Saturday is not complete role-reversal — Maryland is only halfway to postseason viability — but there’s no understating the Cavaliers’ need for a victory.
Like the Terps in 2011, Virginia (2-4, 0-2 ACC) enters this annual clash on a four-game losing streak rooted primarily in defense. Bad defense.
But here’s the ray of sun for Cavaliers’ faithful: Unlike Virginia last season, Maryland (3-2, 1-0) does not appear to have the weapons to fully expose those defensive liabilities.
Last year, Virginia shredded Maryland for 527 yards in a 31-13 victory. Michael Rocco passed for 307, Perry Jones rushed for 139, and Kris Burd and Tim Smith caught passes for more than 100 yards each.
If the Terps, last in the ACC in scoring, total offense and rushing offense, and with true freshman Perry Hills at quarterback, post similar numbers Saturday, then the Cavaliers could well be fast-tracking to 2-10 and losing much of the goodwill generated from last season’s 8-5 record.
Coach Mike London understands the stakes. He knows the four-game losing streak that concluded his 4-8 rookie season of 2010 was essentially forgiven, part of the honeymoon most new coaches enjoy.
This is different. Youth notwithstanding, a program should not decline dramatically in Year 3.
A loss to Maryland, on homecoming, would signal such a fall and deepen what is arguably the first true crisis of the London administration.
Understand, also, that in five seasons overall as a head coach, London is unaccustomed to crisis management. His two years guiding Richmond included a national championship and playoff quarterfinal appearance.
“With these players, these young players sometimes, negative things happen, and you try to get them out of that — the mindset of going down a road of not feeling confident,” London said this week. “It's hard to feel confident when you're not winning games.
“But at the same time, I think we have to make sure that these young players understand that our attitude changes a lot of things. The way we approach practice, the way it's easy to give up and say, Where do we go from here?’”
As expected and needed, London replaced Rocco with Alabama transfer Phillip Sims last week at Duke. But the switch didn’t prevent Virginia’s worst half of the season, a 28-0 second-half shellacking that spelled a 42-17 defeat.
After rushing for 184 yards in the first half, the Cavaliers abandoned the run after intermission, gaining 2 yards on nine carries. For the game, they yielded four touchdown passes to a quarterback, Anthony Boone, making his first college start.
Moreover, Virginia had no sacks and no interceptions. The Cavaliers have four sacks and one pick on the season, 115th among 120 teams nationally in both categories.
If Virginia can’t improve those numbers Saturday, then when? Despite attempting the second-fewest passes in the ACC (124), Maryland has allowed the most sacks (18). And Hills has the highest interception ratio (six in 123 passes) among league quarterbacks.
Defensive end Billy Schautz’s absence (leg injury) has limited the Cavaliers, and the secondary’s inexperience — the two-deep includes four sophomores, three freshmen and a junior — has translated as coaches feared.
“But the next-guy mentality has to step up,” London said. “Everybody has injuries during the course of the season. Some are most glaring, and some almost have a domino effect on the others.”
London and his staff must step up, too.
“You make some good decisions, and then sometimes you don't make good decisions,” London said. “And I'm not perfect by any means, but my intent in trying to coach this team to play well, to do the things they're supposed to do on and off the field, will be always 100 percent.
“Would we like to be playing better? Yes, we would, and we have to play better because ultimately that's my responsibility to make sure the plan that the players get, we can address some of these wins and the losses. …
“I know it's a disappointing, discouraging thing right now with the record. It is what it is. But the effort and the energies to get this thing done, get these young guys coached up, and get it executed to get that feeling back of confidence that (comes) through … performance, that's what we're working on.”
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