Virginia's Turnaround Has Been a Team Effort
Saturday, November 1, 2008
CHARLOTTESVILLE -- Virginia Coach Al Groh was forced to move his Tuesday news conference this week because a job fair had overtaken much of John Paul Jones Arena. Four weeks ago, many fans would have recommended that Groh attend the fair.
But four consecutive victories later, the coach whose employment status was a topic of speculation for the first month of the season has his team atop the Coastal Division of the ACC.
The Cavaliers enter Saturday's game against Miami having completed an undefeated October that included three victories over ACC opponents: North Carolina and Maryland, which currently are ranked among the nation's top 25, and Georgia Tech, which was ranked before the loss. Just five weeks after becoming the first ACC team in 26 games to lose to Duke, Virginia now has hopes of reaching the ACC championship game. In the process, the formerly beleaguered Groh went from the hot seat to the hottest coach in the conference.
"I think there were a lot of players that just hadn't had any -- it wasn't that they had experienced failure -- it was just that they hadn't had any tangible success before then," Groh said. "They were waiting to see that. One of the things that did get us to this point was that the players were always listening to the message and stayed with it."
When pinpointing why the team struggled early in the season, Groh identified a "lack of inventory" that forced inexperienced players into unexpected roles earlier than anticipated. The team gradually developed and hit its stride during a much-needed 31-0 victory over the Terrapins on Oct. 4.
That win, which came just seven days after Virginia's 31-3 loss to Duke, left many college football observers bewildered, but it did not entirely shock those within the Cavaliers' football program. Against Duke, the team was undone by the cramps that overtook defensive standouts Clint Sintim and Ras-I Dowling, a few questionable decisions by quarterback Marc Verica in his second start and a knee injury that hindered senior running back Cedric Peerman.
"I can't say there was any fuzzy feelings coming out of that," Groh said. "But if your mentality is not to be Chicken Little, and just looked at the plays and some of the players who performed and where it might go. The score speaks for what you are, but it doesn't mean you had 85 bad plays."
The flashes Groh witnessed and the development he banked on came to fruition against Maryland.
An improved offensive line blocked efficiently for a healthier Peerman. The inexperienced defensive line started occupying blockers, allowing a heralded group of linebackers to roam the field. And the little-known Verica proved to be a steadying force within the huddle. Combined with the unflappable Groh, Virginia was able to remain in games and accumulate victories.
The offensive line received its critical boost from freshman guard Austin Pasztor, a 17-year-old Canadian who made his first start against Maryland and has become a promising force next to acclaimed left tackle Eugene Monroe. Right tackle Will Barker, a 6-foot-7, 315-pound junior, also has raised his performance level after being cleared of a misdemeanor charge that had hung over him since the summer.
In the four games since sitting out against Duke to recover fully from a bruised knee, Peerman has rushed for 445 yards and six touchdowns. He refuses to even acknowledge the injury was serious, nor take credit for the offensive resurgence. His production -- and opposing defenders -- might argue otherwise.
The other key on offense has been Verica, a sophomore who took over when Peter Lalich was dismissed from the team after violating the terms of his probation. Unlike Lalich, Verica was not a major recruit. His name has been mispronounced on television, a joke among friends, family and teammates. (It's pronounced VEHR-ih-cuh.)