When Virginia senior strong safety Rodney McLeod pulled down his third interception Saturday against Maryland – the first time a Cavaliers player had accomplished that feat since Anthony Poindexter in 1996 – a few fans standing in the Virginia cheering section at Byrd Stadium held up a large silver cardboard sign with bold orange lettering. “We Are Going To Win,” it read.
Coach Mike London has tried to infuse the Cavaliers program with exactly that attitude since he took charge in December 2009. It has been a process, teaching Virginia’s players how to win (consistently) again. The Cavaliers had a combined 8-16 record in the two seasons immediately preceding London’s arrival. They went 4-8 in his first year at the helm. This fall, Virginia needed overtime to defeat Idaho and then followed a victory over then-No. 12 Georgia Tech with a 14-point home loss to North Carolina State.
Through it all, London remained true to his original approach, one founded on positive re-enforcement, unyielding faith and infectious energy. London’s emotional temperament and motivational techniques can seem cheesy at times, but they are not an act. He is genuine both by nature and by necessity. You don’t get through – truly, deeply get through – to players who never have known anything other than failure at the collegiate level by being anything but.
And so Virginia did win Saturday, 31-13, which marked its sixth victory of the season. That means no more talk of November losing streaks and not another December spent at home, left only to wait until spring practice rolls around. The Cavaliers are bowl eligible for the first time since 2007.
“First of all, I’m extremely humbled because of where the program was and the progress we were trying to make and the ups and downs that you have with your players,” London said. “It’s gratifying to see young men that believe in themselves and the coaching staff that puts the time and the effort in to really make something significant out of this season.”
1) Second-half defense. Virginia entered the second half ahead by one point. The Cavaliers had been respectable against the run, not so much against the pass. But in the second half, Virginia shut down a Maryland offense that is not bereft of weapons. The Terrapins managed only 121 yards of and did not score in the second half. They possessed the ball for 4 minutes 21 seconds in the third quarter. But most interesting was that Maryland rushed the ball six times for a net of one yard in the second half. Defensive coordinator Jim Reid said he was surprised the Terrapins abandoned the run as much as they did after halftime. Maryland was trailing, but they weren’t trailing by more than one possession until late in the third quarter. Regardless, the Terrapins went to the air, and Virginia responded by tallying three interceptions.
2) Perry Jones. On the first play of the game from scrimmage, Jones ran to his right and sprinted 47 yards for a touchdown. Jones finished with 139 yards and two touchdowns on 22 carries. In a somewhat disappointing development – purely from an entertainment standpoint – Jones neither threw nor caught a touchdown pass Saturday. Some days, the Cavaliers need Jones to do a little bit of everything, and he delivers. Other times – such as against Maryland – they just need him to do one thing really well. Apparently, he delivers on those days, too.
3) Michael Rocco. The sophomore quarterback completed 63.9 percent of his passes for 307 yards and two touchdowns. He completed passes to eight targets, and for the most part operated the offense efficiently. Much like last week at Miami, the Cavaliers did not ask or need Rocco to win the game for them, and he didn’t try to. He did what he was asked to do, and did it competently.
1) First-half penalties. London said his players might have been a little too tight to start the game, so maybe that had something to do with it. But the Cavaliers – who have taken significant strides forward in the penalty department this season – were flagged five times for 40 yards in the first half. On the bright side, Virginia was not flagged at all after halftime.
2) Pass defense. I know, I know, we praised the three interceptions earlier in this blog post, and those were important. But the team’s recent penchant for insufficient pass defense revealed itself again Saturday, particularly in the first half. Maryland threw for 269 yards and would have done even more damage through the air were it not for several dropped passes. Two Maryland receivers (Quintin McCree and Kerry Boykins) each tallied more than 100 receiving yards.
3) Fumbles. Two of Virginia’s true freshmen coughed up the ball Saturday. Tailback Clifton Richardson – who finished with four yards on three carries – fumbled on the Maryland 19-yard line early in the second quarter. The Terrapins capitalized with a 4-play, 83-yard drive that concluded with a touchdown pass. Quarterback David Watford – who logged five snaps all game – fumbled the ball at the Maryland 18-yard line midway through the fourth quarter. Both players have ample talent and potential and will have better days in a Virginia uniform, but Saturday was definitely a learning experience for them both.