Sunday, November 02, 2008

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Scott Stadium's silence anything but golden

CHARLOTTESVILLE -- The people filed out of Scott Stadium quietly Saturday, leaving just the clanking of workers trudging up the metal bleachers to pick up trash.

"Well, that was a buzzkill," one fan said as he departed.

This place had been rocking not long before -- so vibrant, so alive, so hopeful -- that you got the sense the fans would be sticking around and celebrating a long time on this gorgeous fall afternoon.

Instead the stadium was quickly empty, and maybe that's fitting. Empty was the theme of the day here. Hollow. Cold. Unfulfilled.

You could see it in the postgame interview room in all the dropped chins and glazed eyes aimed at the floor. You could hear it in the way the players tried to talk bravely about coming back next week and putting this all behind them.

Virginia's 24-17 OT loss to Miami was like six losses to these guys. Or at least it felt that way.

"This is probably the hardest loss I've ever taken my entire life, to be honest," UVa nose guard Nate Collins said softly. "From high school to now, this goes up there, definitely."

Everybody was eager to take a huge chunk of the blame. Coach Al Groh, quarterback Marc Verica, kicker Yannick Reyering, the defenders who allowed that last drive of regulation. Nobody pointed fingers at the others.

And that's probably fitting, too. Because at least if you have blame, you have something. After Miami drove 95 yards in the final minutes of regulation to tie it, then won it so quickly in the extra period, the Cavaliers had so little left to cling to.

"We're just going to try our best not to feel this way again," UVa defensive end Alex Field said. "You've got to have a short term memory and focus on "

He paused and sighed.

"Focus on the next game."

You can understand his bitter disappointment. After all, the Hurricanes were going down, weren't they? All day, it looked like Virginia's roll would continue. Five straight wins, control of the ACC's Coastal Division, headlines across the state lauding guts and big plays and joyous revivals -- all of it gone, lost in a pigpile of missed opportunities and uncharacteristic mistakes.

"We've been on the other end of that type of deal before," Groh said. "It's heartbreaking to our team. There are real raw emotions in the locker room. They are in a real emotional state right now."

The missed field goals were big. Two of them in the second half, both less than 50 yards. The German-born Reyering didn't try to boot the accountability.

"That was clearly a big factor in why the game went to overtime and why we lost," he said. "Obviously, when you miss two field goals, I wish I could go out there a second later and hit another one. Unfortunately, that's not the case with football."

Actually, he would have gotten the chance had Verica not fumbled on UVa's final drive of regulation. Miami defender Sean Spence dislodged the football at UM's 32-yard-line with 31 seconds remaining.

"A great play by him," Verica called it, "and poor ball security by me."

Bottom line? Blame had to go in all directions. Early on, when the UVa defense was dominant, the offense that couldn't create an insurmountable margin.

Three Miami turnovers led to just three Virginia points. Not nearly good enough. And later, the defense allowed Miami to pick up a third-and-13 from their own 2 that started the game-tying drive. On the play that tied it -- a desperation heave by Jacory Harris to Laron Byrd -- one defensive back fell down and the other couldn't prevent the catch despite the lengthy, looping flight of the ball.

"It's kind of like time stops for a second," Field said of the pass. "It takes forever. And then when he caught it in the end zone, that was pretty gut-wrenching."

But not as much as the ending.

This one ended with the team's best player sprawled face-first on the turf. Cedric Peerman, after fumbling the ball away on UVa's first play of OT, desperately reached his hand to the side.

The hero of Virginia's four-game winning streak made one last effort to grab something that wasn't his anymore, one last attempt to take something positive from this day.

Empty hand.

Empty stomach.

Empty Saturday afternoon.

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