Virginia Coach Al Groh Uses Saturday Off to Reflect on Team's Season

By Zach Berman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 29, 2009

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Sept. 28 -- Al Groh spent his only idle Saturday of the season like most college football fans. With a quick thumb on the remote, the Virginia coach flipped from one game to another throughout the day.

Preparing for Saturday's game against North Carolina, Groh watched the Tar Heels play Georgia Tech. He also watched Indiana-Michigan, Alabama-Arkansas, Texas-UTEP, Virginia Tech-Miami, Oregon State-Arizona, Purdue-Notre Dame and Houston-Texas Tech. He even caught an Ivy League game "for the fun of it."

As his team enters the ACC opener after its worst start since 1982, Groh developed a "much broader perspective" after a Saturday without coaching.

"Certainly revealed that there's probably far too many teams and players that are anointed way too early in the season and far too many teams and players that are condemned too early in the season to see the significant turnarounds that occur in so many games -- that a season is to played out rather than to be seen in microcosm," Groh said. "I realize that's not the reality of the way things seem, but that's the reality of the way things go."

It could have been Groh referencing his own program -- and the scrutiny pointed in his direction -- although he later said that any outside condemnation is "not really our issue. Our issue is just playing better."

That was the task that consumed the other six days of the week. The timing of the bye -- three weeks into the season, just before the ACC begins -- provided an opportune occasion for assessment. Groh said it usually takes three to four games for a coach to truly develop a feel for his team, and the Cavaliers were able to further implement some of the schematic changes displayed during a 37-34 loss to Southern Mississippi on Sept. 19.

"When it comes at that particular stage -- regardless of what your record is at that particular time -- it's an excellent time to make a self-assessment," Groh said. "What are the areas we can really emphasize here to do well? What are the areas that we have to try to improve upon? Some time in this time frame is where it has the chance to work best for a team. So at this stage, our priority here was pretty much taking care of ourselves rather than getting way ahead on the upcoming game."

Safety Rodney McLeod said an emphasis was placed on problem areas through the first three games. Virginia was hurt by Southern Miss's Wildcat formation, and McLeod said the wildcat was a focus during the bye week.

"We need to stay composed," McLeod said. "Everyone sees a running back back there and goes, 'Oh my God, the Wildcat!' We just have to chill out. It's basically the same plays. We just worked on that, where to fill in the gaps, stuff like that."

In Groh's eight full seasons at Virginia, the extra week has provided the Cavaliers an advantage. He has a 9-5 record after bye weeks, a .648 winning percentage. He has a .544 winning percentage overall.

However, Virginia was 0-2 after bye weeks last season. Like this season, the first bye week followed the Cavaliers' third game and preceded the ACC opener on Tobacco Road. The Cavaliers were upset by Duke after a six-turnover performance, although they responded with a four-game winning streak that Groh attributed to improvements made during the extra week of practice.

Groh said the circumstances of each bye week are different, which makes it difficult to read into the record. In 2007, the Cavaliers were off before the regular season finale -- a 33-21 loss to Virginia Tech -- and the bye week that late in the season allowed for little except resting a fatigued roster and preparing for the final game.

In 2005, Virginia spent the week off after the season opener, which created a two-week period when little changed from the month-long training camp.

Groh said anything learned from last season's bye weeks could be found during the games and not during the extra week. Virginia was undone by turnovers in both losses.

"Now that I reflect back on it, the ball was the thing in those games," Groh said. "And clearly, that's going to be the issue with this team. When your margin of error is such -- or your margin of success -- is pretty small, as most of the conference games are, then the ball is the thing. And if you have a team that gets it and doesn't give it away, you have a real good chance to accumulate a lot more wins than the other way around."

Groh said Virginia "looks better on the practice field." He made sure to mention that the Cavaliers' first three opponents are a combined 10-1, which he hoped prepared the team for the ACC. But the fans have only watched the three losses -- not the encouraging week of practice -- and the frustration voiced in Virginia's direction will only intensify if the bye does not beget a win.

"Practice is one thing, and the game is the other," Groh said. "But at least the practices were more efficient."

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