Sunday, September 09, 2012

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Optimism breaks out at Scott Stadium

CHARLOTTESVILLE — There are two types of crowd noise in a big spot: anxious or anticipative. You know the difference when you hear it.

Anxious crowd noise happens at places like Duke, when the home team holds a slim lead but the defense looks tired and the opponent does not. Scream, yell and stomp, because believing it’s going to end well is hard.

Anticipative crowd noise, meanwhile, happens at places like Alabama, after the home team has just taken the lead with a minute to go and sends the defense out to preserve it. Scream, yell and stomp, because this baby’s over.

With one second left here at Scott Stadium on Saturday, as Penn State lined up for a 42-yard field goal to try to win the game, the noise here was not anxious. It was 100-percent anticipative. Virginia fans felt good about what was going to happen.

Why? Was it just because the kicker had struggled so much during this game? Sure, that helped. But that’s not it alone.

Was it because the fans just figured if the Wahoos hadn’t lost it yet, after mistake after mistake, then they weren’t meant to lose it? Maybe. But there’s more.

We’re always told that players have to learn how to win before they can make such things happen. So, too, do fans have to feel some rewards before they can realistically expect victory, especially on a day when the team is struggling.

Those four UVa wins last year by four points or fewer created some expectation around here. And the Cavs, so far, are doing a nice job keeping that feeling around.

That’s the biggest thing that came out of this, after Sam Fickers’ kick hurdled through the rain and ducked left of the upright, preserving Virginia’s 17-16 victory and sending the decibels from anticipative to celebratory.

If the Cavs can win one like this, imagine what they can do when they actually play well.

Because so much went wrong here. The four turnovers, the dropped passes, the penalties, the strange quarterback substitutions, the complete lack of a viable running game.

And none of it mattered to the bottom line. The Cavs were still the ones at the end jumping around and throwing their fists into the rain.

“Definitely enjoy this win,” linebacker Steve Greer said. “Definitely learn from the film.”

Assignment No. 1 is breaking down the running game, then finding a way to build it back up. UVa ran for only 32 yards on 25 attempts, the first time in a decade they’d won a game with such a paltry ground attack.

Missing blocks and getting stuffed for no gain isn’t what this program’s about.

“It’s squarely on our shoulders,” center Luke Bowanko said, referring to an offensive line that’s supposed to be one of the team’s strengths. “It’s something we pride ourselves on, running the ball, and everybody that watches our games knows our favorite run plays. They know we’re going to run, and we don’t care. We’ll run it anyways.
“Next week, we’ve got to improve. We expect better.”

They can’t expect much better from their defense, which was the biggest reason this game was even close in the fourth quarter. UVa’s offense turned the ball over in its own territory four times. On those four Penn State possessions, the Cavs held the Lions to minus-12 yards and only three points.

“Coach [Jim] Reid always emphasizes that,” Greer said. “When the defense is put in a tough position, whether it’s goal line or a turnover, that you kind of create the identity of your defense. We went out with that mindset, that we want to show what we’re all about.”

Tight end Jake McGee continues to show what he’s all about, too. Even before his touchdown catch that gave the Cavs the lead, he’d rescued the team with a 44-yard reception on third-and-16 — all while falling backwards and being interfered with.

“Third down savior,” Bowanko said. “I don’t know how he does it.”

How did he do it? How did any of them do this, given all that looked so sloppy?

You can envision UVa playing a lot better than this. You might even choose to anticipate it.

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