Cavaliers' Simpson Bursts On to Scene With 271 Yards

Virginia's Mikell Simpson fulfills Coach Al Groh's vision at Byrd Stadium. His coming out party included this 44-yard touchdown run.
Virginia's Mikell Simpson fulfills Coach Al Groh's vision at Byrd Stadium. His coming out party included this 44-yard touchdown run. (By Toni L. Sandys -- The Washington Post)
By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 21, 2007

Al Groh left Mikell Simpson off Virginia's preseason depth chart, but not because he doubted Simpson's ability. Groh envisioned Simpson as both a running back and wide receiver, a weapon who could damage a defense with his versatility and his speed. "His position is 'good player,' " Groh said before the season.

But Simpson spent the first seven games of the season as an afterthought, rarely getting on the field, much less carrying the ball. Simpson had not delivered on his promise until Virginia's 18-17 victory at Maryland's Byrd Stadium last night, when he stunned the Terrapins -- and anyone who follows the Cavaliers -- with 271 total yards, serving as Virginia's leading receiver, leading rusher and unexpected hero.

On Virginia's game-winning, 90-yard drive, Simpson gained 78 yards and culminated the march by flipping over a pile of Maryland tacklers and across the goal line. It was a surreal way to end a surreal performance.

"I never dreamed of this," Simpson said. "But things happen. This is one of those moments that it happened."

Before last night the sophomore had run the ball twice and caught four passes this season, a total of six touches for 22 yards. Without any warning during the week that his role would increase, Simpson surpassed those numbers on Virginia's first drive. He torched Maryland with a combination of swing passes, screens and draws, using the speed that made him a top-15 running back recruit from Harrisburg, Pa.

He had awaited this chance, his first game as only a running back, since graduating from high school. Simpson rushed 16 times for 119 yards and two touchdowns, catching 13 passes for 152 yards, an emergence that bordered on unbelievable. Against Connecticut a week ago, Simpson did not even step on the field. He had not carried the ball or caught a pass since Sept. 22 against Georgia Tech, when he caught one pass for six yards; it had been nearly a month since Simpson so much as touched the ball in a game.

Still, when Virginia needed a play most, the Cavaliers called on Simpson. Facing second and 12 from Virginia's eight with less than seven minutes remaining, offensive coordinator Mike Groh called for a shovel pass to Simpson, who weaved 16 yards for a first down. The next five plays all went to Simpson too, and he carried the ball from the Virginia 23 to the Maryland 30.

When Virginia had fourth and four from the 14, Sewell hit Simpson on a swing pass to the right. He caught the ball just beyond the line of scrimmage and darted for the first-down marker, stretching the nose of the ball to the 10 as he was pushed out of bounds. He followed that with his acrobatic, game-winning touchdown.

"Never would have thought that," defensive end Chris Long said. "He's always had that talent. It's like his birthday, like he was born into college football today."

If so, it closely followed another birthday. Under his eyes, Simpson wore black stickers with the name "Jayda" written in silver, the name of his niece who was born two weeks ago.

Simpson's ascension began Monday. He had practiced mostly at wide receiver throughout the season, but this week, the return of top wideout Maurice Covington from a hand injury gave Virginia more depth at wide receiver. It allowed Simpson to move to running back and help replace injured starter Cedric Peerman. Simpson seemingly took the place of Andrew Pearman, who returned kicks but received no carries.

"We just decided that this is something Mikell's been waiting for for a long time," Groh said. "Let's ride him and see what happens."

Simpson's first highlight moment came in the second quarter, with 3:35 left to play in the half. He began Virginia's drive from its 34-yard line with an 11-yard gain on a screen pass from Jameel Sewell. Two plays later, he ran a draw play to the right, cut back and bolted untouched 44 yards for Virginia's first touchdown. Once he dashed behind Maryland's secondary, he further separated from his pursuers.

It was a play Simpson had waited to make, and his teammates believed he could. As Simpson shuffled off the podium post-game to make room for Groh, his coach insisted Simpson stay a little longer.

"He deserves the moment," Groh said.

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