October 10, 2006
CHARLOTTESVILLE -- Fans weren't pleased with Virginia's football team when they left Scott Stadium after a 17-10 loss to Western Michigan on Sept. 16, and then a prolonged absence didn't made their hearts grow any fonder.
After going 1-2 on their first three-game "road trip" since 1988, the Cavaliers (2-4, 1-1 ACC) will entertain Maryland for the first of three straight home games, all against conference opposition.
Maryland will be followed into Charlottesville by a North Carolina team that hasn't won at Scott Stadium since 1981 and an N.C. State team that was blitzed by Southern Mississippi in its only road game, but all bets are off with this Virginia squad.
Just when it looked as if Virginia had taken a step forward in a 37-0 romp at Duke, the Cavaliers took a step backward and fell to East Carolina 31-21 in what was UVa's 17th consecutive loss as a road underdog.
The Cavaliers didn't read too much into the Duke game, where they held the Blue Devils to 100 yards in total offense, but none of UVa's first five opponents had gained as many as 400 yards and the Cavs went into Greenville ranked 20th in Division I-A in total defense.
When they exited Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, the Cavaliers had given up 432 yards, including 304 in the first half to a Pirates team that was without leading receiver Aundrae Allison and leading rusher Chris Johnson.
ECU senior quarterback James Pinkney passed for 224 yards and was not intercepted on a night when UVa's secondary, once thought to be a team strength, was woeful in coverage.
"One of the things that sticks out is plays on the ball," UVa coach Al Groh said. "We made a scarce amount of plays on the ball."
In Groh-speak, that meant the Cavaliers couldn't defend the pass and they also couldn't catch the ball. Veteran wideouts Deyon Williams and Emmanuel Byers dropped passes at crucial times at ECU, as did sophomore Kevin Ogletree.
It was Williams' second game back after an Aug. 11 foot operation, and he did catch a touchdown pass from Byers, the third TD pass by Byers in three attempts going back to the 2005 season. But Williams has been dogged by dropped passes throughout his career, and he had a doozy at ECU.
Three of Virginia's four losses have come to teams with veteran quarterbacks (Pittsburgh's Tyler Palko, Georgia Tech's Reggie Ball, Pinkney) and now comes Maryland and senior Sam Hollenbach. He'll be opposing UVa's redshirt freshman, Jameel Sewell, whose fourth start will be his first at home.
Sewell continues to have trouble on short touch passes and had more one-hoppers at East Carolina, an affliction that had bothered him at Georgia Tech in his first start. He has a strong arm, however, and throws a nice long ball. The Cavaliers just don't seem to have anybody who can catch one.
If Virginia could complete a 50-yarder once in a while, it would provide a big lift to an offense that has yet to produce a 300-yard game. The offense is in its first season under coordinator Mike Groh, who has been relatively free of the nepotism charges that swirl around Florida State offensive coordinator Jeff Bowden, who, like Groh, is the son of his head coach.
Virginia rushed for 100 yards as a team for the first time against Duke, and the Cavaliers had a season-high 153 yards at East Carolina, including 103 by fullback-turned-tailback Jason Snelling. It appears that the offensive line is getting better every week, and that once-prized recruit Eugene Monroe slowly is regaining mobility after spring surgery for a dislocated kneecap.
Nothing comes easily for the Cavaliers offensively, however, whereas the defense regularly gives up big plays. There were none of the 60- and 70-yard bombs to which the Cavs were susceptible early in the season, but ECU had 15 plays of 10 yards or more, which may have been worse.
Defensive ends Chris Long and Jeffrey Fitzgerald were very active, combining for five tackles for loss and three sacks, but it was not a good night for the linebackers and defensive backs.
UVa's leading tackler for the season, walk-on linebacker Jon Copper, was pressed into service when Ahmad Brooks and Kai Parham turned pro with remaining college eligibility. Another walk-on, Byron Glaspy, starts at safety. In so doing, he moved ahead of fifth-year senior Tony Franklin, who has been a disaster in coverage.
TROUBLE SPOTS HAUNT NEW AIDES
While it was hard to criticize Groh when three of his assistants left for head coaching jobs, it has become apparent that none of the units they coached has prospered in their absence. In particular, the offensive line under Dave Borbely and the secondary under Steve Bernstein have not distinguished themselves.
The other new coaches are defensive coordinator Mike London, who received generally favorable reviews over the first five weeks, and linebackers coach Bobby Diaco, who also has responsibility for the special teams.
In reality, Diaco and Al Groh both coach the linebackers, freeing Diaco for the special teams, which already have yielded three blocked punts, with two setting up touchdowns in each of the last two games. The kicking has been mediocre, as has the return game.
Junior Chris Gould is one of a handful of kickers in Division I-A who serves as his team's placekicker, punter and kickoff specialist. Although he exclusively punted until this year, Gould was recruited as an off-the-ground kicker. It seems that his added duties have cut into his consistency, as he's been really good only on kickoffs.
Groh said before the season that this UVa squad would rebuild, so expectations weren't high. But it was reasonable to think that the team would get better as the season continued, and that hasn't happened, or at least it didn't happen at ECU. Sewell still was throwing the ball into the ground, receivers still were dropping passes and defensive backs still were blowing coverages and missing tackles.
Outsiders routinely ask if Groh is on the "hot seat," but they don't know the situation. Groh has four years remaining on a contract that has little or no buyout, a testament to his ability to manipulate Virginia president John Casteen, who is not the least bit savvy when it comes to athletics.
You would have thought that Virginia had learned its lesson on buyouts with former basketball coach Pete Gillen, but Groh struck at a time when athletic director Craig Littlepage and his team were hiring a men's basketball coach and building a new arena.
UVa fans only wish that Groh had been as skillful in putting together his 2006 team.