Sunday, October 12, 2008

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Groh, Cavaliers show their resiliency again

CHARLOTTESVILLE -- Here comes Al again. Seriously. It's getting ridiculous. The guy is winning with fake field goals now. Next week, it'll probably be the ol' Statue of Liberty play on fourth-and-20 that gets it done.

Rest assured, though, he will get it done.

Why? Because Al Groh is like a musket in a museum: You can't fire him. You can't even break through the glass case and TRY to fire him. Inside that orange sweatshirt with rolled-up sleeves is one resilient dude, and he's holding a midseason revival in Charlottesville for the second straight year.

Virginia beat East Carolina 35-20 on Saturday. Surprising? Maybe a little. After all, the Pirates had knocked off Virginia Tech and West Virginia early in the season, spent some time in the top 25 and entered the game as a six-point favorite.

But Saturday's result couldn't have been too surprising. Not to anyone who saw the Cavaliers trounce Maryland last week. THAT result was surprising, given how bad the Cavs had been.

But it was also a sign.

Here comes Al again.

n n n

Fans wanted him gone after he lost to Wyoming in 2007. He promptly won seven straight games and ACC coach of the year.

They wanted him gone after the meltdowns at Connecticut and Duke this season. Suddenly, the nation's worst scoring offense became a legitimate threat, putting up 66 points and more than 800 yards against two decent teams.

Maybe the UVa administrators are more cunning than we think. All this started after they lifted the bans on signs. They even took it a step further than that, eliminating the restrictions they once had on the content of signs carried into the stadium.

Essentially, they told all of us to bring it on. Do your worst. Torch the coach with your clever criticisms. Point your disgust at the cameras. As we've seen, it's only going to make Groh better.

But why does this happen? Why does Groh have to throw his neck in a guillotine before his team comes to the rescue and jerks him away?

"I have no clue," fullback Rashawn Jackson said. "No clue. He's really just been the same. He doesn't really change. He's not a split-personality guy. What you see is what you get. We trust him."

And maybe that's it: When faith erodes outside this locker room, it grows inside this locker room. His players swear by him, defend him, rally with him.

"Coach Groh is a great coach, regardless of what anybody says," linebacker Clint Sintim said. "You hear people always saying he needs to go or whatever, but the guy was ACC coach of the year last year. A lot of people forget that. He was ACC coach of the year, and he's produced a lot of great players here.

"There's always going to be speculation on what needs to happen or what needs to change. But what remains constant is that he's a good coach. He's the reason why I feel like I am the player that I am."

When I asked Groh Saturday why he and his staff seem to perform their best when the criticism is at its height, he paused for a second.

"We trust each other, which is all that counts," he said. "We stick together. And we really don't listen to praise or criticism."

Good, then maybe he won't read this: He did one helluva job Saturday.

n n n

OK, so this isn't all about coaching pixie dust and clever baits-and-switches. There are some tangible reasons outside of Groh that this resurgence is happening this year.

The biggest two are Cedric Peerman and Marc Verica. Peerman, whose knee injury rendered him a nonfactor in the losses to UConn and Duke, gave the team a major spike in his return against Maryland last week.

This week, he made history. He ran for touchdowns of 79 and 60 yards in the first half Saturday. Think about that: Two touchdown runs of 60 yards or more.

That's only happened once before in this program. It was 60 years ago.

Peerman's presence has clearly made Verica a better quarterback. Thrust into a difficult spot after the departure of Peter Lalich and playing with a suspect running game, Verica initially did not look ready.

He does now. He followed his 226-yard passing performance against Maryland with another solid effort against ECU, shrugging off two early interceptions to complete 25 of 32 passes for 216 yards and a touchdown.

But the play of the game Saturday came after that touchdown, and it was simply a product of good coaching. Clinging to an eight-point lead past the midway point of the fourth quarter, Groh sent his field-goal unit on the field at the ECU 12.

Only it was a ruse. Tight end John Phillips lined up wide on the left side, and he was the first option. If he was covered, then they'd call him into the formation and kick the thing.

He wasn't covered. Holder Scott Deke took the snap, stood up and lofted the ball toward the end zone.

Phillips was all alone to grab it.

Here comes Al again.

n n n

Now it's the other teams making the 1-yard punts, the other teams killing themselves with penalties and turnovers and shoddy tackling, the other teams trudging glumly to the postgame locker rooms.

Not Groh. He's the one pumping his fist as Mikell Simpson picks up a late first down, the one joining the celebration after Peerman scores again, the one congratulating his defenders for another big stop.

And when it was over Saturday, he was the one out there granting an interview to the broadcast folks as the band played the UVa fight song. Then he sprinted toward the tunnel as a police officer and a television cameraman frantically tried to keep up.

Forget it, guys. Can't catch him. Can't stop him. Can't fire him.

He's Teflon Al.

And here he comes again.

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