Oct. 5, 2014
CHARLOTTESVILLE -- The second half of the regular season awaits the University of Virginia football team, and the possibilities are enticing.
With a 2-0 record in ACC play, Virginia is tied for first in the Coastal Division with Georgia Tech. At 4-2 overall, with six games to come, the Cavaliers are two victories from bowl eligibility.
"It's a positive place for us to be in right now," said head coach Mike London, whose team has doubled its victory total from 2013 and matched its total from 2012.
Had the second half unfolded differently Saturday night at Scott Stadium, where students were in full voice, the Wahoos' mood would not be so upbeat as they enter the first of their two bye weeks.
Virginia led Coastal rival Pittsburgh 24-3 at the break. A touchdown by Pitt with 1:27 left, however, made the score 24-19, and the anxiety on the home side was palpable. But the Panthers drew no closer. The `Hoos broke up a 2-point conversion pass and then took possession after a botched onside-kick attempt.
With the offense in the victory formation, UVa fans were able to exhale, and so were players and coaches. The victory was the first for the Cavaliers in an October game since Oct. 27, 2011.
"We bent, we didn't break, and we bounced back," London said. "Guys made plays when they had to, came up big ... It might have been a different result last year."
Indeed, UVa led Duke 22-0 and Ball State 17-7 last season and lost those games 35-22 and 48-27, respectively.
"Not this year, men," London said to his players in the locker room late Saturday night. "Not this year."
Sophomore linebacker Max Valles said: "This year's team, we're just fighting."
After a horrible first half, the Panthers (3-3, 1-1) battled too. On the first possession of the second half, Pitt blocked Alec Vozenilek's punt and then quickly drove for a touchdown. Then, after quarterback Matt Johns threw an interception to end a promising possession for UVa, Pitt's offense moved into the red zone again.
On first-and-10 from Virginia's 15, Chad Voytik gained 9 yards on a quarterback draw, and then 6-2, 250-pound tailback James Conner powered his way to the 4. The next two plays, both Conner runs, tested UVa's defense, but on second down it stopped him about a foot from the goal line.
With the Cavaliers' fans roaring, the Panthers were called for a snap infraction, moving them back 5 yards, and then Voytik's pass fell incomplete in the end zone. Instead of closing to 24-17, Pitt had to settle for a field goal that made it 24-13, a major victory for the home team.
"That goal-line stand probably is what changed the game," senior linebacker Henry Coley said.
Valles agreed. "That was our biggest spark of the game, in my opinion. I don't want to say we were down on ourselves, but we needed that one big moment to get us going, and that was it right there."
The `Hoos had plenty of big moments in the first half, and Valles supplied one of them. Voytik, under pressure from UVa lineman Mike Moore, who was virtually unblockable all night, hurried a pass that Valles intercepted and returned 35 yards for a touchdown late in the second quarter.
The turnover was the 19th the Cavaliers have forced this season, and they've turned those takeaways into 72 points.
The first half also included a 48-yard touchdown run by senior tailback Kevin Parks and a 28-yard completion from senior wide receiver Miles Gooch to senior tight end Zachary Swanson on a trick play that set up UVa's second touchdown.
"He's still got it," Johns said of Gooch, who came to Virginia as a quarterback but hadn't thrown a pass in a game since his senior year at Towers High in Decatur, Ga.
"To be honest with you, I was so happy that it was a completion," Gooch said. "As soon as I let it go, I'm like, `Oh, please get there. Please.' And Zach made the catch, and I was happy."
The drive ended with a 3-yard TD pass from Johns to reserve tailback Khalek Shepherd. Redshirt sophomore Greyson Lambert, who started Virginia's first four games at quarterback, was held out for the second straight Saturday to protect the ankle he sprained Sept. 20 at BYU, and his classmate Johns went the whole way against Pitt.
Johns completed 9 of 16 passes for 93 yards and one TD, with one interception. He also scrambled for an 8-yard gain on a critical third-and-6 play early in the fourth quarter, extending a drive and taking precious time off the clock.
"I thought Matt played good enough for us to win," London said.
Gooch, who had three catches for 42 yards, was Johns' favorite target in UVa's first night game at Scott Stadium since Nov. 15, 2012. The unquestioned star of the offense, though, was Parks, who finished with a career-high 169 yards rushing and overshadowed Conner, who came in averaging 158.2 yards on the ground.
Not since 2008, when Cedric Peerman gained 173 yards against East Carolina, had a Cavalier rushed for more than 150.
"It was a very physical game, and that's what I'm about," said Parks, a second-team All-ACC selection in 2013. "These are tough games, grind-it-out games, and I feel like that's my game, that's my style. So it was very fun for me tonight."
Likewise, his teammates had fun watching Parks, who came into the season as the ACC's top returning rusher.
"He's awesome," Johns said. "Every time I said, `I want the ball in your hand,' he said, `Let's go.' "
Coley said: "Just feed him the ball so he can get his groove, and you can have the same thing every week."
Through the first five games, Parks had 75 carries, to 39 and 36, respectively, for sophomore Taquan Mizzell and Shepherd. Against Pitt, Parks ran the ball 29 times, and Mizzell and Shepherd combined for seven carries.
"We're going to try to use as many playmakers as we can, but in this game the hot hand was Kevin Parks," London said.
No. 25 didn't object to the heavy workload.
"As the game goes on, I get stronger and I get a feel for the game," Parks said, "and that's what happened tonight."
For the Cavaliers, the low points of the 2013 season included a 14-3 loss at Pitt, a game in which they gained only 188 yards. They totaled 346 yards on Saturday night, though only 112 came after intermission.
"It was definitely frustrating," Johns said. "But I think we converted some big third downs to keep [Pitt's] offense off of the field. You have to take your hats off to Pittsburgh. They put us in bad field position the whole second half. In the first half we had good field position. We moved the ball all over them. The game's all about turning the field."
Parks said: "Things didn't work out [in the second half], but we just kept fighting. We stuck together, and that's the type of team we are. We're all about this unity thing. We don't just talk about it. We believe in it, and that's what we're about."
That was evident Sept. 13, when UVa rallied to knock off then-No. 21 Louisville 23-21 at Scott Stadium, and again Saturday night. In both games the crowd helped the Cavaliers elevate their play.
"It was awesome," junior defensive tackle David Dean said of the fan support for the Pitt game. "It was great the whole time. I felt like they were out of their seats for all four quarters, and it definitely played a factor."
NEW LOOK: UVa wore all-white uniforms at home for the first time in at least 35 years -- maybe ever -- as well as special helmets with a graphite design. Those weren't the only things different about the Cavaliers on Saturday night.
For most of the season, Virginia's primary defense has been the nickel, which features five defensive backs. Against Pitt and its power running game, however, UVa came out in a traditional 4-3 defense, with juniors Mike Moore and Eli Harold at end, Dean and sophomore Donte Wilkins at tackle, and Valles and seniors Daquan Romero and Coley at linebacker.
It was the first start of the season for the 6-2, 285-pound Wilkins, who contributed 1.5 tackles for loss and four stops overall. The `Hoos lined up in the nickel in passing situations, but their 4-3 helped hold Conner to 83 yards rushing, 75 under his average.
"We showed that Donte and I can be in the middle and be a force," Dean said.
In Virginia's nickel package, Valles moves from outside linebacker to end, and Moore slides inside next to Dean.
The Cavaliers sacked Voytik four times and had seven tackles for loss. Quin Blanding, a true freshman, led Virginia with a career-high 15 tackles, and his running mate at safety, senior Anthony Harris, had 11, including a sack.
MEDICAL REPORT: Cornerback Demetrious Nicholson, who has been dealing with a toe injury since last fall, will not play again this season, London said.
Nicholson, whose only appearance this season came last weekend against Kent State, is expected to receive a hardship waiver that would allow him to return as a fifth-year senior in 2015.
"He's just not 100 percent, and when you're a defensive back, you need your wheels, so to speak," London said.
A graduate of Bayside High in Virginia Beach, Nicholson started the first 30 games of his college career before hurting his left toe against Ball State last season. He had surgery on the toe in May.
Nicholson started against Kent State and had a pivotal interception late in the first half, but he came away from the game with pain in his foot, and it continued during the week leading up to the Pitt game.
UP NEXT: The `Hoos (4-2, 2-0) have begun the first of their two bye weeks. UVa returns to action Oct. 18 at Duke (4-1, 0-1), which was off this weekend.
"It feels good, but we still got work to do," Parks said of Virginia's strong start. "Gotta get better this week. It's not a week to take off."
Coley said: "We're going to watch film and collectively rest up and just get after Duke."
Last season at Scott Stadium, the Cavaliers lost 35-22 to the Blue Devils after squandering a 22-0 lead. UVa holds a 33-32 edge in the series but has dropped five of the teams' past six meetings.
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A 1985 graduate of UVA, White worked at the Richmond Times-Dispatch until July 2009. He was honored six times as the state's Sportswriter of the Year.
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