Oct. 14, 2012
CHARLOTTESVILLE -- They do not want to be known as one-year wonders. The goal is to sustain the momentum generated during the 2011 football season, when they won eight games and advanced to a bowl for the first time in four years.
Alas for the Virginia Cavaliers, that's looking less and less likely this fall. Since opening with a win over Richmond and then edging Penn State a week later, UVa has dropped five consecutive games. The latest defeat stung as much as any of them.
Against ACC rival Maryland, UVa gave up a 100-yard return for a touchdown on the opening kickoff Saturday. By the time the first quarter ended, the Wahoos trailed 17-0 before a Homecomings crowd of 45,556 at Scott Stadium.
"It's unfortunate you start the game out in a hole like that, like we did," third-year head coach Mike London said.
Virginia pulled to 17-13 late in the third quarter, only to see Maryland answer with 10 straight points. But backup quarterback Michael Rocco, after replacing starter Phillip Sims in the fourth quarter, led the `Hoos on a touchdown drive, and their deficit was only seven when they started their final possession, at the Maryland 49-yard line, with 1:51 remaining.
The UVa fans who were still in the stands roared their support, but it was for naught. Four incompletions by Rocco later -- the first on a pass to tailback Khalek Shepherd that might well have gone for a touchdown -- the ball went back to the Terrapins. They ran out the final 89 seconds to claim a 27-20 victory.
"I felt very confident that if he'd completed a pass in that drive we would have moved the ball down the field like we had done the drive before," offensive coordinator Bill Lazor said, "but we just couldn't that first completion to get our rhythm going."
And now Virginia (2-5, 0-3 ACC) finds itself in an unenviable position. London's team must win four of its five remaining regular-season games to become bowl-eligible for the second straight year.
It's not too late for the Cavaliers to turn their season around, senior linebacker LaRoy Reynolds said, but their preparation and focus must be exceptional.
"That's the biggest thing," said Reynolds, who had three tackles for loss against Maryland. "Taking ownership of your mistakes and not just allowing [players] to say, `OK, it's just another loss.' Guys gotta just come in tomorrow ready to work. Guys gotta come in with the mentality of saying, `I'm tired of getting mushed in the face. I want to win some games.' "
As a team captain, Reynolds said, he has to make "sure the young guys and the other guys stay focused on what we want to finish. You always want to finish strong. You never want to show that you quit or gave up on anything."
The Cavaliers never quit Saturday, and a defense led by Reynolds, true freshman end Eli Harold and sophomore tackle Chris Brathwaite held the Terps (4-2, 2-0) to minus-2 yards rushing and 235 yards overall. But the 'Hoos hurt their cause with penalties and special-teams breakdowns -- a recurring theme this season -- and again failed to consistently turn yards into points on offense.
Against a Maryland defense that came in allowing an average of 81 yards per game rushing (and only 257.2 yards overall), Virginia ran for 168 yards and gained 368 in all. But for the third straight Saturday, UVa lost despite finishing with more total offense than its opponent.
"The only thing that counts is the points, and that's what we've got to get," Lazor said.
Twice in the first half Virginia drove inside Maryland's 15-yard line. The first of those possessions ended when the Terps blocked junior Drew Jarrett's low kick on a 31-yard field-goal attempt. On the second, after reaching Maryland's 3, UVa had to settle for a 20-yard field goal by redshirt freshman Ian Frye, who later replaced the struggling Jarrett on extra points, too.
On a crisp fall afternoon, the game could not have started less auspiciously for the Cavaliers. Maryland's most explosive player is freshman Stefon Diggs -- a former UVa recruiting target -- and he caught Frye's kickoff about 5 yards deep in the end zone. Diggs hesitated for an instant, long enough for the `Hoos to relax.
Frye said the coverage unit "had the feeling that he was going to take a knee. He kind of tricked us."
Diggs said after the game that he had no intention of taking the touchback. Once he came out of the end zone, he wasn't touched by a Cavalier as he silenced the home fans with an electrifying return.
"That's just what he does," said Anthony Poindexter, UVa's special-teams coordinator. "He starts off as a jog and then he tries to get his blocks set, and then he hits it. Credit to him. I gotta coach the kickoff team better, and it was a big play in the game for them."
London said: "We knew that Diggs was a special player, a dynamic player, and the job is to run down on the kickoffs and cover the kickoffs regardless of what you think someone's doing. That's what we're supposed to do, and obviously we didn't do it."
UVa's first possession ended with a Sims interception -- his third in his two games as the starter -- and Maryland parlayed that turnover into its second touchdown. On the Terps' third possession, Diggs had a reception that went for 60 yards, but Virginia's defense dug in and gave up only a field goal.
The Cavaliers had three tackles for loss on that Maryland drive and totaled 11 overall Saturday. Like Reynolds, Harold finished the game with three tackles for loss. Harold also was in on two sacks, the first of his college career, and with Brathwaite wreaked havoc in the Terps' backfield.
"Both of them had huge games," senior linebacker Steve Greer said. "I think they've both kind of been waiting for their shot and waiting to emerge, and Brathwaite was almost unblockable today. It seemed like every time he was a couple yards deep in the backfield."
Harold said: "I'm just trying to do what I can do to help the team come out victorious. Obviously we're not winning right now, but we gotta just keep working hard, keep doing what we're doing, and things will eventually come together."
The `Hoos weren't nearly as productive in the passing game. Sims, a redshirt sophomore, completed only 13 of 28 passes for 139 yards and one touchdown -- a perfectly thrown 20-yarder to sophomore wideout E.J. Scott late in the third quarter -- before giving way to Rocco in the fourth.
"I don't even recognize the quarterback that played today," Sims said.
"This is not me ... I know what I'm capable of doing, and the last couple weeks are not me. I got benched today. That's pretty much the way it is. So I gotta do what I gotta do to correct the thing and get things going back the way I know I'm capable of playing."
Rocco, a junior who started UVa's first five games this season (and all 13 in 2011), entered with 6:01 remaining Saturday. He had completions of 16 yards to Scott, 22 and 9 yards to sophomore wideout Darius Jennings, and 8 yards to sophomore wideout Dominique Terrell before connecting with sophomore tight end Jake McGee on a 24-yard TD pass.
"I think Mike did a good job of coming in and making some throws there, leading us to a scoring drive," London said. "He's a competitor."
Rocco said: "I was waiting for my opportunity, and I got it. My job is to win the game, regardless of what situation I'm put in and my role on the team. But we came up short. It's disappointing, regardless of the one successful drive I had. It's just a disappointing thing when you lose."
Frye's extra point made it 27-20 with 4:10 left, and then UVa's defense came through again. Harold and Brathwaite sacked quarterback Perry Hills on third-and-4, and Maryland had to punt.
A 6-yard return by Shepherd gave Virginia excellent field position, and then on first down, the sophomore from Upper Marlboro, Md., found himself wide open near the Maryland 40 on a pass route. But Rocco's pass was too high and glanced off the hands of Shepherd, who would have gone for a huge gain, if not a TD.
The lost opportunity was "indicative of the season here a little bit, with these plays at the most opportune times that are not being made," London said, adding that Shepherd "would still be running now if we make that play."
Rocco said: "It's tough. It was so open. If I could have had it back and put it right on his numbers, I would, but it's a game of inches, and sometimes it goes your way, sometimes it doesn't."
In a game in which Maryland was penalized only once, for 5 yards, Virginia gave up 70 yards on seven infractions. The most costly penalty came on the Frye field goal that pulled UVa to 17-13 with 29 seconds left in the third quarter.
The points stayed on the scoreboard, but, because of the personal foul called on fullback Zachary Swanson, Frye then had to kick off from Virginia's 20, instead of the 35. Diggs returned the short kickoff 34 yards to the UVa 47. From there, the Terps needed only six plays to score a touchdown that pushed their lead to 11.
"Not enough good things happened to us today, particularly in the end, to pull this thing out," London said. "Great effort by the guys, but again great effort doesn't [always produce] a 'W.' It's still a loss, and we need to get better."
UP NEXT: At 12:30 p.m. Saturday, Virginia hosts Wake Forest (3-3, 1-3) at Scott Stadium. The Demon Deacons were off this weekend.
The teams haven't met since 2008, when Wake won 28-17 in Winston-Salem, N.C. Virginia leads the series 34-13.
Which direction UVa will go at quarterback against Wake was not clear after the Maryland game. Will Rocco rejoin the first team, or will Sims retain the starting job?
"That's not up to me," Sims said. "That's up to the coaches, and they decide what's best for the team."
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Director of News Content
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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