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Late Defeats Leave No Margin For Error

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

November 3, 2003 CHARLOTTESVILLE — In the days leading up to his team's trip to Raleigh, Virginia football coach Al Groh urged his team to “win the month,” a strategy that did not leave much margin for error. Now, there's no margin for error, after a 51-37 UVa loss to N.C. State in a game that was tied with less than 30 seconds left. UVa (5-4, 3-3 ACC) returns to action Nov. 12 for a Thursday night game with Maryland before closing at home against Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech. There's not a sure win in the bunch. The old adage, “be careful what you wish for,” came into play after Groh told his team that it couldn't allow any one-play touchdowns at Carter-Finley Stadium. That's basically what killed the Cavaliers, as State got two touchdowns from its defense and a 75-yard TD reception by a tight end, T.J. Williams, who out-ran the Cavaliers' secondary. Virginia might have been cursing its luck, especially when a fumble return for a touchdown was nullified by an “inadvertent whistle,” according to what Groh said an official told him, but the Cavaliers gave up 553 yards defensively and saw an escalation of their problems running the ball offensively. One week after rushing for a career-high 138 yards in a 24-0 triumph over Troy State, Alvin Pearman carried 11 times for seven yards against the Wolfpack. The Cavaliers rushed for 50 yards as a team against NCSU, with 23 of that coming on an end-around to freshman receiver Deyon Williams. In the press box, reporters continued to shake their heads at UVa's inability to run the ball on third-and-one plays and Groh's refusal to use his 6-5, 240-pound QB on quarterback sneaks. It was the Cavaliers' fourth loss of the season and the third in which they had a chance to win in the fourth quarter — all against conference foes (Clemson, Florida State and N.C. State). Even in a lopsided 31-7 loss at South Carolina, the Cavaliers trailed only 10-7 late in the third quarter. That was with redshirt freshman Anthony Martinez at quarterback after an injury to fifth-year senior Matt Schaub, who missed two games with a separated shoulder but has been as good as ever since his return. Just as Schaub was named ACC player of the year in 2002 after Virginia defeated N.C. State 14-9, he is almost certain to lose that award to Philip Rivers after the Wolfpack's victory this year. The strange part of that is, Schaub was much better against State this year, completing 41 of 55 passes for a school-record 393 yards and four touchdowns. Schaub entered the game as the Division I-A leader in passing percentage at 70.95, then completed 40 of his first 50 passes against the Wolfpack. As Groh pointed out, many of the passes are like runs. Witness Pearman's 37 receptions over a three-game span. After catching 16 passes against Florida State, shattering a school record of 11 receptions that had been matched but not surpassed over a 41-year span, Pearman had 13 catches against the Wolfpack. Wali Lundy had seven receptions, three of them for touchdowns, and appears to be rounding into form after missing the Florida State game with a foot injury. Lundy is no faster than Pearman, but he has better vision and may be the key if UVa's running game is to improve over the last month. Many reporters wonder if UVa isn't hurt by the absence of a punishing fullback. Kase Luzar, a former walk-on tight end, has been filling that role while Jason Snelling has been tending to an illness, but even Snelling was more of a receiver than a blocker. Concerns: Offensive Line, Safety The play-calling of first-year offensive coordinator Ron Prince, with the assistance of quarterbacks coach Mike Groh on passing plays, has been respectable. What has been subpar, surprisingly, has been the play of an offensive line that boasted five returning starters. Kevin Bailey, who was Virginia's best offensive lineman before suffering a torn anterior cruciate ligament in the second game of the 2002 season, made his 2003 debut in week three. He later regained his starting center spot in week seven, but he was involved in major snafus in both the FSU and N.C. State games. Bailey's premature shotgun snap against Florida State whizzed past Schaub's ear and caused the Cavaliers to punt on what turned out to be their final possession against the Seminoles. Then, against N.C. State, Bailey's high snap got past Schaub and was recovered by the Wolfpack for its first touchdown. Groh eventually went back to Zac Yarbrough, the Cavaliers' starting center in all nine of their victories last year. Virginia had started the game with true freshman Ian-Yates Cunningham at left offensive guard, after regular Brian Barthelmes had come down with food poisoning less than 48 hours before the game. With or without Barthelmes, an offensive line with the likes of junior right guard Elton Brown and sophomore left tackle D'Brickashaw has not been opening enough holes, even against Troy State, when Virginia was scoreless in the second half. On the subject of holes, Virginia has been looking for answers since the Sept. 6 loss of sophomore free safety Willie Davis, whose combination of size, speed and willingness to hit made him a future all-star candidate. Davis, injured in a violent collision with South Carolina running back Cory Boyd, recently underwent a successful procedure to graft a bone from his foot into his spine but may never play football again. Journeyman Jay Dorsey took over as the starter but whiffed on a crucial midfield tackle opportunity on Florida State's only touchdown, a 79-yard pass from Chris Rix to wideout Craphonso Thorpe. Dorsey then underwent hand surgery the following Thursday, although, to his credit, he played two days later against Troy State. Veteran cornerback Jamaine Winborne started at safety against Troy State, with redshirt freshman Tony Franklin moving into Winborne's spot at corner. Everything went well against Troy State, but that may have given the Cavaliers a false sense of security. The Trojans, who have one of the lowest-rated offenses in Division I-A, were shut out by North Texas State the following week. Franklin was beaten for at least one touchdown against N.C. State, and the deep middle repeatedly was open for the Wolfpack, raising questions about Virginia's safety play. While the original secondary of Winborne and Muffin Curry at corner and Jermaine Hardy and Davis at safety was among the best, that group will never be together again. The running game has been unproductive, the pass rush inconsistent, the coverage shaky and the punting of sophomore Tom Hagan bordering on disastrous. That's not a good formula for “winning the month,” but this Virginia team always is full of surprises.