Virginia-Richmond: Cavaliers Look to Rebound Against Former Coordinator

Ben GibsonSenior Analyst ISeptember 3, 2008

It was a big moment for University of Richmond head coach Mike London last weekend.

The 1983 alum got his first Gatorade bath, as he made his debut as a college coach a successful one by scoring a 28-10 victory over Elon on the road to start the 2008 season.

If London wants to win his second game and secure the Spiders' ninth straight regular season win, it will have to be against a school where he spent six years crafting one of the top defenses in the country.

Richmond will travel to Charlottesville this Saturday, where the Spiders and the Cavaliers will do battle for state bragging rights.

While Richmond was celebrating a big win last week, Virginia was busy getting completely shelled at home by the newly top ranked USC Trojans.  Head coach Al Groh, who is never at a loss for words, knew that the best thing Virginia could do at this point was to take their whooping and move on.

“Nobody's the player of the week,” Groh said.   “There's no coach of the week, there's no player of the week, there's the bum of the week.  And I'm leading the club."

Groh may be the reigning ACC Coach of the Year, but many have got to wonder exactly what he was doing against the Trojans.  Virginia has two stellar running backs in Cedric Peerman and Mikell Simpson, both of whom helped carry the offense at different points last season. 

However, Groh decided to put the offense squarely on the shoulders of sophomore quarterback Pete Lalich, making the first start of his career.  Lalich certainly did not look great, but he also was not as bad as some may have feared.  His 18 for 35 performance for 155 yards was a serviceable game against an incredibly fast and physical team.

Lalich had someone in the backfield on nearly every play and still kept his composure.  He certainly did turn the ball over too many times, but Virginia fans had to be happy to see a quarterback that can throw the ball consistently and accurately down the field.  It was the biggest flaw in Jameel Sewell’s game, and it's Lalich’s greatest asset.

Still, Virginia fans could not have been happy to see only 14 rushes combined for Simpson and Peerman.  It may be understandable that USC was going to stack the box against Virginia and take away its strength, but Virginia took it away by itself. 

It would stand to reason that a team entering a game as a huge underdog would want to run the clock and shorten the game.  Instead, the Cavaliers had its fewest rushing attempts since last year’s opener, an embarrassing road loss against Wyoming. 

Maybe Groh makes better decisions later on in the year, but the uneven offense helped make it more or less stagnant for three quarters.  Now this matchup against Richmond is even more important if Virginia has bowl aspirations. 

The Cavaliers hold a decisive 24-3-2 record all-time against the Spiders and have not lost to them in Charlottesville since 1943.  Groh got his first victory as the Cavalier head coach against Richmond in 2001 with a 17-16 victory, but this Spider team is coming off an 11-3 record and currently holds the No. 3 ranking in the DI-AA (or whatever we call it now) poll.

Richmond lost star running back Tim Hightower to the NFL, but his replacement, senior Josh Vaughn, looked more than impressive enough against Elon.  Vaughn rushed for two touchdowns and 119 yards on just 17 carries. 

"He's a very versatile player, has size, good speed.  He's a pretty classic I-formation style runner, which they used quite a bit," Groh said.

Add an experienced and versatile quarterback like Eric Ward, and the Cavaliers will have a tougher matchup than they might want after being embarrassed on national television.

The key to this game will be the Virginia defense.  Against the speed of USC, the Cavaliers looked more like a JV team, but that should not be an issue this weekend.  The question is: Can Virginia get healthy?

Linebacker Aaron Clark has now been lost for the year with a knee injury, which puts extra pressure on Denzel Burrell, someone who has also suffered from past injuries.  It also means that Jon Copper and Clint Sintim will have to carry even more of the burden to stop the Spiders.

Ras-I Dowling did not play against USC, and his loss really hurt a secondary that USC quarterback Mark Sanchez completely exposed.  The Cavaliers simply could not pose enough of a pass rush to rattle Sanchez, and the secondary could not defend the cadre of All-Americans the Trojans boast.

Dowling should be back this weekend, and he will be a welcome sight.  Richmond has had a penchant for making big plays in the air and on the ground, something that Virginia simply cannot afford to give up.

Virginia's stout defense may be intimidating to most I-AA opponents, but not to Richmond.  Coach London helped make Groh's 3-4 scheme work at a college level and was one of the top recruiters with his passion and attitude.  That intimate knowledge of a system by the man who was in charge of it just eight months ago could play a pivotal role in the outcome.

Offensively, look for Virginia to learn from its past mistakes and give Peerman the ball.  I think Lalich will feel much more comfortable with his hardest defensive opponent out of the way.  This is his chance to show just how well he can run the offense and become an efficient leader, rather than just a solid passer.  Lalich can get some help with an offensive line that continues to gel.   

The weather should also be a factor, as Hurricane Hanna is projected to come barreling through on game day.  That would make the game a hard-nosed, smashmouth bout, something both teams might actually be looking towards.

Despite a poor showing at home against a National Championship contender, Virginia still looks in good shape in a very mediocre ACC where most teams have questions of their own to answer.  The Cavaliers still have many players they are developing, and most have proven to be about as expected, if not a bit better.

The potential is there, and they now have a stretch where they can rack up some much-needed confidence and turn around this season, just like the loss to Wyoming catapulted Virginia to a New Year’s Day bowl last year. 

USC taught us that Virginia will not be contending for a championship any time soon—Richmond will teach us whether Virginia will be contending for the cellar of the ACC.