Peter Lalich was announced as the starting quarterback minutes before kickoff.
Forget about an upset. It was all Virginia could do to play on the same field as No. 3 Southern California. And even that was a struggle at times.
With a record-setting crowd of 64,947 looking on, USC scored early and often en route to a 52-7 romp over the Hoos.
Coach Al Groh himself perhaps best summed up the disappointments.
“USC was a big, powerful, fast team with superior quarterback play today. We were anything but big and fast and our quarterback turned the ball over too many times,” Groh said.
After the Cavaliers’ 2007 success relied heavily on defense, Saturday’s biggest problems were on that side of the ball. Virginia appeared to move in slow motion far too often, playing 15 yards off the ball and allowing USC to do just about anything with a safe cushion. Regardless of Virginia’s execution, or lack thereof, there was no denying the sheer talent of the Trojans on both sides of the ball.
Safety Byron Glaspy saw it up close all day long. With five tackles, Glaspy anchored the secondary, which managed at times to hold the Trojans, if only momentarily.
“I knew it was going to be a bigger challenge,” Glaspy said. “I mean they’ve just got all top notch big guys up front. I felt like our schemes might have been able to help us out a little bit more but we just didn’t execute them properly. But you’ve just got to give it to them, they do have the talent that just gives them that edge.”
While the challenge was clear going in, the execution was unacceptable to Groh.
“We wanted to put ourselves out there and take a challenge against a team that we think is in a league of their own in college football, they’ve certainly proved that over the last six years,” Groh said. “I think they proved it to us today. We’re very impressed with their team; certainly it was very challenging and we knew it was going to take a lot on our part to be able to pull this off. We could’ve understood a little bit differently if we’d played a little better and lost but to play as poorly as we played and to have lost is not acceptable.”
The Trojans’ play shouldn’t have shocked anyone. Billed as a national title contender, they executed as such. Their highly touted defense all but shut down the Cavaliers’ running game and left Lalich with little time to read the coverage. There were no surprises and that was one of the most disappointing things for Virginia.
“I wasn’t really caught off guard because we knew exactly what they were going to do,” UVa linebacker Clint Sintim said. “They didn’t really show us much of anything new. A lot of what we saw out there was what we reviewed.”
Mark Sanchez passed for a career-high 338 yards and three touchdowns against Virginia.
Tight end John Phillips agreed.
“I think we worked really hard to get ready for this game. They did pretty much everything we expected them to do. We just didn’t really execute,” Phillips said. “It doesn’t matter who you play – if you don’t execute you can’t win games.”
Despite all of the negatives, we did learn something about the Cavaliers today. In fact, for such a lopsided loss, there were a surprising amount of bright spots.
For all of the dominance that the Trojans’ defense displayed, Virginia’s offense showed that it learned something from Texas Tech and showed flashes of the ability to move the ball vertically down the field. The play calling remained conservative for the most part but quarterback Peter Lalich was able to spread the ball around. For the first time in a long time, the top two leading receivers (in terms of yardage) weren’t tight ends or backs. Wide receivers Jared Green and Cary Koch led the team with 40 yards each. Despite his fourth quarter fumble, Lalich showed increasing poise and displayed that he has the physical abilities to be a big playmaker for Virginia, finishing with 155 yards through the air. Even his teammates noted his development.
“I thought he did well,” Phillips said, later adding, “He was very comfortable in the huddle and wasn’t nervous at all.”
Another bright moment in an otherwise disappointing performance, Green registered his first reception as a Cavalier and didn’t stop there. The redshirt freshman tallied 3 catches for 40 yards.
According to both Groh and Green, the last week of practice was very positive for the young receiver.
“Like I was telling someone earlier, the older wide receivers, Kevin Ogletree , Cary Koch and Maurice Covington , they all just rallied up and it’s been a really good week in preparation and it just rubbed off on the younger guys,” Green said.
Green wasn’t the only young cub in the fire. True freshman Jimmy Howell didn’t have time to ease into his college career as he was forced to punt 8 times in his opener, averaging 38.2 yards per punt. On such a big stage, it would have been understandable to have nerves but Howell remained completely in control, showing flashes of his strength, once skying the ball 49 yards. Even in the face of several low snaps, Howell’s consistency and poise were both bright spots.
Still this wasn’t the way the Cavaliers were hoping to start the season, but they’ve been in this position before. Virginia was slammed 23-3 last season at Wyoming in last season’s opener before continuing to a 9-4 season and a trip to the Gator Bowl. According to Glaspy, keeping this in mind should help the Cavaliers when they take the field next week against Richmond.
“It definitely helps just knowing that we were in this place last year and we were able to turn it around,” he said.