Cavs hunt for win vs. Wolfpack in Raleigh
Despite hurricane-marred week, team focuses on snapping six-game slide, preserving bowl hopes
Coach Mike London walked onto the podium at the John Paul Jones Arena media room Monday following a mercifully placed bye week and announced that three players would be suspended for violating team rules. On the heels of the most trying six-game stretch of London’s three-year tenure, with Hurricane Sandy wreaking havoc on the Cavaliers’ practice schedule, a 2012 season that is slowly slipping away appeared to reach rock bottom.
Virginia (2-6, 0-4 ACC) travels Saturday to Raleigh, N.C. to face N.C. State (5-3, 2-2 ACC). Virginia’s dim bowl hopes hang in the balance. A loss against the Wolfpack would not only officially end the Cavaliers’ postseason aspirations; it would also give the team its longest losing streak in 41 years.
“There’s a back-against-a-wall mentality and I think everyone feels the pressure,” junior center Luke Bowanko said. “Guys want to win, there’s no questioning anyone’s desire to win, but at this point it’s put up or shut up.”
The Cavaliers remain the last winless team in the ACC and rank dead last in the 124-team Football Bowl Subdivision in turnover margin. Rather than spend the bye week planning for N.C. State, London used the practice time to look inward, searching for a cause and cure of the team’s perplexing proclivity for committing turnovers and an even more striking inability to force takeaways.
“We spend a lot of time here again, here in the open week, of creating drills, creating scenarios in practice where those turnovers occur for us defensively,” London said.
London has tried lecturing, drilling and pleading with his team to close the gap between the 20 turnovers surrendered and the nation-worst four turnovers forced. Now, he hopes the spark will come from his defensive stars watching an intrasquad scrimmage.
Continuing the annual tradition, Virginia players who are redshirting the 2012 season or are seldom-used backups competed in an 11-on-11 scrimmage known as the Weenie Bowl during the bye week. The Weenie Bowlers forced three turnovers in a single game, one shy of the Cavaliers’ regular season total through eight games.
“I think there were two interceptions and a fumble recovery, and the celebration of that, you want it to be contagious,” London said. “You want guys to understand … those are game-changers.”
With starting sophomore linebacker Henry Coley suspended for Saturday’s game, sophomore linebacker Daquan Romero will likely make his first career start. Romero will be joined by standout freshman defensive end Eli Harold, whose recent performance has convinced coaches he is ready to make his first career start in place of senior Ausar Walcott. With Harold and Romero joining the starting lineup, Virginia will move into the top five in the FBS in most first-time starters this season with 17.
“I wouldn’t say [this has been] a disappointing season, I would say it was kind of a rebuilding season,” junior wide receiver Tim Smith said. “We have a lot of young guys playing … this will be a good thing for them to go through it now so they can learn and grow from this experience.”
The youthful Virginia defense faces fifth-year quarterback Mike Glennon, who leads the ACC with 2,455 passing yards. Glennon threw for 467 yards and five touchdowns against North Carolina Oct. 27, but the Tar Heels outscored N.C. State 18-0 in the fourth quarter to roar back for a 43-35 win on a go-ahead 74-yard punt return with 13 seconds left. Wolfpack redshirt sophomore wide receiver Bryan Underwood caught a touchdown pass from Glennon for the eighth straight game, remaining the only pair in the nation with a touchdown connection in each game this season.
“[Glennon has] done a good job staying on the spot, he’s done a good job moving out of the pocket and it’s evident when you watch him play that that experience of a fifth year guy in that system has done him well,” London said. “He’s definitely a major concern for us.”
Though the experienced Glennon is the lone quarterback in the ACC to account for all of his team’s passing yards, Cavalier starting quarterback sophomore Phillip Sims just completed his first game in which he was the only quarterback to appear. Sims completed 22-of-39 passes for 253 yards and a touchdown in the team’s 16-10 loss to Wake Forest Oct. 20, but he also threw an interception for the third consecutive start and struggled with accuracy and timing.
Sims faces a daunting test against the Wolfpack secondary, which is led by the tallest pair of cornerbacks in the nation: juniors David Amerson and Dontae Johnson. N.C. State led the nation with 27 interceptions last season and is second in the ACC this season with 10 in its first eight games. Amerson set the all-time ACC record for interceptions last season with 13 and leads the team again this year with four.
London faces his former mentor in N.C. State head coach Tom O’Brien. London served as O’Brien’s defensive coordinator at Boston College from 1997 to 2000 before joining Virginia’s staff as a defensive line coach. O’Brien coached at Virginia for 15 seasons between 1982 and 1996, first as an offensive line coach and later as an offensive coordinator.
The Cavaliers are 21-34-1 all-time against the Wolfpack and will be playing in Raleigh for the first time since 2007. N.C. State handed Virginia its lone loss last season amid a seven-game stretch that brought the Cavaliers within one win of an appearance in the ACC championship game.
“These are a series of one-game playoffs or however you want to call it,” London said. “These games are bowl games for us right now. We have to win these games … that’s how we have to look at it.”
Kickoff is scheduled for 12:30 p.m. Saturday.