After upset of Miami, Virginia football players say they still have much to prove

By Steve Yanda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 3, 2010; 1:14 PM

CHARLOTTESVILLE - The alternative could have been disastrous for Virginia quarterback Marc Verica and for the Cavaliers in general. Had Virginia, ahead by five, not converted on two third-down passes late in the fourth quarter Saturday against then-No. 22 Miami, the Hurricanes, who already had stolen the game's momentum by scoring 19 unanswered points, would have gotten the ball back with ample time to steal the win.

But the Cavaliers did prevail on both third downs, and they did escape with the victory. One adjective was not enough to accurately describe their importance, and so Verica hailed Virginia's "huge, huge conversions there at the end."

Verica, a fifth-year senior, and the Cavaliers (4-4, 1-3 ACC) travel to Duke (2-6, 0-4) on Saturday riding a wave of confidence not previously felt this season. But despite the composure Virginia demonstrated at the conclusion of its most recent triumph, the Cavaliers acknowledge that improvement remains needed in terms of their ability to finish.

"Playing with a lead is always nice, but I think what we saw [Saturday] is the caveat to that is you can't become lax because the other team is going to keep swinging and keep swinging, and I think we kind of relaxed a little bit at the end of the game," Verica said following Virginia's 24-19 win. "If we get in that situation again it will be really important for us to keep our foot on the pedal and keep going forward."

It is a goal the Cavaliers share with their next opponent. Duke defeated Navy, 34-31, on Saturday, but not before allowing 24 fourth-quarter points and nearly blowing what once was a 24-point lead. Blue Devils Coach David Cutcliffe said Sunday that as the game progressed and Navy grew more aggressive, he became "a little bit too conservative." Still, he said, the win gave the Blue Devils "something to build on."

In many ways, Virginia and Duke will enter Saturday's contest in the same boat. Both teams will strive to validate their recent success by continuing to show progress. Whether they can do so remains to be seen, given that each squad's body of work this season largely has been unimpressive.

Prior to the Miami game, Virginia had allowed more than 250 rushing yards in three of its previous four contests. But the Cavaliers were stout against the run early against the Hurricanes and allowed 179 rushing yards on the day.

Virginia's pass rush had been nearly nonexistent throughout October before the Cavaliers tallied 10 hits, 8 pressures and 1 sack against Miami's quarterbacks. Defensive line coach Jeff Hanson said he has been pleased with his unit's development thus far, though he would like to see more strip-tackles made against opposing quarterbacks to try to create more turnovers. Virginia has registered five forced fumbles this season, which is tied for 10th in the ACC.

"We've been more relentless," Hanson said. "We've been better moving our feet up the football field, and we've just got to get better finishing our pass rush. And what I mean by that is we need to be better at releasing off blockers and basically wrapping up quarterbacks when we have a chance to wrap quarterbacks."

Duke quarterback Sean Renfree has thrown 15 interceptions this season and had not completed more than 50 percent of his passes in the three games leading up to the win over Navy. Against the Midshipmen, Renfree completed 28 of 30 passes for 314 yards.

Likewise, Verica had struggled in ACC play before the revival against Miami. On Oct. 16, he threw three interceptions in a 44-10 loss to North Carolina. He was booed off the field, and popular sentiment among the Virginia fan base was to replace Verica as the team's starter with either redshirt freshman Ross Metheny or true freshman Michael Rocco.

Virginia Coach Mike London stuck with his lone veteran signal-caller, and against Miami, Verica completed a season-high 70.4 percent of his passes, including those two "huge, huge" third-down passes at the end to seal the win.

"That's what a fifth-year quarterback does," London said. "He's going to have to do it again. He's not off the hook. We got a lot of games to play. He's got more games to be his best game, you know? And until he disproves that he can't make those throws, under-throwing, then we look at the alternatives. Right now, he's not even looking at the alternatives."

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