The Virginia football team made undeniable progress last season, coming within one victory of qualifying for the ACC championship game and earning a bowl appearance for the first time since 2007. But running back Perry Jones can’t help but shake his head in dismay over how the memorable year ended – with a 38-0 shutout at the hands of rival Virginia Tech and a 43-24 loss to Auburn in the Chick fil-A bowl.
To Perry, a year that will ultimately serve as the foundation for the Mike London era in Charlottesville has only provided him and his teammates with more motivation heading into the 2012 campaign. After showing what they were capable of during a defining November stretch that featured four straight wins and the emergence of quarterback Michael Rocco, the Cavaliers are out to prove it was no fluke.
“We know that those games didn’t really determine what our team was all about,” Jones said. “We definitely have a sour taste in our mouth and we want to wipe it clean. We’re just gonna go out there and show everybody that we weren’t supposed to play the way we did in the Chick-fil-A bowl. Even though we lost it, we deserved to be there.”
Establishing the program’s relevance again was only the start for London and company. This year, the challenge will be to continue that momentum, a task made harder with a defense that returns just five starters – including just one in the secondary.
London said Monday at the ACC’s annual kickoff event that the goal hasn’t changed from a year ago. Virginia wants to go to another bowl game, and anything less will be disappointing.
To do so, the Cavaliers will have to navigate an upgraded schedule that includes contests against eight bowl teams from a year ago – and Miami, which was bowl eligible but did not participate in one due to self-imposed sanctions.
But London believes last year’s experiences will pay dividends now. Though the season didn’t end as planned, Virginia’s four-game winning streak that featured wins over Miami and Florida State boosted the self-esteem of the entire program.
In the process, however, linebacker Steve Greer said the Cavaliers saw firsthand the sort of improvements remaining for a school that hasn’t captured an ACC football title since 1995.
“You understand how thin the line is for success and failure . . . how confidence breeds confidence when you’re consistent in winning. And it’s a mind-set,” London said. “This is one of the first steps of changing the perception of our program as well. . . . My whole goal is to make our program relevant and that’s by continuing a process so those guys are understanding, in order to win and play in the big games, you have to win and play in big games.”
How that will manifest itself this year remains to be seen, but London believes this team will need to find an identity, “and we’re gonna have to find it early this year.”
To that end, Greer saw renewed enthusiasm during the Cavaliers’ offseason workouts. Both he and Jones have also noticed that Virginia faithful have begun to rally around the program.
Players, fans and coaches alike finally got a taste of success, but that seems to have only galvanized them further.
“We really like the direction the program is going in and we want to continue going in that direction,” Greer said. “Guys worked really hard to get in this position and you’ve got to keep passing the baton.”