Sunday, October 05, 2008

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: On this night, Cavs put it all together

CHARLOTTESVILLE -- They didn't carry signs Saturday. They carried quarterbacks. Marc Verica got hauled to the jubilant sideline by a teammate after running in Virginia's second touchdown, and it didn't seem the least bit obnoxious.

It seemed, well, right.

The fans didn't leave early because they were disgusted. They left because there was nothing more to see. The beating was so severe, so thorough, that people could have comfortably headed to the exits midway through the third quarter had they so chosen.

Most waited until the fourth. After all, Virginia's 31-0 shocker over Maryland was a party worth sticking around for.

"We took a little step forward here tonight," UVa coach Al Groh said.

Ya think?

Who were these guys? Gashing holes at the line of scrimmage? Dislodging footballs with savage hits? Cruising down the field with ease?

There's a lesson here for all of us: Never bury a team in week 4. Just don't. This sport is simply too screwy for that. When the last batch of dirt is shoveled, that's when a hand pops up and grabs your leg.

Better to wait till December, then deliver a few pokes to determine if there's movement. Then, and only then, can you dig with confidence.

Granted, the temptation to give up is always powerful after a 1-3 start that includes a blowout loss to Duke. Ten thousand empty seats shimmering in the Charlottesville twilight attested to that. But the 50,000-plus who did arrive got an inspired, joy-filled performance from the home team, encapsulated by Verica's brief ride in Rashawn Jackson's arms early in the second quarter.

"I don't know what that was about," Verica said with a smile. "Rashawn's crazy."

Jackson had a rational explanation.

"I thought it was a hell of a play, and I wanted to show him how happy I was for him," Jackson explained. "So I decided to, you know, go out there, grab him and carry him off the field."

Why not? For the first time all season, UVa appeared to be having fun.

"That's the key to football," Jackson said. "Yes, you have to execute your plays. And yes, you have to have high intensity. But as soon as you forget the fun of the game, then you're just out there running plays.

"If you're not having fun, it kind of becomes miserable."

No misery here. Not when Verica looked like Brett Favre in his prime. He ran the short passing game with such precision -- including completing 8-of-8 on UVa's final touchdown drive of the first half -- that nobody longed for Peter Lalich for a second.

Cedric Peerman, the hobbled tailback limited to two carries over the past two weeks, looked like the fastest player on the field. He got to the edge with regularity, with no wide run more stirring than the 9-yarder on fourth-and-1 that ended with him somersaulting into the end zone.

"He's got a rare heart for competition," Groh said. "He's got a rare heart for this team."

The Cavs' defense made the ACC rushing leader look like a fifth-stringer. Maryland's Da'Rel Scott had nowhere to go from the first play from scrimmage and averaged just 3.3 yards on 11 carries. The Cavs clamped down on the passing game, too, holding star receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey to zero catches.

And that's what's so encouraging for UVa. This wasn't one guy having a big night, or a string of fortuitous breaks producing an easy win. This was a complete performance.

They don't let you play the Duke game over. This didn't erase the embarrassment of USC or remove the sting of Storrs, Conn.

But what Saturday night did was restore hope to a place where there was none.

At halftime, the UVa marching band played a tribute to the rock group Journey. They banged out a lot of the old favorites, including the festive "Anyway You Want It."

The final song they played? "Don't Stop Believing." Sounds about right.

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