ACC: Denzel Burell
When attempting to explain the transformation from a 0-3 team to Coastal Division leaders with a 2-0 ACC record, those within the Virginia locker room speak of intangibles. Linebacker Denzel Burrell said it’s a “we, us, ours,” mentality, and nobody outside the program will affect what they’re trying to do within it. Coach Al Groh said it’s simply a matter of getting better each week and not looking back.
But Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson sees the specifics.
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|Al Groh’s Cavaliers have turned things around after a slow start.|
"They have reverted back to what they used to do,” Johnson said. “They scrapped the new offense; they're back to running the same offense they ran forever under Al and they stopped turning the ball over. They were a turnover a minute earlier in the year. They weren't giving themselves a chance to play, but the last three games they have created turnovers. They've taken care of the ball and that's the difference between winning and losing.
“When you look statistically, they've been pretty good defensively the whole time, but they couldn't survive the turnovers. ... They had an offensive explosion against Indiana, other than that, it's been defense and turnovers."
And turnovers have been key in this series. Since 1982, the Cavaliers are 9-1 against Georgia Tech when committing fewer turnovers. In the last six meetings, Virginia has recorded 15 takeaways and turned them into 57 points. Last year, Georgia Tech's three turnovers and numerous fumbles contributed to its shocking 24-17 home loss to the Cavaliers.
The difference between the two programs right now, though, is on paper, where the Yellow Jackets have already played five conference games -- their lone loss coming to No. 10 ranked Miami -- while Virginia’s two wins have come against struggling North Carolina and Maryland, teams that have combined for one ACC win in the first half of the season.
“They’ve passed a lot more tests than we have,” Groh said.
That will change on Saturday, when Virginia’s defense will be tasked with stopping the nation’s No. 2 rushing offense. As Georgia Tech and Virginia prepare to face each other at noon on Saturday, both do so knowing a loss could cost them a trip to the ACC championship game. What began as an embarrassing season for the Cavaliers has suddenly turned into a midseason play-in game in Charlottesville, where Georgia Tech hasn’t won a game since 1990.
“It's an elimination game for us, if we go up and don't win the game our chances of winning the Coastal Division are not very good,” Johnson said. “We stayed alive for another week and we have the same opportunity we had a week ago to play one more time and see if we can stay alive in the conference race."
Johnson said he doesn’t think his players will have a difficult time staying focused after their upset of then-ranked No. 4 Virginia Tech because they did enough things poorly in that game that were pointed out to them on film this week.
“A year ago, we were 6-1 and a two-touchdown favorite against the same team [Virginia], and they came in here and smacked us in the mouth,” Johnson said. “It shouldn't be a surprise that Virginia will come to play; they sit atop the division standings. We know where we're at; our backs are against the wall."
Burrell said his team’s 3-3 record is “nothing to boast about.”
“We just have to keep working hard,” he said. “We realize that no win is going to come easy. Other teams are trying to win just as much as we are. We just have to keep doing what we’ve been doing to get wins and keep producing every Saturday.”
Posted by ESPN.com’s Heather Dinich
It started as a normal pregame talk, with most of the team sitting around their lockers while a few veteran players walked around, talking about what the Cavaliers needed to do to beat Indiana. And then something changed. Virginia senior quarterback Jameel Sewell thinks cornerback Ras-I Dowling and linebacker Denzel Burell were the ones who started it.
Whatever “it” was, it was contagious.
“It was different because it was mayhem in there,” Sewell said. “Every single person in that locker room was up yelling, up trying to boost everyone else’s morale. Honestly, I’ve been at Virginia a long time, and I’ve never seen our locker room that way. It was totally different than I’ve ever witnessed.”
And it lasted for four quarters in a 47-7 romp of the Hoosiers. The question now is whether Virginia (2-3, 1-0 ACC) can carry that emotion through the rest of its schedule.
As Virginia prepares to travel to Maryland for what some consider a rivalry game on Saturday, the Cavaliers do so with a newfound confidence after back-to-back wins over North Carolina and Indiana. Virginia looks like a different, more respectable team than the one that started the season 0-3 with a loss to FCS opponent William & Mary. The Cavaliers have been overshadowed by the success of the three ranked teams in their division -- Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech and Miami -- but with a 1-0 start in conference play, Virginia is in the race, too.
“I think the players feel positive about themselves concerning what they've done the last few weeks, and they can see themselves getting better,” said Virginia coach Al Groh. “You know, the players are pretty smart, they've got eyes and ears and they can see -- they don't always need the coach to tell 'em. When a player can see that he can do things better than he could do them before, sure, that makes everybody feel better, whatever we're doing, so I think we feel positive about ourselves in those circumstances.
“I think it's unlikely that any of us feel that previous games with Maryland have any bearing on how this game is going to go. This one is about the level of preparation that we have, how everybody understands and embraces the plan and most particularly how we execute on Saturday.”
Virginia, though, has won back-to-back games in the series, including a stunning win last year. The Cavaliers were 1-3 heading into the 2008 Maryland game, their lone win coming over Richmond, and having suffered an embarrassing 31-3 loss to Duke the previous weekend. Maryland came to Charlottesville full of confidence and left humbled after a sound 31-0 defeat.
“I was joking with somebody the other day, it seems like every year we play Virginia they get really good right when we play them,” Maryland quarterback Chris Turner said. “It’s just the way it is I guess.”
There are some on-field tangibles, though, to point to regarding Virginia’s new success. One of the most noticeable differences is the fact the Wahoos haven’t turned the ball over in each of the past two wins, and Sewell hasn’t been intercepted in his last 86 pass attempts. UVA’s defense has also played well, allowing just 22 third-down conversions in 77 attempts (28.57%). That’s tied for eighth-best in the FBS. Virginia's opponents are averaging 8.59 yards per completion -- the third fewest in the FBS behind North Carolina and Florida.
There are some things, though, that can’t be measured or scripted.
“The players were clearly very together in terms of what they wanted to achieve and their approach to the game,” Groh said of the last weekend’s pregame locker room scene. “Those things, if they’re to be genuine, always have to come from the players’ hearts. Nobody could put it in there for them.”
Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich
Virginia is having more success in the Tidewater area than in the past and some of that has been attributed to head defensive coach Bob Pruett, who used to be a high school coach in Virginia and is entering his second season on Al Groh's staff. Regardless of where they come from, the Cavaliers will need to bring in some wide receivers and linebackers in this class.
With recent hires of offensive coordinator Gregg Brandon and receivers coach Latrell Scott, Virginia will need some receivers for the spread offense the Cavaliers will implement in 2009.
The staff isn't really looking for anyone who will play immediately, but with the new offense, the departure of wide receiver Kevin Ogletree for the NFL draft and starter Maurice Covington graduated, freshmen receivers will have a chance to get on the field if they're capable.
The staff recently took an interest in receiver Bobby Smith (Richmond, Va.), and has three commitments from receivers. The other glaring holes on offense will be left by the graduation of tailback Cedric Peerman, tight end John Phillips and left tackle Eugene Monroe.
Virginia will also have to re-stock the linebacker position, where three of the four starters will have graduated and the fourth starter -- Denzel Burell -- will be a senior. Virginia will sorely miss starting linebackers Antonio Appleby, Jon Copper and Clint Sintim.