Karmic Cavs Survive Another Nail-Biter

Mikell Simpson
Mikell Simpson breaks tackles as he crosses the goal line for the winning touchdown. (Steve Helber - AP)
By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 4, 2007

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Nov. 3 -- Sam Swank took four measured steps backward and two to his left, the routine that has made him, by most accounts, the best place kicker in college football. He stiffened his arms and pointed his fingers toward the left hash mark on the 37-yard line, the spot from which he would decide the fates of Wake Forest, his team, and Virginia, which led by one point with two seconds remaining.

For all the white-knuckled moments the Cavaliers have endured this season, this may have been the most terrifying, if only because it was out of their hands. It was in the hands of Swank, owner of the Atlantic Coast Conference's surest leg.

"Frankly," Virginia Coach Al Groh said, "I didn't have any nerves about it all."

After what Virginia has done this season, why would he? When Swank's kick sailed wide right and gave Virginia a 17-16 victory, the Cavaliers became the first team in college football history to win five games by two points or less in a season. More urgently, they remained atop the ACC Coastal Division and took a big step toward ensuring their season-ending showdown here with Virginia Tech will decide who plays in the Dec. 1 conference championship game.

Clutch, charmed, poised, lucky -- whatever word you choose to explain Virginia's success in close games is as good as any other. After Swank's shank, even some Cavaliers pondered how their implausible streak has formed.

"I believe in karma," defensive end Chris Long said. "We've got guys who let people cross the street and help old ladies across the street. Karma adds up. It might be that. Is there somebody looking over our shoulder?"

Divine intervention may be the only rationalization for Swank missing not only the 47-yarder at the end of the game, but also a 43-yard field goal in the second quarter. Before Saturday, Swank, the first-team all-ACC place kicker last season, had missed 1 of 12 field goal attempts this season -- that from 57 yards. He had made 53 of 67 field goal attempts in his career, 11 of 16 from 47 yards or longer.

Some of the Cavaliers knew Swank's credentials. Some were oblivious.

"If I knew all that," linebacker Clint Sintim said, "I might have passed out."

Instead, Sintim focused on trying to pressure Swank and then watched the final scene unfold: Swank swung his leg and leaned forward. Long lay on the ground and whipped his head around. The ball sailed end over end, past the right upright and bounced on the turf. The officials waved their arms. The Cavaliers charged the field, mobbing one another. Place kicker Chris Gould rushed to console Swank and tell him, "You're a great kicker."

Before the celebration, Virginia needed to overcome another fourth-quarter deficit with another drive engineered by quarterback Jameel Sewell. Down 16-10 on his own 44 with 6 minutes 15 seconds left, Sewell led the Cavaliers on a 10-play drive, accounting for all but the three final yards.

The turning point of the drive came on fourth and two from the 24. In the third quarter, Groh had eschewed an easy field goal on fourth down and regretted it -- "I may have got a little carried away," he said. Now, there wasn't a choice.

Sewell dropped back three steps and locked his gaze on Wake Forest's outside linebacker. Running back Mikell Simpson ran to the left flat, and wide receiver Maurice Covington, lined up in the left slot, ran a short hitch pattern. Whichever receiver the linebacker ran at, Sewell would throw the other way.

He broke outside, and Sewell whipped a pass over Covington's head. Covington leapt and stretched his long arms skyward toward the ball, which was still rising as it nestled into his hands. First down.

Sewell followed that play with a remarkable 11-yard scramble. As Sewell ran left, safety Chip Vaughn charged and lifted Sewell off his feet. Sewell landed, regained his balance and lurched forward for another first down, inside the 5-yard line.

"Determination," Sewell said. "I didn't think he wanted to tackle me one-on-one. I don't think he was ready to do that."

Two plays later, from the 1, offensive coordinator Mike Groh called "17 Power," the same running play on which Simpson scored the game-winning touchdown against Maryland, a play designed for Simpson to follow fullback Rashawn Jackson and pulling guard Ian-Yates Cunningham off left tackle.

"When I got the block," Jackson said, "I knew we were going to score."

Afterward, Groh spoke of the respect he had for Wake Forest, the defending ACC champion. The difference between the teams last season was vast. This year, the difference was a few feet, a margin both improbable and fitting for Virginia.

"They played like a champion today," Groh said. "Hopefully, we showed a few traits of a similar nature."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company