Virginia coach Al Groh looks for his first win of 2009 against North Carolina on Saturday.
The Hoos might be 0-3, but they are on the right track. This is the motto that Virginia coach Al Groh has been repeating since UVa’s heartbreaking loss at Southern Mississippi. And it is one that Groh hopes will give his team confidence that it can start a fresh season of sorts – the conference season – 1-0 when it takes on North Carolina in Chapel Hill this Saturday at noon.
If the Cavs need somewhere to look for confidence, one place would be in their recent past with UNC. The Hoos have won six of the last seven meetings, and nine of the last 11. Virginia’s victories the last two seasons were tightly contested, and each one of those was a landmark game for the season. The Cavs came back from down a touchdown to win 16-13 in overtime at Scott Stadium last year, in what was perhaps their most emotional victory of a four-game win streak. Two years ago, Virginia relied on five Chris Gould field goals for a 22-20 victory, the first of an NCAA record five wins by two points or less in 2007.
While the Hoos could use some confidence going into Saturday, they certainly don’t need fuel to prepare for the oldest rivalry of the South, as Virginia and UNC meet for the 114th time.
“We are playing one of our most traditional rivals, which is always one of our most enthusiastic and energetic games,” Groh said. “Since it combines with being our first conference game of the year, we are certainly looking forward to it.”
The Cavaliers’ record under Groh after bye weeks is excellent – but not last year. Virginia won nine of its 11 games after bye weeks going into last season; in 2008, though, it lost both such games, to Duke 33-3 and Clemson 13-3, two of Virginia’s more underwhelming performances of the season.
Groh was quick to point out, however, that both of those losses had more to do with turnovers than bad performance overall by the team. When the Cavs fell 33-3 to the Blue Devils, Virginia had six turnovers; against Clemson, four turnovers. In both contests, Groh said, Virginia actually made progress in many areas, but that progress was counterbalanced by the inability to take care of the ball.
Mikell Simpson has 13 carries on the season, averaging 21.3 rushing yards per game.
“That skews your results,” Groh said. “You can have a pretty efficient day in many aspects of your team, and if you give the ball away, you’re going to have a hard time holding on to the game. And I know that was the case when we played Clemson. We had a lot of players who played really well in that game, and against a very good team, and a team that was on a real roll then. But because we gave the ball away so much, the scoreboard didn’t reflect that.”
This season, Groh said, the bye week comes at an opportune time.
Groh has frequently said, that it is after three games or so when the coaching staff can make an evaluation of where the team stands and where it is headed. The bye week at this point in the season, then, gives the staff an opportunity to analyze the team further with the extra week.
“When it comes to that particular stage, then regardless of what your record is at that time, it’s an excellent time to make a self-assessment and have a real good idea of what are the areas we try to improve upon,” Groh said. “Sometime in this time frame is where it has the chance to work the best for a team.”
Preparation for North Carolina, Groh said, does not start until Tuesday.
In the week off, he said that Virginia worked on fixing itself more than preparing for the Tar Heels.
“Our priority here was pretty much taking care of ourselves rather than getting way ahead on the upcoming game,” Groh said.
In addition to the profit gained by the extra week of practice, Groh also had the benefit of watching teams other than his own play on Saturday. An admittedly trigger-happy T.V. viewer with a remote in his hand, the games Groh watched ranged from Virginia Tech-Miami to Yale-Dartmouth – “for the fun of it,” he said.
From what he saw, Groh said he learned quite a bit. He revealed some of what he learned in his opening remarks for the press conference – a rare occurrence for the Virginia coach.
“It certainly revealed that there’s probably far too many teams and players that are anointed way too early in the season,” Groh said, “and far too many teams and players that are condemned too early in the season to see the significant turnarounds that occur in so many games. The season is to be played out rather than to be seen in microcosm.”
This clearly could be taken as a message that Virginia could still turn its season around. When asked directly if this was a message he would pass along to his team, though, Groh denied such a claim.
“That’s not really our issue,” Groh said. “There’s so much going on that all a team can really deal with is what it knows internally.”
The Root of Going Back to Roots
The Virginia offensive line featured narrower splits against SMU than in its previous two games.
Against Southern Mississippi, Groh and his staff decided to make some changes to the offense, going back to more of the pro-style sets and hybrid spread sets that Virginia utilized in years past. Groh indicated that he still believes in the potential for offensive coordinator Gregg Brandon’s offense to succeed, but for this team, at that time anyway, it wasn’t the right fit.
“I felt that we had a system that had a proven record of success – it’s not snake oil,” Groh said. “But at that time, there wasn’t a clean mesh. And clearly, more time will provide that. But we look at every week as you only get 12 of these a year … and so when we think some things need to be done the very next week to help us the very next week, we are very proactive on those things. So that’s kind of what led to all that.”
The same thing, Groh said, applies to the offensive line, which featured narrower splits against Southern Mississippi. Although the O-Line allowed four more sacks and cued the running game to just 78 yards against the Golden Eagles, Sewell had more time in the pocket than in prior games, helping him to his most productive passing game of the season. The adjustment to the offensive line, Groh said, was a move made for similar reasons.
“If you have players that have been successful, it comes back somewhat to the question of earlier, about getting some of these players to return to what they have had success doing,” Groh said. “Most likely they could be successful doing other things, but while the season may last quite a few months, it lasts a very short time in terms of the number of games. We are not a knee-jerk operation, but sometimes when we see things that are reality, we react to reality.”
As for the coverage teams, Groh said that the need to change is not what’s at issue after Virginia gave up 12.3 yards per punt return, 40.7 yards per kick return, and a kick return for a touchdown against Southern Mississippi. Part of the output, Groh said, could be traced to missing personnel in the second half, when most of the special teams damage was inflicted by the Golden Eagles.
“Players who were on the first half coverage teams, because of injury or whatever, were not on the second half coverage teams,” Groh said.
“We hope to be able to get some of the people who were absent on some of those back into the line-up, as well as look at somewhere we think we could improve that performance.”
Groh also said that he hardly could place more emphasis on special teams than he already does. He said that the special teams units spend four “significant” periods a day on it already.
“We are pretty heavy in the time devoted to it,” Groh said “So with
that, sometimes you’ve just got to get better execution or demand
better than what we are getting.”
A Good Reception
Tim Smith had a 69-yard reception for a touchdown against Southern Mississippi.
After averaging 128.5 passing yards per game against William & Mary and TCU, Virginia upped its output to 312 yards in its 37-34 loss to Southern Mississippi. While quarterback Jameel Sewell and an improved offensive line in pass protection can be credited with some of the improvement, much of the increase in production can be traced to the young receiving corps. Receivers were, simply put, open more often than they were in previous games. And, Groh said, the explanation for that was also simple.
“They just ran faster,” Groh said. “They ran faster out of conviction and confidence of what they were doing.”
Groh also pointed out that, whether they are playing out of Brandon’s system or the more pro-style style system, few of his receivers offer experience on their resumes.
“There are just a lot of players in their first games, and running those routes, and reading the coverage for the first time,” Groh said. “We are just seeing these things developing faster and getting into the secondary with more burst and more push.”
In particular, Groh discussed the emergence of Tim Smith , who had three catches for 76 yards against Southern Mississippi, including a 69-yard touchdown reception. Speed, Groh said, was the biggest factor in his recruitment.
“The speed isn’t quite as striking on our videos as they were on the high school video, because on most of those, he was the fastest player on the field,” Groh said. “But when we look at it, it’s still the case that that position is matching up better with the other team’s speed than what has been the case in the past.”
- Groh pointed out that the three opponents Virginia has faced – William & Mary, TCU, and Southern Mississippi – are now a combined 10-1 on the season. USM lost to Kansas 35-28.
- With running back Dominique Wallace out for the season with a foot injury, Groh said that running back Torrey Mack likely will see more carries.
- Virginia and North Carolina have met every year in football since 1919, and the match-up dates back to the 19th century. North Carolina leads the overall series 56-53-4.
- Three of the last four games between Virginia and North Carolina have been decided by three points or less. The Cavaliers won 16-13 in 2008 and 22-20 in 2007, while the Tar Heels took a 7-5 victory in 2005.
- From 1989-1991, Groh and North Carolina coach Butch Davis were both assistant coaches in the NFC East – Groh with the New York Giants, and Davis with the Dallas Cowboys.
- North Carolina has more scholarship players from Virginia than any other state – including North Carolina. Eight scholarship players are from the Commonwealth, including three out of four senior starters.
“I think Southern Mississippi, with what they did at Kansas, is showing that they are comparable to the ACC, wherever they would rank in there, comparable ACC-type competition. So we have had to go up against that type of competition, and we can only look at the positive side of it, and hope that the lessons are what level the team has to perform to go against those kind of teams.” – Al Groh on Southern Mississippi.
“Does your wife make suggestions to you or do you collaborate on those things?” – Al Groh on whether it was his or Brandon’s suggestion to adjust Virginia’s offensive philosophy.
“You have to remember that this is a player who once he did get into that type of rhythm two years ago, won nine games for us. So I think as is the case in any sport when a person is proven to be successful and there is a little bit of a history of how that’s come about, that when he first became a starter in ’06, those of you who watched some of those first two or three games, it was a little bit rocky. But then we went on and had some real good wins and he had some real good games. And the same thing was true in ’07, and as the season picked up momentum, so did Jameel, or maybe they coincided with each other. So I think you need more than two to have an accurate sample, but at least we have a little bit of precedent in that case and we can only be positive and think that history might have a chance to continue.” – Al Groh on Sewell’s rhythm lasting through the season.
“Each [penalty] has really been significant in the outcome of the game. So we can’t withstand too many more of those clearly. Too many, meaning, zero.” – Groh on safety Corey Mosley ‘s penalties (late hit penalties against W&M and TCU, pass interference against Southern Miss) in the first three games.