CHARLOTTESVILLE — Last Saturday, with his team mounting a last-minute drive, Virginia senior LaRoy Reynolds’s heart was racing. A defensive player relegated to the sideline during the tense moments that eventually led to Virginia’s dramatic 41-40 win over Miami, Reynolds could only send up “a million prayers” when the Cavaliers faced two fourth downs.
But then something improbable happened. Reynolds watched sophomore wide receiver Dominique Terrell haul in a nine-yard catch to convert one fourth down and draw a holding penalty to secure another. Before long, quarterback Michael Rocco found tight end Jake McGee in the end zone for the game-winning touchdown, but it was Terrell’s play that stuck with Reynolds.
“Seeing the effort he was giving, it changed my whole mind-set as far as why we’re playing the games,” Reynolds said of Terrell, a former All-Met from Manassas who finished with a career-high nine catches for 127 yards against Miami. “He kind of lifted me up.”
Reynolds isn’t the only one who’s feeling a different energy these days. A mere two weeks after Coach Mike London’s third season at Virginia looked to be a lost cause, an injection of youth during the bye week has the Cavaliers on a roll, and they need just two wins to claim a second straight bowl appearance.
On Thursday night, Virginia gets a nationally televised chance to prove this sudden reclamation project is for real when its takes on North Carolina. It’s the first Thursday night game at Scott Stadium in six years, but the question posed to the team’s senior leaders this week, on the cusp of their final home game, was just how this burst of success came to fruition.
They all say it started during the bye last month, when London and his staff spent much of the down time self-evaluating what the Cavaliers were doing wrong during a six-game losing streak. They then made a concerted effort to infuse more of the team’s talented underclassmen into the rotation.
Senior defensive end Billy Schautz pointed to practices that became more intense with more drills pitting the first-team offense against the first-team defense.
“Competition brought the best out of us and we’re playing the best we have all season,” he noted this week.
But there was also a mental hurdle to overcome, and the breakthrough came in the form of an avalanche of takeaways when Virginia bested North Carolina State, 33-6, on Nov. 3. London looks back on it as a “snowball effect” that boosted the confidence of his young players, and a couple wins gave them the faith to “buy in” to the coach’s optimistic message, Reynolds said.
“We’re feeding off that,” senior running back Perry Jones said.
London’s decision to bring Rocco back into the quarterback mix should also not be overlooked. He completed a school-record 18 straightpasses in the win over Miami, in addition to orchestrating the deciding touchdown drive. And though Rocco and redshirt sophomore Phillip Sims both receive playing time depending on the situation, there is no denying the boost Rocco’s play has provided the Cavaliers’ struggling offense.
Virginia has scored 74 points the past two weeks, its highest two-week total against Football Bowl Subdivision competition since 2005. The Cavaliers (4-6, 2-4) may need more offensive fireworks Thursday facing a North Carolina attack that features ACC player of the year candidate Gio Bernard. The Tar Heels (6-4, 3-3) are coming off a 68-50 loss to Georgia Tech, the highest-scoring conference game in ACC history.
More than anything, though, these Cavaliers have a renewed spirit.
“It’s like a totally different football team,” North Carolina Coach Larry Fedora said of Virginia. “You can see the confidence in the way they play.”
Schautz said, at first, the team’s seniors didn’t want to admit this might be a rebuilding year after the Cavaliers made so much progress in 2011, when they went 8-5.
But once they embraced the notion that their final campaign would set the tone for the future, two wins have followed. Now, the Cavaliers are dead set on showing the nation they’re capable of moving one step closer to the bowl bid so many thought was out of reach.
“Everyone who loves college football is watching and it’s a statement game,” Reynolds said. “It doesn’t really get much better than Thursday night playing against your oldest rival.”