William & Mary Stuns Mistake-Prone Virginia, 26-14

William & Mary receiver Cameron Dohse hauls in a catch in front of cornerback Ras-I Dowling during the I-AA Tribe's season-opening upset of Virginia, which failed to score in the second half.
William & Mary receiver Cameron Dohse hauls in a catch in front of cornerback Ras-I Dowling during the I-AA Tribe's season-opening upset of Virginia, which failed to score in the second half. (By Andrew Shurtleff -- Associated Press)
By Zach Berman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 6, 2009

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Sept. 5 -- In the minutes after a result that stunned Virginia's players and fans alike, Coach Al Groh did not attempt spin. His team had just lost its season opener to division I-AA William & Mary, a result that deflated optimism and will make Groh's job status a source of debate for the third consecutive season.

Even with a new offense and a promise of improved special teams, Groh's message to his team throughout preseason seldom wavered: avoid turnovers. But the Cavaliers' 26-14 loss was the result of seven of them, the most committed by Virginia in one game since 1994.

"Look, I'm not stuck for answers," Groh said. "I'm sure you all are stuck for questions. What more questions need to be asked after you turn the ball over [seven] times. That's pretty much the question. After that, there's not any coaching questions or any answers that are necessary."

The game was sealed with just less than three minutes remaining, when Cavaliers quarterback Jameel Sewell whipped a pass toward the Tribe sideline. It was caught by William & Mary cornerback B.W. Webb, who had nothing but the end zone in front of him. Webb's third interception of the night was Virginia's seventh turnover, and the return gave William & Mary the final margin of victory.

Groh said there are few coaches who are able to enter a season opener fully knowing what his team can do. Without preseason games and after months of practicing against one another, teams need to play against a different opponent and scheme.

"We were looking forward to playing this game to get a sense of what we can do," Groh said. "Clearly, we have a lot more to do if we want to like the team we get to know."

The offseason improvements intended to bolster the Cavaliers were nonexistent. The new-look offense that was supposed to spread the field and help Virginia score more points appeared every bit as lifeless as it was at the end of 2008.

Even after Gregg Brandon replaced Mike Groh at offensive coordinator, Virginia managed only 269 yards. It did not help that the offense was on the field for only 22 minutes and 42 seconds, compared with William & Mary's 37:18.

All three Virginia quarterbacks played -- Vic Hall, Sewell and Marc Verica -- although it was more out of desperation than deception. Groh said the plan was always to play three quarterbacks, but by the time Verica entered the game, Virginia was searching for some semblance of offensive vitality.

"Clearly, there wasn't a performance with any of the previous circumstances to say that a change wouldn't make it better," Groh said.

The deflating part was that Hall's transition to quarterback began with a performance worthy of the praise bestowed upon him throughout the preseason. Hall, a former defensive back, started at quarterback and quickly ran for a 34-yard touchdown scamper. Scott Stadium erupted.

From that point, the game spiraled out of control. Preseason personnel concerns were realized. The defense struggled to apply pressure. The quarterbacks committed costly errors. Confusion often reigned over efficiency.

The turnovers were committed almost every way imaginable. There was a fumble on a run, a misplayed punt, a pass that slipped backward and a sputtered snap. Sewell threw three interceptions.

And when Virginia wasn't expressly turning the ball over to the Tribe, it allowed William & Mary to keep possession. The defense had 12 players on the field during a third down. At one point, the special teams ran into the William & Mary punter to give the Tribe a new set of downs.

"Teams that make themselves hard to beat are teams that don't turn the ball over, they won't get penalties, don't make mental errors and just don't do things of that nature," Verica said. "It has to improve if we have any hope of winning games this year."

Afterward, Groh emphasized that 11 games remain. In 2007, Virginia lost to Wyoming, 23-3, to open the season. Following the game, someone spray-painted a message on a campus bridge: "Groh Must Go." The Cavaliers rebounded to win nine games and reach the Gator Bowl. Groh said he does not think about what happened in 2007 and was focusing only on next week's meeting with No. 17 Texas Christian. But he is aware that there will be frustration about what happened Saturday night.

"There will be a lot of negativity out there -- some well deserved," Groh said. "We can either crack or we can stick together. One thing we haven't ever done around here is crack."

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