Sunday, September 13, 2009

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: No-shows sending loud, clear message

CHARLOTTESVILLE -- Ten years. That's how long it had been since a crowd this small attended a Virginia game at Scott Stadium.

The opponent then was Buffalo. The visitor Saturday was the 16th-ranked team in the country, Texas Christian.

Think about that for a second. Some real stink-bomb programs -- Akron, Duke, Temple -- have come through this town since 1999, and more people bought tickets to watch. On Saturday, a top-20 team visited Charlottesville on a gorgeous September day, and only 48,336 paid to see it.

You want me to write that UVa should fire coach Al Groh? That Saturday's 30-14 loss to TCU -- a game in which UVa looked abysmal most of the day and trailed 30-0 midway through the fourth quarter -- is just further proof that it's time for a change?

I needn't bother. You're doing it for me, simply by staying home.

And make no mistake: That is the message athletic director Craig Littlepage hears. He might scan a newspaper now and then, or check his e-mail to read an occasional note from a booster, but lost revenue screams more loudly than any all-caps post on a message board.

The absence of hope in the grandstands doomed basketball coach Dave Leitao. Groh, despite all his repeated escapes, has finally reached that point, too.


Many of the fans who did show up Saturday arrived in a bloodthirsty mood. The first boos cascaded from the bleachers less than five minutes into the game, when UVa ran the ball (unsuccessfully) on third-and-8. At halftime, the coaches were jeered as they headed to the tunnel. Chants of "Groh must go!" started at the 12:25 mark in the fourth quarter.

Surprising that it took that long, really.

Because these people had been deceived. All preseason long, we heard how UVa's new spread offense was going to be fast. Aggressive. Interesting.

Against TCU, it was none of the above. Broken down step-by-step, here was a typical offensive play Saturday in the first 3 12 quarters:

1. UVa lines up in no-huddle offense, with multiple receivers spread on both sides.

2. Linemen crouch into a half-stance.

3. Quarterback Jameel Sewell, back in the shotgun, looks to the sidelines for a play call.

4. Everybody waits.

5. And waits.

6. And waits.

7. Ball is snapped.

8. Sewell runs up the middle for one yard.

9. People boo.

You might think this is hyperbole, but it's not. The Cavaliers ran the play clock under 5 seconds on almost every play.

And this was by design! Groh said he wanted to minimize the discrepancy in time of possession. Not only did that not work -- TCU had the ball nearly 10 minutes longer than UVa -- but the plays didn't, either. The Cavs took no shots downfield and gained just 80 total yards through the first three quarters.

Doesn't this kind of defeat the purpose of the no-huddle?

"That's probably a question you should ask Coach [Gregg] Brandon," said running back Rashawn Jackson, apparently unaware that the offensive coordinator, like all UVa assistants, are forbidden by Groh to speak publicly after games. "We just had a specific game -- I'm at a loss for words I'm so upset right now -- we had a specific game plan. That's what we went out there and did. Unfortunately, it didn't work to the best of our interests."

No, it didn't. And shortly before the first half ended, I witnessed something I'd never seen before: Booing before a ball was even snapped. But UVa fans simply got sick of waiting, especially when their team trailed 14-0 with less than a minute to play in the half.

A Bronx cheer rang out when the Cavs took their first bona fide shot downfield late in the fourth quarter. By that point, most of the smallest UVa home crowd in 10 years had gone home.

But we won't have to wait another 10 years to see one smaller.

Try in three weeks, when Groh and his crew return home to face Indiana.

Provided he's still the coach.

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