September 2, 2002 CHARLOTTESVILLE - At one point last fall, Virginia actually had two football games scheduled for Sept. 7, with South Carolina coming to Scott Stadium and the Cavaliers going to Penn State. The way UVa players were falling on Aug. 31 at Florida State, coach Al Groh will be happy if he has enough good players for one game.
Already low in numbers, Groh watched as nine of his players either limped off or were helped from the field at Doak Campbell Stadium. Two came back and one or two more could have come back, but there was serious concern over knee injuries that sidelined center Kevin Bailey, wide receiver Billy McMullen and outside linebacker Raymond Mann.
The Cavaliers had played 10 true freshmen in their opener, a 35-29 loss to Colorado State, and used an 11th - cornerback and punt returner Marcus Hamilton - before he was injured in the final 30 seconds against Florida State. Two wide receivers who were slated for redshirt years may be pressed into service if McMullen's knee injury keeps him out of action for any length of time.
The injuries overshadowed a fourth-quarter UVa comeback that saw junior Matt Schaub throw three touchdown passes in the game's final 13:43. Schaub, so unimpressive in the opening game that redshirt freshman Marques Hagans got the nod against the Seminoles, finished 19-of-25 yards for 247 yards in less than three quarters of action.
In all likelihood, Schaub will start against South Carolina (the Penn State game was pushed back to November), but that means Hagans probably will have the better night. Groh still is trying to figure out a maddening trend in which his No. 2 quarterback plays better than the starter, dating back to the 2001 platoon of Schaub and Bryson Spinner.
Spinner, clearly in academic difficulty, left the program in December, and everybody assumed Schaub would be the starter for the next two years. When he failed to move the team against Colorado State, he was replaced by Hagans, only to return for a late-game interception that brought boos from the UVa crowd.
Hagans led the Cavaliers from their 18-yard line to the Colorado State three before fumbling in the closing seconds. Groh said he had to chuckle that Hagans had become everybody's darling, but he must have been Groh's darling, too, because Groh started him against the Seminoles.
More Woes: Youth, Special Teams
The Hagans decision flew in the face of normal coaching strategy, but Groh had made it apparent early that this would be a year like no other. Alvin Pearman, the team's leading rusher in 2001, was the third tailback to get in the game against Colorado State. The Cavaliers started two true freshmen against the Rams, Kwakou Robinson at defensive end and D'Brickashaw Ferguson at left offensive tackle. Against Florida State, they were joined in the starting lineup by a third true freshman, tailback Wali Lundy. A fourth true freshman, Tom Hagan, is the Cavaliers' punter. Three redshirt freshmen - Hagans, defensive tackle Brennan Schmidt and tight end Heath Miller - started against FSU.
Groh seems committed to a youth movement and has not second-guessed his decision to open the season against a Colorado State team that has had three 10-win seasons in the last eight. The Rams raised some eyebrows the following week by beating a Colorado team that was among the hottest in the country at the end of the 2001 season.
Groh was given a list of opponents from which to choose for the Jim Thorpe Classic and said he selected Colorado State because it was the toughest team he could find. He could have had Arkansas State, which went to Virginia Tech for the Hispanic College Fund Classic and fell behind 56-0 at the half before losing 63-7.
It's probably a safe bet that Groh wouldn't have gone to Fort Collins, Colo. He probably felt that the Cavaliers, playing at home, would beat the Rams. He said as much after the game. They probably should have won, after overcoming a 19-7 deficit to take a short-lived lead at 29-22.
The defense didn't hold up, which was not totally unexpected, but Groh thought his front three of Robinson, Schmidt and sophomore Andrew Hoffman played as well as could be expected. He was disappointed in a veteran secondary that allowed Colorado State to escape from a first-and-32 from its four-yard line.
The pass defense improved against Florida State, but the Cavaliers must get better in a number of areas to have any chance of beating South Carolina. Against FSU, the kicking game was atrocious, with a blocked punt, an aborted punt, two missed extra points and the Seminoles averaging more than 15 yards per return on the six punts UVa did get off.
Presumably, the Colorado State game was supposed to prepare the Cavaliers for the rest of the season, but they were sloppier against Florida State than they were in the first week. Of course, the opposition had something to do with that, but the old adage that a team improves the most from week one to week two wasn't true (for either team) in this case.
After South Carolina, the Cavaliers will have their first of two open dates. Groh has been saying since the preseason - even before the Colorado State game - that the break after the first three games would give him the opportunity to take stock. More than anything, it will give him the opportunity to get some people healthy.
Chris Canty, a 6-7, 290-pound sophomore, was expected to be the cornerstone of UVa's defensive line. However, he has been slow in rounding into form since suffering a broken leg during spring practice and is unlikely to play until Sept. 21, when the Cavaliers entertain Akron for homecoming.
It's anybody's guess when linebacker Kai Parham, maybe the most heralded of UVa's recruits following Ahmad Brooks' departure for prep school, will be cleared to play. Parham has a pre-existing back problem that could cause him to be redshirted, but the Cavaliers were prepared for that.
It's all the new injuries that have Groh concerned for the upcoming game and beyond.