By Steve Yanda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 2, 2010; 1:00 AM
CHARLOTTESVILLE - In the final game of a 4-8 campaign, Virginia's response to one play illustrated the most sizable gap that must be closed before the Cavaliers can compete on the field with in-state rival Virginia Tech.
On second and 17, roughly one minute into the second quarter Saturday against the Hokies, the Cavaliers were backed up deep in their own territory when fifth-year senior quarterback Marc Verica threw his 14th interception of the season, which was returned to the 5-yard line. At that point, the game was scoreless. By halftime, Virginia Tech owned a 17-0 lead. By game's end, Virginia's margin of defeat was 30.
"Winning breeds an attitude of winning; success breeds success," Coach Mike London said Wednesday. "And you could tell after the interception was thrown, they got the ball on the 5-yard line, and when you have a mature team, a team that's been in the ups and downs and has played in big games and won those big games, we didn't have that type of mind-set. They scored, and it was, 'Oh, here we go again,' type of thing.
"A team that's more experienced and has the type of attitude of teams that have done things and been in championship games is: 'Okay, that's just another part of the game. Let's go. Spot the ball and let's play again.' "
As London and his staff hit the recruiting trail and set their sights on the beginning of their second spring practice with this group of players, changing the mentality of a program that has gone 12-24 in the past three seasons and has not won a game in November in its last 13 tries remains one of London's most crucial objectives.
London said he noticed "a measured amount of improvement" this season, particularly in a special teams unit that proved creative, unpredictable and - most importantly - productive. He also was encouraged by an offense that ranked No. 4 in the ACC in passing yards per game.
Five offensive linemen who started at least six games each will return next year. Offensive coordinator Bill Lazor called that unit's development over the past four months "one of the great stories of the season" and believes its experience will aid the offense in the pass and run game moving forward.
"But in reality, modern-day football, you better have the quarterback operating if you want to score points," Lazor said Saturday. "That's just how it goes, and that's what I believe in. And everywhere I've been, that's how it's been. It's a huge job ahead for me and for these guys to get ready.
The batch of quarterbacks who likely will compete for the vacant starting job during spring practice includes redshirt freshman Ross Metheny and freshman Michael Rocco - both of whom saw limited playing time this season - as well as freshmen Michael Strauss and Miles Gooch, both of whom redshirted this fall.
Hampton High quarterback David Watford also will be in the mix. Watford's mother, Angela, said Sunday her son plans to enroll at Virginia for the spring 2011 semester.
One of those players will assume the reins of an offense that, while prolific at times, failed to score more than 14 points in five of Virginia's 10 games against division I-A opponents.
"The only way to go is up, and we know that," Metheny said Saturday. "There's many things that happened this season that didn't go our way or were frustrating . . . but you can't have anything but excitement for the future. We know that the guys that we have are the right guys."
Fifth-year senior middle linebacker Darnell Carter said Virginia's defense needs to "mature," especially considering its two starting outside linebackers played as safeties at this time last year. London spoke about the need for improvement against the run, and indeed, the Cavaliers allowed more than 200 rushing yards per game. Becoming more disciplined - only three division I-A teams in the nation were assessed more penalty yards per game this fall - also is a goal.
But with nine starters returning on both sides of the ball, London is confident the lessons he and his staff continue to preach will get through and that tangible results soon will be evident.
"You look at a lot of teams that have had another year of the same language, having some opportunities to improve," London said. "I'd use Maryland as an example. They did a nice job with having the same message and the same guys back. . . . I think the consistency of the message with that many guys coming back and the influx of hopefully some young, new talent will provide us an opportunity for improvement and for better play."