Virginia Suffers Another Letdown

jeffrey fitzgerald - university of virginia
The season of Jeffrey Fitzgerald, above, and Virginia is quickly careening off into a ditch after Saturday's defeat puts them at 2-4. (Stan Gilliland - AP)
By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 8, 2006

GREENVILLE, N.C., Oct. 7 -- By halftime on Saturday night, at which point Virginia trailed by 17 points, the current state of the Cavaliers had become as clear as the starless Carolina sky outlining Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. The struggle will not be to make a bowl game; that much seems unattainable. The struggle will be finding a way to salvage a season.

The Cavaliers began this season confident in their ability to execute, certain that each player performing his role would ensure a successful outcome. By the time East Carolina, a Conference USA team that had gone 1-16 against teams from Bowl Championship Series conferences since the end of the 2000 season, finished demolishing a once-proud defense en route to a 31-21 victory, it had become apparent that approach will not suffice.

"We came into the season with our identity as a team business-like," defensive end Chris Long said. "'We could go out there and take care of our business and be calm. It looks like we're going to need a spark. Maybe guys who are less vocal can step up and become leaders. Different teams do things different ways. So far, we've been feeding off execution and trying to do our jobs. You got to realize, sometimes you got to play with emotion."

A new culprit emerged last night, a defense that had acted as the lone silver lining, the final shreds of hope. The Pirates piled on points for two quarters and used a 79-yard, 16-play, 9-minute touchdown drive to salt away the victory.

Though East Carolina dominated much of the game, Virginia (2-4, 1-1 ACC) still had life until East Carolina's epic march in the fourth quarter, which ended with a punter crossing the Cavaliers' end zone on a fake field goal. Ryan Dougherty took the snap and knifed through the line from the 2, making the score 31-14 with 2 minutes, 17 seconds left.

While that possession sucked any remaining life out of Virginia, the damage was done in the first half. Running backs Brandon Simmons and Brandon Fractious thrashed the Cavaliers repeatedly, and James Pinkney carved Virginia's secondary in the first half. East Carolina rang up 24 points and 304 yards in the half, 146 rushing and 158 passing.

"They executed, and we didn't," Long said. "We just didn't make any plays. We always try to take care of ours, and we didn't."

The low point came at the end of the half. East Carolina (2-3, 1-1) had gone 52 yards in just three plays to the 5-yard line. East Carolina center Tom Wingenbach snapped the ball over Pinkney's head, and the quarterback leapt to deflect the ball into the air. He chased it down and caught it at the 10-yard line, paused for a moment to scan his receivers, then darted into the end zone past the hapless defense.

"They out-kicked us, out-coached us, out-defended us, out-ran us," Coach Al Groh said. "It was pretty hard-ball stuff. There wasn't a lot of tricks. They made plays. We didn't make any plays."

The defense improved in the third quarter, shutting out the Pirates while the Cavaliers came back. Virginia started its resurgence when Ben Parziale blocked a punt on ECU's first possession of the second half. Two plays later, Jason Snelling burst into the end zone from the 1-yard line to make the score 24-14.

Virginia scored its first touchdown using a trick that worked last week, an end-around pass by Emmanuel Byers. After lining up wide left and sprinted across the field, Byers received a hand off from Jameel Sewell. He pulled up deep in the backfield and threw a pass to Deyon Williams, who had snuck five yards behind the nearest defender in the back right corner of the end zone.

Byers converted the same play last week and last season, giving him three touchdown passes in his career. After the play, he bounded up and down at midfield, shrugging his shoulders at the East Carolina sideline before exchanging a flying high-five with Williams. The mood soared on the Cavaliers sideline.

That emotion would soon be drained, emotion the Cavaliers have lacked all season, some players say.

"Just looking at the team, we have excitement. We have some fire," Williams said. "But we just need more. We need more heart. We need more fire. We just need more people on the team to feel the same way. If we do that, we could be a good team. Right now, that's what's holding us back."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company