It's no secret that the health of running back Cedric Peerman has been a huge factor in the turnaround of fortunes for the Virginia Cavaliers.
When Virginia suffered its worst ACC loss under Al Groh's tenure, a 31-3 annihilation by Duke, Peerman could only watch from the sidelines. Despite his injured leg, Peerman came to Coach Groh throughout the game asking to play. Groh told him that he needed to wait—Virginia would need him later on at full strength.
In the short term it looked like a foolish decision. Virginia's offense squandered many first half opportunities with the ball inside Duke territory. Unable to move the ball on the ground, the pressure was put on sophomore Marc Verica to shoulder the load in just his second start at quarterback.
Without the run, Verica faltered, committing a painful four interceptions in the second half.
The dogs were out in Charlottesville. Everyone, including yours truly, was calling for Groh's head on a silver platter. Against Maryland, a record low turnout appeared. Fans had lost faith.
Even at less than full strength, Peerman ran for 110 yards on just 17 carries against the Terps before being taken out of the game when he tweaked his ankle. He also led the team with seven receptions and was the critical component of helping Virginia take third and longs to third and manageables.
The Cavaliers were one of the worst third down teams in the country before Maryland, but those yards Peerman got on first and second down helped Virginia convert 10 of 17 third downs.
Of course, that was just Maryland. Who can trust a win over the Jekyll and Hyde team of the ACC?
Well, against East Carolina, Peerman took his game to the next level. With his team demoralized after two Verica interceptions, Peerman sped off on an incredible 79-yard sprint to give Virginia a 7-6 lead.
He added another big 60-yard run later in the first half to help spark 28 unanswered points by Virginia that built a comfortable margin and helped give them their second improbable victory in as many weeks.
I am not one for outlandish claims, but the truth is Cedric Peerman may be the best running back in the ACC.
That doesn't mean he will necessary be an NFL superstar, and he probably will not come close to first team all-ACC because of the team he plays for, but "hoo" has done more with less?
Peerman ranks in the top five of every single rushing category. Peerman is only a 10th of a yard behind Boston College's Montel Harris for the most yards per carry with 7.2 yards.
He is fifth in rushing average, but that just begins to explain the way he impacts the game. Peerman is also a tremendous receiver for his inexperienced quarterback. Peerman ranks sixth in receptions and all-purpose yards in the ACC.
Peerman carries his team, literally, scoring a third of the team's total touchdowns and garnering several yards after contact.
That is perhaps Peerman's greatest strength: his attitude. Verica has said before that Peerman inspires his teammates through his actions. His ability to absorb contact and dish out some punishment of his own has inspired the maligned offensive line and helped give Verica the poise he needs to give Virginia an offense.
Peerman may not be outspoken, but his playmaking speaks for itself.
Virginia's offense prior to Peerman's healthy return was dead last in offense. The Cavaliers had not even scored a passing touchdown until its fifth game of the season! Now with Peerman's playmaking, the Cavaliers have risen 20 spots in total offense, blasting by some rather big names like Tennessee, Virginia Tech, Auburn, and Michigan.
The truth is that you when you assess Peerman, you have to take all of these statistics and remember that not only is Peerman just getting to be at full strength, but that he has had to split time at running back with last year's breakout star Mikell Simpson.
Peerman led the ACC in rushing before he went down last season against Middle Tennessee State, and critics wanted to say it was only because of the level of competition.
Well, Peerman is performing just as well this season with an offensive line that lost three of its five starters from 2007 and facing defenses that are completely geared to stop him, since Virginia is throwing a quarterback out there who has only played a handful of games in his career.
That offensive line has improved a bit from the complete meltdown against the USC Trojans to open the year, but Peerman is still succeeding in spite of the line as opposed to because of it.
Just look at Simpson. The speedster was one of the top ACC backs last year, notching over 250 all-purpose yards against Maryland last season. This season, with this new O-line, Simpson is averaging only three yards per carry and just 37.2 yards per game despite 21 more carries than Peerman.
Has Simpson forgotten how to run, or has the line simply created zero lanes? I am going with the latter.
Peerman may not get the publicity of a C.J. Spiller or Jonathan Dwyer, but he is just as critical, if not more so, to his team's success. He will face a very stiff challenge from a North Carolina team that enters Charlottesville with a great deal of momentum after knocking off media darling Notre Dame.
Still, the Tar Heels have not won in Charlottesville since 1981—and if UNC cannot stop Peerman, that streak will continue.