Lessons from Hotlanta

ATLANTA - As I struggled with the first paragraph to my final Virginia football column, I stumbled upon these four lines of poetic grace served up by Ludacris on Jermaine Dupri's "Welcome to Atlanta." This veritable truth bomb captures well the losses endured and lessons learned during Virginia's trip to the Dec. 31 Chick-fil-A Bowl in Atlanta, Ga., the Cavaliers' first bowl appearance in four years.

"Welcome to Atlanta where the playas play/\nAnd we ride on dem things like every day/\nBig beats, hit streets, see gangstas roamin'/\nAnd parties don't stop til' eight in the mornin'."

Virginia concluded an inspiring 8-4 regular season with a tough-to-swallow 43-24 loss against Auburn in the Georgia Dome, a game in which several Cavalier defensive and special teams gaffes gave a faster, deeper and more skilled Tigers team all the ammunition it required to dispatch Virginia with surgical precision.

Despite a gallant offensive effort by quarterback Michael Rocco, who finished 26 of 41 for 312 yards - all career highs - and two touchdown tosses to wide receiver Kris Burd, who caught six balls for 103 yards, the Cavaliers couldn't turn halftime advantages in first downs, total offense and time of possession into enough points to overcome multiple miscues in other phases.

For the pro-Cavalier contingent among the almost 73,000 attendees, the contest started with plenty of promise. A 23-yard Kevin Parks rush early in the first quarter set up Rocco's right arm as the sophomore slung a scintillating 27-yard touchdown pass to Burd, who happily plopped down on the end zone turf for Virginia's first bowl lead since Jan. 1, 2008.

During Virginia's next possession, however, Jimmy Howell had his punt blocked and recovered at the Virginia 15, and Auburn made no mistake with the great field position as Kiehl Frazier scored on a 3-yard touchdown dive. Unfazed, Rocco restored Virginia's lead, 14-7, when he hooked up with Burd again, this time from 6 yards out.

Precious few college football programs can survive without their top impact players during the biggest game of the season. Yet without suspended tailback Michael Dyer and injured starting quarterback Clint Moseley, the Tigers barely missed a beat.

Backup tailback Onterio McCalebb took a handoff right, cut back through the heart of the Virginia front seven, and then broke at least six tackles en route to a 60-yard rush down the left sideline. McCalebb then finished the drive with a 3-yard scoring sprint to tie the game at 14.

For the Cavaliers, however, the absence of linebacker Steve Greer and cornerback Chase Minnifield - two of the team's best defenders and leaders - because of knee injuries was not a simple case of "next man up."

Auburn followed the tying touchdown by fooling Virginia's return unit with a successful on-side kick. Second-string signal caller Barrett Trotter then completed a picturesque 50-yard bomb to Emory Blake at the Virginia 5, and Frazier collected his second ground score from 1 yard out to put Auburn ahead for the first time, 21-14.

The Cavaliers responded, but on fourth-and-6 at the Auburn 15, a promising drive ended pointless when Auburn foiled coach Mike London's fake field goal call and stopped holder Jacob Hodges 3 yards shy of a first down.

Bolstered by more breathtaking play from its backups, Auburn embarked on an 88-yard scoring drive. Trotter torched the Virginia secondary for two long passes to McCalebb, the second a 25-yard touchdown pass which stretched Auburn's lead to 28-14 and prompted deafening "SEC! SEC!" chants throughout the Georgia Dome.

A 24-yard Robert Randolph field goal sent Virginia to the locker room trailing 28-17. But Auburn padded its lead to 35-17 during the opening drive of the second half with yet another big play, a 22-yard run by Tre Mason, who shrugged off a tackler and high-stepped into the end zone.

Virginia answered with a 10-play, 79-yard romp on Rocco's five-of-five passing for 59 yards, capped when Parks pounced in from 1 yard out. The Cavaliers trailed 35-24, but any comeback chance fizzled shortly thereafter.

The next Virginia possession, Auburn's Angelo Blackson - a hard man to miss at 6-foot-4, 325 pounds - swooped in almost untouched and swatted Howell's punt out of the back of the end zone for a safety, a 37-24 Auburn advantage and excellent field position after Quan Bray's 62-yard kickoff return. Two late Cody Parkey field goals iced Auburn's third straight bowl win under coach Gene Chizik.

I stayed up until about "eight in the mornin'" in Atlanta on New Year's Day, unable to sleep as I reflected on the bittersweet game and a season which lasted five weeks longer than even the most optimistic preseason pundit predicted.

I also couldn't sleep because of a harrowing personal post-game experience. I left my hotel circa 1 a.m. in search of the only 24/7 convenience store in downtown Atlanta - a Walgreens about one mile's walk away. On the way to my midnight snack oasis I took a wrong right turn down Pine Street, and consequently encountered at least 10 homicide suspects; witnessed and fled the scene of a car crash which had "DUI" written all over it; and passed enough impossibly short miniskirts to make Lady Gaga blush. I went to high school in the heart of Chicago, so I had thought my street cred meter hovered at a fairly respectable level, but I grimly half-expected to wind up in a roadside ditch by daybreak. By the time I completed the journey through Mordor and returned to the hotel - clutching my Wheat Thins tight - my armpits looked like the "BEFORE" scene of an Old Spice deodorant commercial.

Similarly, Hotlanta - a city where people will "split ya spleen" and "split ya team" according to Mr. Dupri - lived up to its billing from a Virginia football perspective. Like seasoned city slickers, the defending national champion Auburn Tigers, who have missed the postseason just once since 2000, taught Virginia several tough lessons about elite execution on college football's biggest stage. The difference between an Auburn team which expects to be peaking in postseason play and a Virginia squad just happy to be there was significant but hardly shameful. It takes years, even decades, of sustained success to earn the swagger the Tigers brought from the chippy opening kickoff to the final whistle.

But looking back on London's second season - and forward to his next - Virginia players and fans should feel pride, hope and a third sentiment perhaps most unfamiliar of all: expectation. This game - this one season - has done wonders for a recently punchless Virginia program, and now the possibilities seem endless. For that reason - despite the final score - New Year's Eve in "one-tweezy" was indeed "off the heezy." It was a tough end to the football campaign, but I can't wait 'til the Cavs get back at it again, Holla!

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