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Lewis, Snyderwine lead Duke past Virginia 28-17

Duke quarterback Thaddeus Lewis, right, is pressured during the first half of an NCAA college football game by Virginia's Nate Collins at Scott Stadium in Charlottesville, Va., on Saturday, Oct. 31, 2009. (AP Photo/News & Observer,Ted Richardson)
Duke quarterback Thaddeus Lewis, right, is pressured during the first half of an NCAA college football game by Virginia's Nate Collins at Scott Stadium in Charlottesville, Va., on Saturday, Oct. 31, 2009. (AP Photo/News & Observer,Ted Richardson) (Ted Richardson - AP)

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By Zach Berman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 1, 2009


Virginia's season might come down to the could-have-had-it, should-have-had-it explanations that always follow games like Saturday's, when Virginia watched a five-point lead evaporate in the final four minutes of a 28-17 loss to Duke. It's those few plays or miscues over the course of a game that leave Coach Al Groh repeating himself after losses.

But when too many happen during a season -- and in Groh's case, during nine years coaching his alma mater -- it leaves situations like the final 3 minutes 39 seconds of Saturday's game, when the Cavaliers were left trying to preserve their season, and possibly Coach Al Groh's job in the process.

Virginia trailed by one point and had the ball on its 13-yard line. The drive ended in three plays, when quarterback Jameel Sewell fumbled while he was dragged to the ground. Duke picked up the loose ball and made an easy run into the end zone -- thus spurning a mass exodus from Scott Stadium from a season-low crowd that had seen this act before.

"I really feel like we're a lot better than what our record shows, but you are what you are," said fullback Rashawn Jackson, confronting the reality of 3-5 overall record and the distinct possibility of Virginia's third losing season in four years.

Just two weeks ago, the Cavaliers sat atop the ACC with a three-game winning streak. Now, the season is spiraling away. Virginia (3-5, 2-2 ACC) faces four November games against teams with winning records and might need to win them all just to entertain discussion that the program's leadership can remain in place for another season.

Even an improbable winning streak likely would not cure fan apathy, which is best exemplified by attendance that continues to decrease. Only 41,713 came to Scott Stadium on Saturday. It was the smallest crowd since the stadium's expansion in 2000, breaking records set in the previous two home games.

"We kind of went through this last year," cornerback Chase Minnifield said, referencing a four-game losing streak that spoiled the 2008 season. "So we're really trying to turn it around. What we're doing isn't working right now."

What's happening is a confluence of issues that begin with an offense that struggles to move the football and a defense that is often overworked because of the offense's problems. But Groh's defense still allows what he terms as "plays that cause teams to lose", which he amounted to only four or six of Duke's 80 offensive plays. None were more costly than a 42-yard touchdown that gave Duke (5-3, 3-1) the lead with three minutes and 45 seconds remaining on what appeared like a defensive breakdown. Other than that play, Virginia held Duke to five field goals and out of the end zone for more than 56 minutes.

The Cavaliers totaled only 196 total yards on Saturday, which was their second-lowest total of the season. They scored two touchdowns, but they came on the only two effective drives of the game.

Virginia continued relying on throwing the football -- the quarterbacks attempted 38 passes and completely only 13 for 107 yards -- despite clear evidence that the team is more effective running. Jackson and Mikell Simpson received only 21 combined carries and totaled 105 yards.

"Protection certainly would have to be better. We can all see that," Groh said of his struggling passing game. "We dropped some balls when we were open. We can all see that. We missed some receivers who were open. And we can all see that. In college football these days, except for some unusual exceptions, a great deal of the scoring comes from the passing game. And when there's problems in three different areas of the passing game, it's difficult to produce the amount of points that are necessary."

The passing game especially came up short after Duke's touchdown, when the Cavaliers had 3:39 to try to erase Duke's one-point lead. Sewell threw two incomplete passes before he fumbled on the sack. And although the season is not totally lost, the Cavaliers are teetering especially close to fumbling away their season -- and possibly the Groh's job, too.

"It is [what it is] after every game I ever lost," Groh said of his state of mind. "Hurt for losing. We put a lot into this. We put everything we got into it. And when you get nothing back in return, it's a haunting feeling."

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