Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Time will tell if UVa is just a blip on football radar

CHARLOTTESVILLE -- Introductions seem to be in order.

Radar, UVa football.

UVa football, radar.

Now, you two think you can get along?

Saturday's 24-21 upset of No. 12 Georgia Tech had almost everything this program aspires to attain. The rushing attack dominated. The defense came up huge. Fans stormed the field, savoring the reward for their faith during an uneven start to the season.

And then, thanks to a team falling from the ranks of the unbeaten, the nation got to watch the highlights on "SportsCenter."

"It was pretty cool," center Anthony Mihota said Monday of the rare taste of national exposure. "My dad was talking about it; usually it's just little clips of us: Hey, UVa beat Idaho in overtime!"

This was different. Refreshing. Fun.

But it's also somewhat familiar. And that's what has UVa coaches, players and fans taking a cautious view of the newfound success.

Some, including the Cavs themselves, believed they'd gotten their turn-the-corner win last season, when UVa stunned No. 22 Miami in Charlottesville in late October. With Duke and Maryland on the schedule next, there was hope that the Cavs could piece together a winning streak. Maybe even make a bowl.

Didn't happen. UVa lost a shootout in Durham, got flattened at home by the Terps and finished the season on a four-game losing streak.

Nobody's letting them forget that. Least of all coach Mike London, whose team is favored at home this week against a 3-3 N.C. State team.

"We're trying to build a culture of winning, regardless of who you play and when you play," London said. "In some teams, as you see, no matter where they go, home or away, they're consistent. That is the level we're aspiring to be and, hopefully, reach."

The first step might be downplaying their own victory.

"Winning programs, they don't worry about big games," cornerback Chase Minnifield said. "You know, you win and go to the next week. That's the problem around here. I think a lot of times, we get a big win and it sticks around for weeks.

"You know, let it go. Let's get to the next one."

On my blog Monday, I posed a question to fans of Virginia Tech and UVa: Did they feel any different about the Nov. 26 rivalry game in Charlottesville than they did before the Georgia Tech upset?

Some of the responses from Tech fans were predictably funny. "Yes," wrote one named Ryan. "My 100 percent confidence in VT (against UVA, at least) has dropped †to 99percent."

But the overwhelming tenor of the responses from both sides was: Let's wait and see. A UVa fan named Matt put it well: "As a Wahoo, I'm still not sure about our chances against the Hokies, even at home. It's kind of hard to feel optimistic when you lose that game so many years in a row, so you feel like something will happen to make us lose regardless of how well we're playing.

"I might feel better a few games down the road and I might feel a lot worse. It remains to be seen if the Georgia Tech game was young talent turning a corner (lots of players did look really good that day, and many have progressed well throughout the season) or if it was simply a product of extra rest and preparation. Saturday against NC State should tell us a lot about where we are and is absolutely huge for our bowl chances."

Matt's right. The N.C. State game is enormous and will be telling. Quarterback Michael Rocco needs to show he can be a more efficient passer than he's been. UVa's defense needs to prove that it can thrive without two weeks of single-minded prep.

The bottom line, though? All of it's worth watching. The Cavs are back on the radar. The challenge is to stay there.

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