Carber played from scrimmage last season (Yarbrough was on special teams), although Carber was injured against Wake Forest and has since given way to 6-7, 286-pound redshirt freshman Brian Barthelmes.

Groh was concerned about the offensive line even before the Cavaliers lost Bailey, and the run-blocking remains suspect. UVa had two rushing yards in a 27-22 win at Duke (the lowest rushing total in a UVa win since 1976) and averaged two yards per rush against Clemson. But the line has done a good job of protecting Schaub, who was sacked only eight times in seven games. By comparison, the Cavaliers had sacked opposing quarterbacks 18 times.

UVa has been using a line whose most experienced performers coming into the season were senior right tackle Mike Mullins and sophomore right guard Elton Brown, each of whom started the final four games in 2001. Brown, a 6-6, 324-pounder, had a crunching block on UVa's go-ahead touchdown against Clemson and has the potential to rank among the top linemen to come through the program.

The Cavaliers' future was evident at the Clemson game, where massive Marshall Ausberry and fellow offensive line recruit Gordie Sammis were among the committed recruits in attendance. Earlier in the week, Virginia had received a commitment from the nation's No. 1-ranked center, Jordy Lipsey from Altamonte Springs, Fla., who picked the Cavaliers over Miami.

Somewhere, some Virginia fans may remember a late drive that ended near the Colorado State goal line and think about how the Cavaliers could be 6-1, but “what if” is not a game Virginia wants to play. None of its five straight victories was decided until the fourth quarter, even a 48-29 triumph over Akron that was 34-29 midway through the final period. The Cavaliers were out-gained by a total of 399 yards in the last four games. The fact that Virginia has been so strong in the fourth quarter, outscoring the opposition 85-43, might be the most impressive stat of all.

With a team that barely has 70 recruited players and had to elevate seven walk-ons to get close to 80, with a team that has had fairly significant injury problems and has every excuse for wearing down, with a team that is last in the ACC in time of possession, UVa somehow has been able to save its best for last.