Seasoned Virginiais in the thick of the ACC race, thanks to a stout defense and an ability todeliver in crunch time
WHEN USUALLYreliable Wake Forest kicker Sam Swank missed his second field goal of the gamelast Saturday, this one wide right from 47 yards as time expired, Virginiaescaped with a 17--16 victory and set an NCAA record with its fifth win by twoor fewer points. The Cavaliers have grown so used to playing close games—thiswas their seventh decided by five or fewer points and their fifth victory inwhich the lead changed hands in the fourth quarter—that it almost seemedroutine to the Virginia players. "Wow, that's a record?" asked junioroutside linebacker Clint Sintim, who had 10 tackles and a sack against Wake."If we can consistently do that, however we get [wins], then hey, I'mhappy."
With a 5--1record in the ACC (8--2 overall), Virginia holds a half-game lead over VirginiaTech in the Coastal Division, and there will be more at stake than theCommonwealth Cup when the teams renew their rivalry on Nov. 24 inCharlottesville: The matchup looms as the de facto play-in for the conferencechampionship game. The Cavaliers, 5--7 in 2006 and a preseason pick to finishfourth in their division, are the least-heralded surprise of this topsyturvyseason—and maybe with good reason. Of the 14 teams that have eight or morewins, Virginia is by far the worst in total offense, ranking No. 101, with329.1 yards per game.
Holding theCavaliers together has been the defense, which was ranked 17th in the nationlast year despite having only one senior starter. With 10 starters back, the Dhas slipped to No. 25, but it features a pair of top-notch defensive ends,Chris Long and Jeffrey Fitzgerald.
Long, a 6'4",279-pound senior, gets most of the attention. The son of Pro Football Hall ofFamer Howie Long, he is second in the country in sacks, with 12. "It's hardto imagine anybody is playing his position better," says coach Al Groh.
The 6'3",280-pound Fitz-gerald was a freshman All-America a year ago. "Jeff is notas fast or as quick [as Long], but he's a playmaker," says Sintim. The endsterrorized the Demon Deacons, combining for 21 tackles, two sacks and a forcedfumble, as Virginia held Wake to 2.8 yards a rush and to field goals on threeof its four red-zone possessions. "This team needs to play relativelylow-scoring games," says Groh. "We feel confident we can stop teams. Ifwe need to score every time we have the ball, I don't know if that's ourgame."
Virginia's seasonseemed doomed at the start; it opened with a 23--3 loss at Wyoming in which theCavaliers had 100 yards of total offense, including minus-three yards on theground. "Guys were devastated," says Long. "When you lose anopener, with all the preparation you've put into it, you think it's the end ofthe world."
The Cavs showedresilience, however, winning their next seven games before slipping up at N.C.State. Sophomore quarterback Jameel Sewell, at times maddeningly inconsistent,has nevertheless delivered late in games. He has engineered game-winningfourth-quarter drives in each of the last four victories, completing 17 of 20passes for 199 yards on those possessions. Against Wake, Sewell put together a10-play, 56-yard drive for the winning TD, which came with 2:18 left.
Last year Grohjoked that he was playing the 2006 season with his '07 players. Having 19starters back from an unremarkable team isn't remarkable in its own right, butthis group seems to have benefited from the knocks it took in '06. "Onpaper it's the same team and the same personnel, but what's different issomething we've had to learn from last year's struggles," says Long,"and that's the skill of winning games."
ONLY AT SI.COMNews and analysis from Stewart Mandel.
Three and Out
1 Arkansas's Darren McFadden could break the recenttrend of Heisman winners coming from BCS teams. The Hogs may be just 6--3, butMcFadden wowed voters with his SEC-record 323-yard rushing performance againstSouth Carolina.
2 Notre Dame's decision to reward Charlie Weis with a10-year extension just seven games into his tenure now seems remarkablyfoolish. The Irish are more talented than Navy but lost in large part becauseof Weis's blunders.
3 Georgia is a half game ahead of Tennessee in thecrowded SEC East, but the Bulldogs (7--2, 4--2) should beware when they hostAuburn (7--3, 4--2) this Saturday. The visitor has won nine of the last 12 inthe series.
RUSH JOBS Long (91) has 12 sacks, while Sewell (10) has been a fourth-quarter wonder.
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