Thursday, December 22, 2011
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Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Virginia needs to get grounded against Auburn

CHARLOTTESVILLE - Virginia's not going to come out and say it, but somebody should:

If the Cavaliers can't trample Auburn with their running attack - just destroy those guys on the ground - then they will deserve to lose the Chick-fil-A Bowl.

Oh, there are plenty of hints that an all-out land assault is what UVa plans for New Year's Eve in Atlanta. Naturally, the coaches and players can't just can't blurt it out.

It would be rude. Dis-respectful. Potentially detrimental to their game plan.

So allow me: Rushing domination needs to happen, and it should. Auburn's rushing defense is horrible this year. Just pathetic. The Tigers are ranked 98th in the nation against the run and are yielding nearly 200 yards per game.

I know what you might be thinking: But it's the SEC! Think of the running backs in that league: Trent Richardson, Zac Stacy, Marcus Lattimore (who faced Auburn before he got hurt).

That's fair. The SEC is a better league all around than the ACC. But understand, the Tigers have been equal-opportunity patsies against the rush. Samford had a guy run for more than 100 against them. Utah State gashed them for 227 on the ground. Florida Atlantic - which, it should be noted, went 1-11 this year - had its featured back gain 85 yards on 15 carries.

So it's all right there for UVa. Cavaliers -running backs Perry Jones, Kevin Parks and Clifton Richardson - along with that offensive line - need to be encouraged to make this game their own.

"The statistics help you to start to paint a picture," offensive coordinator Bill Lazor said Tuesday, but he added (wisely) that it's not as simple as that. He expects Auburn to make some adjustments. He also expects some of Auburn's younger defenders to use this bowl-prep time to improve, much as UVa's fledglings plan to do.

But the practice message has been clear at UVa: Offensive players need to return to being physical.

"On the days we have our shoulder pads on," Lazor said, "we have to make sure that we use them."

Yes. That's exactly the mentality they ought to be taking. Because in the final two games of the regular season, UVa saw its once-formidable running game all but disappear.

Florida State held Jones to 14 yards on eight carries. Virginia Tech limited him to 13 yards on six carries.

"We hadn't really seen that speed on defense all year," Jones said. "We found out that against teams like that, holes aren't going to be as big and they're going to close up a lot quicker, so we're working on hitting the hole just a little bit harder and faster."

The Wahoos split those two games, which tells you a little bit about how the defense factors into wins and losses. But nobody was thrilled with the production from a unit that had been UVa's strength all season.

"When you have two back-to-back rushing performances like we did, which we weren't very proud of, it's easy to get down on yourself and get down on your teammates," Jones said. "You just have to have the mind-set to know that you are a good rushing offense. ... We know that we're more than capable of running the ball effectively."

And they must. Because as much advancement as quarterback Michael Rocco has made this season, you don't want to have to put this game on him. There are too many quick-twitch recruits buzzing around in that Auburn secondary. There's too much potential for the wrong kind of big play.

No, this is about overpowering somebody, about sticking to the fastball against the kid with the slow bat.

It's about giving the linemen what they want.

"Running the ball's a lot of fun," second-team All-American guard Austin Pasztor said. "In run-blocking, you've got a little more of a chance to be assertive."

You heard the man, UVa.

Assert.

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