Sunday, November 13, 2011

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Virginia now playing for some holiday gravy

CHARLOTTESVILLE - Now they can get greedy. There's no reason not to.

Every realistic expectation the Virginia Cavaliers could have had coming into this season, they've either met or exceeded. They've gained bowl eligibility. They've ensured a winning season. They've won on the road. They've won in November.

Shoot, they're even beating Duke now!

Don't laugh. Saturday's 31-21 home victory over the Blue Devils was as much an accomplishment as any of the ones that came before it in this increasingly charmed season.

The Cavaliers had lost three in a row to Duke. That kind of thing tends to suffocate a team, even more than losing 13 straight in November or flailing at bowl bids and grabbing only air.

"It's nice," UVa center Anthony Mihota said of ending the Duke dominance. "Just because it's Duke, and everyone expects us to beat them every year - and we didn't for the past three. It's good that we're trying to change things."

Oh, they're changing. UVa, a 4-8 also-ran in coach Mike London's first season, is 7-3 in his second. Coming to Scott Stadium is fun again. Coin-flip games at halftime - like Saturday's, when UVa and Duke were tied at 14 at intermission - are starting to become reasons to watch instead of reasons to fear.

"Our identity lately has been that we're a second-half team," Mihota said. "We're all pretty excited. We haven't had a season like this since my first year, which was four years ago. We're using a lot of that momentum to say, hey, we can do this."

Now they believe they can do more. And why not? This season already is an unqualified success. The worst UVa could finish would be 7-6 with a loss in a lower-tier bowl. The Cavs have buried so many nettlesome storylines from the past that they'll enter next year with a solid foundation no matter what.

"The better we play, the better we execute, the better we recruit," London said. "The better we recruit, the better opportunities we have. It's been rewarding, but at the same time, we're not done."

And that's what's really exciting for the Cavaliers: They believe they can tackle the challenges that lie ahead the rest of this year. They believe they can go on the road next week and beat Florida State. Hey, they've already won at Miami, right?

If UVa could somehow conquer Tallahassee, our state would be guaranteed a marquee event two days after Thanksgiving, when Virginia Tech and Virginia would meet here for the right to go to the ACC title game.

"All you can ask for is to control your own destiny," quarterback Michael Rocco said. "And that's where we are right now."

That's a good word, "control." Because Rocco seems to have it now. It can't be a coincidence that UVa's three-game winning streak has come on the heels of London declaring the old rotation of Rocco and David Watford dead.

That happened immediately following Virginia's 28-14 loss to N.C. State in which Rocco - splitting time with Watford - finished 7-of-19 for a whopping 36 yards.

Rocco since has thrown for 724 yards in victories over Miami, Maryland and Duke. More importantly? After flinging eight interceptions in the first seven games, he's tossed only one during the winning streak.

"I'm very confident in him," Mihota said of his QB. "It was different in the beginning of the season, not knowing who was going to play and when. Once he was established as the guy, we all rallied behind him and we were able to have all our faith in him to make good decisions."

On Saturday, it was Duke quarterback Sean Renfree who made the critical error, throwing a 54-yard pick-six to Chase Minnifield early in the third quarter.

Perry Jones, who later put the Cavs ahead for good with a 1-yard touchdown run, said nobody in that UVa locker room is surprised or satisfied with the 7-3 record.

"We know that we have a lot more growing to do," Jones said, "and we plan on doing it."

He's not talking about next season, either.

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