Virginia Coach Mike London stood on the podium Saturday for his postgame news conference, his shirt still damp from the water-filled locker room celebration that had taken place moments earlier following the Cavaliers’ improbable 41-40 comeback victory over Miami, when he was asked how Virginia managed to revive a season that only two weeks ago seemed dead.
The Cavaliers were 2-6 entering their bye week at the end of last month, with no reliable quarterback, fans calling for across-the-board changes and a coaching staff that admitted it would begin using more of its talented underclassmen going forward. London’s answer, though, had nothing to do with schemes or the team’s decision to return to a rotation behind center or even last year’s magical run through the month of November.
Instead, London pointed to his motivational side, born from life experiences that allowed him to survive a gun fight during his days as a Richmond police detective and save his daughter with a bone marrow transplant despite 10,000-to-1 odds. When he looks back on these past two weeks, it was really all about belief.
“The players look to leadership to see if we’re going to tank it, or if we’re going to stay positive. I’m an eternal optimist. I choose to be positive,” London said Saturday. “You just believe things can turn around. Against a very good Miami team today, we turned a corner.”
And suddenly, the prospect of a second straight bowl appearance, which seemed so unlikely two weeks ago, is within reach. If the Cavaliers win Thursday against North Carolina and manage to end their eight-year losing streak to rival Virginia Tech on Thanksgiving weekend, Virginia will go bowling once again.
There are plenty of on-the-field reasons why these Cavaliers figured out how to win. A young defensive line dominated North Carolina State to start off the month, helping Virginia torment quarterback Mike Glennon into five turnovers. Facing Miami, the Cavaliers’ inexperienced wide receiving corps came into its own, combining for 20 catches, 281 yards and three touchdowns, a development that got overshadowed by the heroics of quarterback Michael Rocco.
None of it, though, would have been possible if not for London’s insistence behind the scenes that this season was not yet a lost cause.
“It would have been really easy to get down after our losing streak, but Coach London stays optimistic about everything,” cornerback Demetrious Nicholson said following Saturday’s game. “It trickles down to the rest of our team and when we start winning people start believing. The more you believe, the better you do.”
So when Virginia got the ball back down 40-35 with 2 minutes 38 seconds remaining, and a safety that shouldn’t have been called by the officials still fresh in its minds, sophomore wide receiver Darius Jennings just “knew we were going to go down there and come out with a win.”
The Cavaliers then proceeded to convert two fourth downs, one on a nine-yard catch by former All-Met Dominique Terrell and another via a Miami holding penalty. Tight end Jake McGee capped off the drive with a touchdown catch that will become part of Virginia football lore, leaping high in the air to haul in Rocco’s 10-yard touchdown pass with six seconds remaining to lift the Cavaliers to a victory.
It’s only two games, but once again, there’s magic brewing in Charlottesville, mere weeks after this football season appeared unsalvageable.
“This is something we never gave up on,” quarterback Phillip Sims said. “Going to a bowl game was never out of our reach as far as we were concerned. Winning these last two games has really put us in position. This is a tournament now, you win and you’re in, you lose and you go home. This is the situation we put ourselves in, but we have to make the best of it and come out on top.
“We have expected it from ourselves all season long and I think we are finally starting to come together. It’s finally showing on the field on Saturdays.”