Reporting David Elfin
In the quarter century from 1983-2007, Virginia’s football team went to 16 bowl games and posted 22 winning seasons.
In the five full seasons since, the Cavaliers have topped the number of losing records during that previous span by going 5-7 in 2008, 3-9 in 2009, and 4-8 in both 2010 and 2012. The 8-5 finish in 2011 (including a bowl game defeat) was the only bright spot during a half-decade of misery in Charlottesville.
Last fall, Virginia was crushed by Georgia Tech, North Carolina, TCU – its only ranked opponent — and Duke. Yes, Duke. The Cavs surprised Miami and whipped N.C. State, with their other triumphs coming over FCS member Richmond and a Penn State team reeling from the Jerry Sandusky scandal and the death of coach Joe Paterno.
In response to that big downturn after the seeming progress the previous season, fourth-year coach Mike London hired former head coaches Tom O’Brien (N.C. State/Boston College) and Steve Fairchild (Colorado State) as well as veteran defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta.
The Cavaliers are certainly more experienced on the sidelines this season, but the guys on the field remain young, especially on defense where linemen Jake Snyder and Brent Urban are Tenuta’s only senior starters. Considering that Virginia was torched for an average of 35.3 points per game during a six-game slide that followed last year’s 2-0 start, there’s plenty of room for improvement on that side of the ball.
So last week’s 19-16 opening victory over visiting Brigham Young has to give London, Virginia’s players and their fans hope that better times are ahead. BYU is no longer the powerhouse it was under coach LaVell Edwards from 1972-2000, but the Cougars have enjoyed seven straight winning seasons.
What’s more, the statistics say that the visitors should have prevailed at Scott Stadium, given their 363-223 margin in yards, 21 first downs to the hosts’ 14, and the loss of one turnover to two for Virginia.
However, the Cavs kept the ball for 34:09 and overcame a four-point deficit with less than three minutes remaining to win on junior tailback Kevin Parks’ 13-yard touchdown run that followed Anthony Harris’ interception. The junior safety won National Defensive Player of the Week acclaim with 11 tackles and one of Virginia’s three sacks. He also blocked a punt to set up UVa’s other touchdown.
Parks managed only 52 yards on his other 19 carries and sophomore quarterback David Watford produced just 114 yards on his 18 completions in his first career start after red-shirting in 2012.
The Cavs became the first FBS team during the last 14 years to win a game while punting 13 times. Their offense was, in a word, offensive. But after four down years in five, a victory is a victory.
“To have a win like that [in our] opening game against a well-coached team is a tremendous boost,” London exulted.
Don’t expect that to be reflected Saturday when No. 2 Oregon comes calling as a 23-point favorite. Virginia then faces lesser light VMI, new ACC member Pitt – which was pounded by No. 10 Florida State last week—and underrated Ball State. If the Cavaliers can emerge from that stretch at 3-2, they have a trio of tossup games against conference rivals Maryland, Duke and Georgia Tech before a killer final month against No. 4 Clemson, North Carolina, Miami and Virginia Tech.
If Watford can mesh with veteran receivers Tim Smith and Darius Jennings and the line – led by the left side of Morgan Moses and Luke Bowanko – can give him time to throw and Parks some room to run in the scheme put together by O’Brien and Fairchild, then the Cavaliers could be more potent than they were for much of 2012.
However, despite the boost from beating BYU, it seems that Virginia is at least a year away from competing with the big dogs of the ACC.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011.