Virginia Football Ready To Play Like It's 2002

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Virginia Football Ready To Play Like It's 2002
(Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Stop me if you've heard this one before.

Virginia football is a complete after thought not only on a national scale but in the ACC.  Outside of Charlottesville, most people consider Virginia to be a spoiler at best this season.

The media prognosticators have the Cavaliers just above the Duke Blue Devils for the bottom of the conference standings.

The Cavaliers have question marks between varying quarterback candidates vying for the starting spot with no clear cut favorite.  Nothing like a quarterback controversy to bring a team together right?

Okay, you've probably stopped me by now.  I agree, these statements all apply to the upcoming football season for the Virginia Cavaliers.  No wonder head coach Al Groh is entering his ninth year in a "make-or-break" situation.  In fact, he made ESPNs ominous list of coaches under the most pressure entering this season.

Fortunately for Groh, these statements were also true in 2002.  A year that Virginia seems perfectly poised to emulate in 2009.

Just like in 2009, the 2002 Cavaliers were coming off a 5-7 campaign the year before.  While both years were considered disappointments, there were rays of hope in each of the losing seasons.

In 2001, Virginia ended their season on a high note by knocking off the Penn. State Nittany Lions at home.

In 2008, Virginia rebounded from a horrific September that featured a 31-3 loss to Duke to go undefeated in October.

Both years even featured a close win over the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets.

However, expectations nationally in 2002 were low for Virginia and the early returns did nothing to change that.

In Virginia's home opener, incumbent quarterback Matt Schaub saw his college career on the brink of collapse.  The junior signal caller was fresh off a two-year battle with Bryson Spinner for the starting position which was finally settled when Spinner decided to transfer.

Spinner's departure though opened the door for freshman Marques Hagans.  After a poor start by Schaub, Groh decided to insert the shifty Hagans who quickly won over the Virginia fans.

Trailing 32-29, Hagans led the team 81 yards in the final two minutes.  His speed took the Colorado State Rams by surprise, but when victory appeared in sight, Hagans made a leap towards the end zone only to fumble when he saw he was not going to score the touchdown.

The loss may have been Hagans fault, but his effort made him a hero to most Cavalier fans and the starting job was his.

Schaub finished the game 8-of-14 for only 73 yards and two sacks, simply reinforcing the idea that the junior lacked the mobility to be a big time quarterback.  Hagans had an innate playmaking ability and Groh threw him into the fire.  The first start for the freshman was on the road against Florida State. 

The Seminoles absolutely trounced the young Cavaliers and Hagans looked like...well, a freshman.  His final line showed a 1-of-7 performance for four yards where he was literally running for his life.

The failure was probably the best thing to ever happen for Virginia.  Groh went back to Schaub and never looked back as he went 19-of-25 for 247 yards and three touchdowns.

After an 0-2 start, the Cavaliers would ride a six-game winning streak to a 9-5 season in just the second year under Groh.

The quarterback no one had any faith in would go on to become the 2002 ACC Offensive Player of the Year and break 22 school records en route to his current role as starting quarterback for the Houston Texans.

How was Schaub able to dust off two years of mediocrity and a stunning demotion and promotion in the course of two weeks?  The same reason Virginia may just be a force to be reckoned with in 2009.

In 2002, Virginia was lucky to have an amazing offensive coordinator in Bill Musgrave.  Musgrave made Cavalier football exciting to watch, employing at least one trick play each and every game.

Now that he knew what Hagans could do under center, Musgrave was able to use the freshman as a quarterback, a wide receiver and even a running back. 

It was a wildcat offense before the wildcat was cool.

It took time for this to come to fruition but, when it did, Virginia became one of the most prolific offenses in the ACC.  Five times Virginia scored 34 points or more in a game.  By comparison, under three years of recently fired offensive coordinator Mike Groh, Virginia scored 34 points or more only four times.

The result was an overachieving Cavalier team that posted the best ACC record under Groh's tenure: 6-2.  That postseason, Virginia had it's greatest bowl victory under Groh when it drubbed the West Virginia Mountaineers 48-22 in the inaugural Continental Tire Bowl.  It was Virginia's first bowl victory since 1995.

So how can Virginia repeat the success of 2002?  Simple, they need to heed the lessons of that overachieving ball club.1. Let the Youngsters Play

Football can often be about seniority.  You cannot teach experience after all.  The 2002 team was loaded with freshmen with loads of talent and Groh let these kids experience their growing pains on the field.

Virginia is in a similar situation this year with a cadre of young wide receivers that are long on talent but short on experience.  With a new spread offense, expect to see plenty of players get their opportunity to shine.

With so many options, many coordinators will have a hard time game planning because they won't have much tape for game planning.

In 2002 it was rushing, six different Cavaliers scored a rushing touchdown that season and running back Wali Lundy set a school record with 826 yards as a freshman.  2009 hopes that they can spread that kind of wealth through the air.

 

2. Go For Broke

If anything has frustrated Virginia fans more than anything else, it has been the conservative gameplan Groh has continually used while at Virginia.

It is clearly the philosophy of the Virginia alum to not take risks and simply let the talent on the field settle the debate.  His faith in his defense has led him astray from time to time.  Sometimes you have to let your sweatshirt out and live a little.

Talent is all fine and dandy, as long as you have the decisive edge in the category.  However, if we have learned anything it is that innovation is often the greatest equalizer, particularly in college football.

Musgrave used trickeration because he knew that Virginia did not match up on paper with the ACC upper echelon.  He knew the Cavaliers needed to take risks and it paid off in 2002.  In November, the Cavaliers knocked off N.C. State and Maryland in back-to-back weeks when both teams were a combined record 16-4 at the time.

Gregg Brandon must recognize that Virginia does not have the talent or depth to simply outclass the competition so he must rely on the best playmakers he has.  In 2002 it was Marques Hagans and in 2009 it will be Vic Hall.

Hall, the Gretna High stud, shattered the VHSL scoring mark and will be featured prominently in the 2009 Virginia offense.  If Brandon allows Hall to play multiple positions, he will surprise defenses and show fans what they have been clamoring for the past four years.

After all, what does Groh really have to lose?  His job is already being called into question.  He needs to take risks and Brandon knows just how to do it.

 

3. Patience

Rome wasn't built in a day and neither will a completely new offensive structure. 

Football is a results-driven game.  What have you done for me lately is the only question that matters to most fans and it results in great coaches like Tommy Tuberville being shown the door. 

The greatest attribute of that 2002 team is that the young players matured over the course of a few months.  They became a team to be reckoned with and one that looked nothing like the one that started the year against the Rams.  Throughout the process though, they never lost faith in each other or the team and that allowed them to keep trying and learning.

Obviously when Groh may be facing his final season at Virginia, it may seem like patience is a rare quality to find.  However, I think this will be the key when dealing with the quarterback situation. 

Whoever is chosen as the starting quarterback will face adversity and Groh must understand that.  He must give them an opportunity to grow and mature.  You never know, no one thought Matt Schaub would become the player he became. 

Sewell, has surprised us before, could he find the consistency to make Virginia an overachieving team in 2009?

 

FINAL NOTE

Everyone knows that Virginia is a big question mark coming into 2009.  The switch to a spread offense is either genius or desperate depending on who you ask and depending on how Virginia fares this season.

Never underestimate the power of low expectations though.  As much as we hate hearing coaches use the "we don't get any respect" excuse, there is a reason they do it. 

It works.

Players are full of pride and they want to prove all the naysayers wrong and opposing players are not immune to the outside world, they aren't circling Virginia on their calendars.

Virginia may be forgotten by the ACC community but they would do well to remember what happened in 2002.  If the Cavaliers enter this season with the right mindset, they can surprise everyone one more time.

While the schedule is far from easy, there is hope.  The Cavaliers have home contests against three of the five Coastal opponents including both of the Techs.  In Groh's eight seasons as head coach, the Cavaliers have lost more than two games at home only twice: 2001 and 2008.

In 2002, Virginia went 6-1 at home, four of those coming against ACC opponents.  They averaged over 33 points per game at Scott Stadium and finished second in the ACC, the best finish under Groh.

Virginia may be seen as mediocre and underachieving by the outside world, but they have had their success at home.  If the Cavaliers can recapture that magic, they can make all the critics eat their words.  I know I'd be one of the first to do it!

So keep your eyes off of the Virginia Cavaliers in 2009, they've got you right where they want you.

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