October 11, 2005
CHARLOTTESVILLE - It didn't take long after the release of the 2005 ACC football schedule for Virginia fans to see that October might be a problem. A lot of UVa insiders were saying privately that they would take a 2-2 record and move on to November.
Now 2-2 is the best the Cavaliers can do, and many would find 1-3 acceptable.
After Maryland and Boston College put up 570 and 497 yards in back-to-back victories over the Cavaliers, who knows what the damage will be when the Cavaliers (3-2 overall, 1-2 ACC) return home for a 7:45 p.m. Saturday kickoff against Florida State? After the FSU game, Virginia will end its October slate at North Carolina, which has been almost as schizophrenic as the Cavaliers.
Actually, there are some obvious reasons for Virginia's demise, starting with injuries to the Cavaliers' two preseason All-Americans, offensive tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson and linebacker Ahmad Brooks.
Normally, Groh does not talk about injuries. In fact, his policy on that subject has been part of a running battle with the local media, but his frustration was evident after a 28-17 loss at Boston College. Through five games, Brooks and Ferguson had never been in uniform at the same time, and neither of them was available for the Eagles.
"That will be a big issue for us," said Groh, referring to the prospects of having Brooks and Ferguson for the Florida State game. "We'll be anxious to find that out, because that's some high-priced inventory on the shelf."
Brooks, who only recently revealed that his offseason knee surgery had been to remove a blood-restricting cyst from behind his kneecap, started against Maryland and played for 36 snaps. The knee held up, but Brooks suffered a sprained ankle that sidelined him for the fourth quarter, when the Terps gained 175 of their 570 yards.
Neither Brooks nor Groh left any impression that Brooks would miss the Boston College game, but he did not make the trip. Ferguson, who has a sprained knee, traveled for the second week in a row but did not dress. A BC coach who had seen tape of Ferguson's injury, sustained Sept. 24 against Duke, had said it would take a "miracle" for Ferguson to play against the Eagles.
Presumably, it would be only slightly less miraculous if Ferguson plays against the Seminoles, but the Cavaliers are starting to get some of their injured players back. Center Brian Barthelmes, a no-go after taking part in pregame drills at Maryland, received extensive duty at right guard at BC.
It also would help if sophomore outside linebacker Jermaine Dias can return to the field after missing two games. In the absence of Dias, who has a sprained foot, Virginia has played with a makeshift linebacker corps that has been vulnerable to the inside running game. Brooks, a two-year starter at inside linebacker, took a crash course at outside linebacker and started in Dias' place against Maryland.
When Brooks and Dias couldn't go against BC, Mark Miller moved to the outside and Bryan White started on the inside. Miller, a walk-on from Birmingham, Ala., has been on scholarship for three seasons but is undersized at 6-0 and 224 pounds. White, who underwent back surgery last fall, is a fifth-year senior who had been earmarked for mostly special-teams duty in 2005.
Groh sensed that Maryland was running away from Brooks when he was on the outside and said he was looking forward to the day when Brooks could rejoin long-time partner Kai Parham on the inside. Parham, who has six sacks and twice has been named the ACC's defensive lineman of the week this fall, has been UVa's best defensive player.
CORNERBACK ALSO REMAINS CONCERN
Linebacker hasn't been UVa's only problem.
Cornerback also is a big issue now, after promising true freshman Chris Cook suffered a broken leg in the first quarter at Boston College. Cook was making his first start in place of sophomore Chris Gorham, who was beaten for a 43-yard reception after coming into the BC game.
The Cavaliers might have thought they were in good shape at corner, or else they would not have moved veteran Tony Franklin to safety in the preseason. But, with Franklin at safety and Philip Brown (academics) ineligible, they were left with junior Marcus Hamilton and a bunch of freshmen or seldom-used sophomores.
An improved pass rush would help, but defense isn't the only problem. UVa has been unable to run the ball and frequently has been unable to protect quarterback Marques Hagans, who has resembled a one-man offense at times. A rival ACC coach said that Ferguson is a very good player but that the others on the Cavs' line are "just a bunch of guys."
One of those guys, senior tackle Brad Butler, was praised by Groh for his move from the right side to the left side after Ferguson was hurt at Duke. However, Butler's legacy now may be a play at BC, where replays caught his chop-block - perhaps late and certainly far away from the action - on defensive end and preseason ACC player of the year Mathias Kiwanuka, who was not pursuing the play and was looking away from Butler at the time.
BC defensive tackle Alvin Washington immediately jumped on a prone Butler and was ejected from the game. Later, Kiwanuka was ejected for punching Butler, who, according to Groh, never actually was cited for a penalty. Although Virginia scored a touchdown and took a 14-7 lead on the drive that coincided with the first scuffle, Eagles coach Tom O'Brien said it was clear that the incident rejuvenated his team.
O'Brien also said he would discuss the incident with the ACC office, and there was some talk that a suspension might ensue. That certainly would cripple a makeshift UVa line, but it is unlikely that any punishment will come. It was not even clear from replays that Butler's block came after the whistle.
Butler did not comment after the game, certainly at Groh's recommendation, but the coach was not as surly as he had been on earlier occasions, particularly when challenged about his promise that when Brooks was ready to play, "we'll let everybody know."
As it turned out, he didn't let anybody know. Groh later said he had changed his mind one morning at 4:30, while eating breakfast and watching NFL Access, a program on the NFL network. Miami Dolphins coach Nick Saban said he didn't want to notify the media of his plans because that would be tantamount to telling John Fox, whose Carolina Panthers would face the Dolphins in an upcoming game. Groh said he liked what Saban had to say.
To reporters who had been hearing about former Groh coaching colleagues Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick for four years, the addition of Saban was a little much. The topic subsided after a heated exchange in a teleconference after the Maryland game, and it was a good thing for Groh, who doesn't need to be making any more enemies.
From the time Groh was awarded a six-season, $1.7-million contract in August, questions have been raised, particularly over the dollar amount, which represented nearly a 250-percent raise over his old salary. If the Cavaliers go oh-for-October, the second-guessing will only increase.