Virginia still playing for a bowl bid

Mike London was a happy man as he answered questions on Sept. 8 following his team’s 17-16 victory over Penn State on national television.

It was a signature win for a program that hasn’t had many since George Welsh retired more than a decade ago. It was something Virginia could build on, or at least should have built on.

Fifty-six days later, London stood before the media following another Cavaliers’ victory; their only win since the afternoon they fended off the Nittany Lions. His team pulled off a shocker at N.C. State, yet the coach didn’t seem all that surprised. 

A week later and Virginia has now bookended that six-game losing streak with a pair of victories. The last two in impressive fashion – 33-6 at N.C. State and 41-40 at home over Miami. 

The possible reward to keep this going for two more games is a bowl game, something that didn’t seem even remotely possible two weeks ago.

During the elapsed time, Virginia (4-6, 2-4 ACC) entered into a swoon as unbecoming as any the program has experienced since Welsh’s early days in the 1980s. 

It began with a 56-20 loss at Georgia Tech and ended with a 16-10 home defeat to Wake Forest. It saw a change at quarterback, as maligned junior Michael Rocco gave way to ballyhooed talent Phillip Sims, a transfer from Alabama, who was one of the most highly-recruited players in the nation a few years ago. 

Sims, though, was unable to get the Cavs’ offense going, and now London is using both players depending on circumstance. It’s working. An open date following the loss to Wake allowed the coaching staff to go back to square one. It was chicken soup for the Cavaliers’ football souls.

“I’ll tell you, the moment was the Sunday after the game that we played, the last game that we lost going into that bye (week) was we were just going to work on ourselves,” London said. “We were just going to work on the techniques and the fundamentals of trying to make ourselves better, to execute.”

The Wahoos scrimmaged a few times that week getting extra snaps in for even the players being redshirted. In one particular scrimmage among the younger players on the roster, London said the veterans were serving as cheerleaders. Things got fun again, and the players loosened up.

It showed immediately in the first game after the open date, when the Cavs scored right away at N.C. State and ended the first quarter leading 14-0. A safety made it 16-0 and the lead reached 26-0 going into the fourth quarter. It was a dominant performance. 

Last Saturday’s victory over the Hurricanes, courtesy of a Jake McGee touchdown reception with six seconds remaining, was another sign of growth. Virginia lost a shootout with Louisiana Tech earlier in the season and then scored a total of just 47 points in the next three games before the break.

The Cavaliers have totaled 74 points in the last two contests and host a North Carolina (6-4, 3-3) team Thursday night that has surrendered 103 points in its last two outings.  This isn’t the same Virginia club that rolled over and died early at TCU, didn’t bother showing up for the second half at Duke, and found a way to lose at home to Maryland. 

Not even close.

“I think you always look for some sort of spark, whether it’s offensively, defensively, or from just the mentality of when good things happen,” London said. “And I think it can become a snowball effect. People are ruled by the psychology of results, and you win a big game, a homecoming on somebody else’s (N.C. State) turf, you come home, you play a very good team (Miami) and to win last second – that helps the psyche. 

“When you look at them now, they’re very positive about where they are in the last two games, particularly winning the way that we’ve had to win, close, and then win conventionally, and I think it just breeds confidence.”

A win over UNC coupled with a victory at struggling rival Virginia Tech to close the season would get the Wahoos into a bowl game. But their focus right now is vs. the Tar Heels in the oldest rivalry in the South.