Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Cavs believe they're not the same old UVa

CHARLOTTESVILLE -- Before the winning field goal, before the sack that caused the fumble, before the two-point conversion, before the 15-play drive, Virginia looked an awful lot like it was about to become a 1-1 team.

The Cavs were going to lose to Indiana after leading by 20. They were going to blow their chance in the most excruciating way.

Same old UVa.

Or at least it looked that way - to everyone but the players themselves.

"Everyone remained calm," tight end Paul Freedman said Monday. "Whether they knew it or not, I think everybody fell back on what we learned in the offseason."

What they learned, through a series of rugged activities staged by first-year strength coach Evan Marcus, was that adversity was going to come in both physical and mental form. And these guys had a choice: Face it and overcome it, or prepare to be a team similar to the one they've been the past two years.

This time, they faced it. They overcame it. And after all those aforementioned dominoes fell, after Robert Randolph's 23-yard field goal sailed through the uprights as the clock hit triple-zeroes, the Cavs emerged as 34-31 winners.

Starting 2-0 means different things to different people. For the Cavaliers, the difference between 1-1 and 2-0 could not be more pronounced.

The great Hoosier escape wasn't just a win; it was affirmation.

"That was our first test," Randolph said, "and we passed it."

Marcus may have had everything to do with this or very little to do with this. That really doesn't matter. What matters is that the Wahoos are 2-0 for the first time in six years, and they believe they know why. They believe they made the investment necessary to win games they're supposed to win.

Now come the games they're expected to lose. It starts Saturday at North Carolina. UVa is a 10.5-point underdog.

But the Cavs look at the 2-0 record - and how it was forged - and see hope.

"It's a big difference compared to how we've started in the past," defensive end Jake Snyder said. "We showed a lot of resilience, and that's what we worked on all summer with Coach Marcus in the weight room and throughout all training camp. We're really proud of that. It gives us a lot of momentum going forward. We realize that we have a lot to get better at, but it's a good foundation."

For the Cavaliers, that's what this season is all about: laying a foundation. The best one would include a bowl game. At 1-1, that might have seemed like a pipe dream.

At 2-0, though? Cue the optimism.

Home games against Southern Miss (Sept. 24) and Idaho (Oct. 1) are winnable. Getting both of those would mean UVa would need to dip two more victories out of a pool that includes North Carolina, Georgia Tech, N.C. State, Miami, Maryland, Duke, Florida State and Virginia Tech.

Possible. Especially after what the Cavs learned about themselves against Indiana.

"Normally when you've gotten in the thick of games and you've lost close games, it's easy to go south," coach Mike London said. "On the sideline, the talk was all positive. That hadn't been the case in the past. ...

"Obviously you always like to win games at a margin that's comfortable. But you never know what your team is really made of sometimes until you're faced with adversity or until you have to come back and have a last - literally a last-second - win. It was nothing but a positive learning experience for this team."

And one more step away from being the same old UVa.

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