Nov. 15, 2012
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CHARLOTTESVILLE -- For the seniors on the University of Virginia football team, their college careers could last another six weeks and end with a bowl game, or the curtain could fall next weekend in Blacksburg.
Win tonight, and UVa can become bowl-eligible by beating Virginia Tech next weekend at Lane Stadium. Lose tonight to North Carolina in the first Thursday night game at Scott Stadium since 2006, and the Cavaliers' season will end Nov. 24, no matter what happens at Lane Stadium that day.
"Right now I think we're kind of looking at it as a tournament," middle linebacker Steve Greer said Monday. "It's win or go home. Each week's pretty much a one-game playoff, and we understand that we need to finish well this season."
Greer, who ranks ninth all-time in career tackles at UVa, is among the players who'll be honored in the Senior Night ceremony tonight at Scott Stadium. Others include offensive tackle Oday Aboushi, tight ends Colter Phillips and Paul Freedman, tailback Perry Jones, defensive ends Bill Schautz and Ausar Walcott, defensive tackle Will Hill, holder Jacob Hodges and linebacker LaRoy Reynolds.
"Your career goes by fast," Greer said. "All the upperclassmen tell you that when you're a freshman. They're like, `Savor it, it's going to go by fast,' and it's kind of weird; it's already here. Just go out and enjoy it, and I think the best way to do it would be to get a win."
The Wahoos (4-6, 2-4 ACC) came into this month not having won since Sept. 8, when they edged error-prone Penn State 17-16 at Scott Stadium. But, coming off a bye week, they changed the direction of their season -- and ended their six-game losing streak -- with an emphatic 33-6 win at NC State on Nov. 3.
"I think we all kind of knew what kind of team we could be if we eliminated mistakes and [stopped] holding ourselves back," Greer said, "and we focused on that in the bye week, and I think that NC State game definitely gave guys on our team confidence."
A week later, at Scott Stadium, Virginia scored a touchdown with six seconds left -- on a 10-yard pass from junior quarterback Michael Rocco to sophomore tight end Jake McGee -- to stun ACC rival Miami 41-40 and keep alive its postseason hopes.
"I think you always look for some sort of spark," Virginia coach Mike London said Monday, "whether it's offensively, defensively, or from just the mentality of when good things happen. And I think it can become a snowball effect. People are ruled by the psychology of results, and you win a big game, a homecoming game on somebody else's turf, you come home, you play a very good team and you win last-second -- that helps the psyche."
London added: "When confident players are playing, it changes a lot of things."
UNC's first-year coach has noticed. The Cavaliers were on "a rough road there for a little bit," Larry Fedora said Wednesday, "and now it's like a totally different football team. You can see the confidence in the way they play."
Reynolds said: "I think that everything's just starting to come together. We're just playing as a unit, playing as one. I think the motto since November started is just being one."
The Tar Heels (6-4, 3-3), meanwhile, are coming off a game in which they scored 50 points and totaled nearly 500 yards of offense -- and lost by 18 to Georgia Tech, in Chapel Hill, no less.
The defeat may have shaken the Heels' confidence, but their offense figure to pose significant problems for a UVa defense that has struggled to slow down no-huddle, spread attacks. Such offenses have been Fedora's trademark, first at Southern Mississippi and now at UNC.
The Cavaliers don't need to be reminded how explosive a Fedora-coached team can be. A year ago, Southern Miss came into Scott Stadium and knocked off Virginia 30-24.
In scouting the Tar Heels, London said, "you can see Southern Miss in the style of defense that they play and obviously in the style of offense."
UNC has a game-changing talent in Giovani Bernard, who leads the ACC in rushing and punt returns, and a superb quarterback in Bryn Renner, who has thrown 20 touchdown passes this season.
"Our work is cut out for us," London said Monday when asked about Bernard. "Our approach will have to be to know where he is at all times."
Bernard, a sophomore, has returned two punts for touchdowns this season. As a tailback, he's averaging 7.1 yards per carry and 126 yards per game. Given the problems the Cavaliers had slowing Miami tailback Duke Johnson last weekend -- the freshman returned a kickoff for a touchdown and rushed for 150 yards -- they're understandably wary of Bernard. But they're also excited about the challenge he presents.
"He's a great player, great running back, probably one of the best we're going to play against," Reynolds said. "I have a lot of respect for him. But you live for competition like this ... I think it's just one of those things that you've got to kind of step up to the challenge and kind of hitch your belts, whenever you're playing against one of the top running backs, especially a guy like this, who's a potential high draft pick."
UNC runs a spread offense similar to that of Louisiana Tech, which beat UVa 44-38 in a Sept. 29 shootout at Scott Stadium.
"We know it's going to be fast-paced," Greer said. "We've been preparing for that in practice."
Virginia's pro-style offense is more traditional. What's unconventional is that offensive coordinator Bill Lazor has rotated two quarterbacks -- Rocco and sophomore Phillip Sims -- in each of the past two games, with impressive results.
"I think they've both been approaching this situation so professionally, very team-oriented," Lazor said after the Miami game. "They're both great competitors and want to win, yet they understand and they're not batting an eyelash. They're helping each other, they're preparing, and it's really fun right now because of how they're playing."
Expect both to play against UNC, London said, "because that seems to be a formula that's been successful for us right now."
This is London's third season as the Cavaliers' head coach. In their first Thursday night game under London, the `Hoos won 28-21 at Miami last season. They went on to earn an invitation to the Chick-fil-A Bowl, the program's first postseason appearance in four years.
Not since Oct. 19, 2006, when they blanked UNC 23-0, have the Cavaliers played in a Thursday night game at Scott Stadium. Nobody has to tell the `Hoos what this appearance on ESPN could mean for the program.
"Everyone who loves college football is watching this game," Reynolds said. "And it's a statement game."
London said: "This is the most important game of our season right now."
For the seniors, a wild journey is nearing its end. They came to UVa to play for Al Groh, only to see him fired after the 2009 season. When London, a former Virginia assistant, was hired, he focused on changing the culture of a program that had largely become irrelevant in the ACC. With the help of this class, he has succeeded. And now the seniors are about to play at Scott Stadium for the last time.
London can expect their best tonight.
"The energy's going to be there, the passion's going to be there, and the effort's definitely going to be there," Reynolds said.