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Maybe Virginia Isn't So Bad After All

Courtney Douglas/Chronicle File Photo

Way back on Sept. 27, Duke stormed out of the neo-Gothic gates in Wallace Wade Stadium—"it looks more like a library entrance than a football stadium," a friend recently commented—and outscored a receding Virginia team 28-0 in the second half to win its first ACC game since 2004 in resounding fashion. The Cavaliers had dominated the first half but had trudged into intermission tangled in a tie. The Blue Devils had managed to stay in the game despite doing almost nothing offensively—and they seemed to know it.

While Duke was, for at least a week, the toast of the ACC, Virginia head coach Al Groh's was in serious jeopardy. Not to embarrass ESPN's Heather Dinich, the best ACC reporter out there, but her Sept. 28 comment seems laughably myopic now: "The Cavaliers solidified their spot as the worst team in the ACC by managing just three points—three—against a Duke program that had a 25-game losing streak in conference play. Heading into this season and following a one-year contract extension, it seemed as if it would take a monumental collapse for Al Groh to officially be on the hot seat. Well, he might want to duck, because the walls are caving in in Charlottesville."

Not so much anymore. Inexplicably, the Cavaliers have the inside track to the ACC's Coastal division title. If they win out, they're in the ACC championship.

But here's the kicker, perhaps even crazier than Virginia playing in a BCS game: If you watched its blowout loss to Duke in September, you knew that the Cavaliers weren't as bad as the final score indicated. No one would have predicted an ACC championship in their future--unless you define future as sometime in the next 20 years--but they weren't as bad as people made them out to be.

After all, Virginia did outplay Duke in the first half with quarterback Marc Verica playing his first game as Peter Lalich's replacement. The Cavaliers picked up more rushing yards, more passing yards, more total offense, more first downs and more sacks than Duke. Groh's squad had the ball inside Duke's 50-yard line six times without scoring--thanks in large part to Verica's four interceptions and two team fumbles.

Part of winning games and being a good team, as Duke learned against Northwestern and then again against Miami, is parlaying opportunities into points. Virginia has proven capable of doing so in recent weeks--capped off with its win over Georgia Tech Saturday, but preceded by impressive wins over Maryland North Carolina. The Cavaliers seemed to be a pointless gamble when they limped out of Durham Sept. 27, but even the biggest longshot with a backup quarterback and a coach on the hot seat can pay out before its too late.


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