Virginia-Wake Forest: Cavaliers Look to Learn from Mistakes

Ben GibsonSenior Analyst INovember 6, 2008

The weight of expectations can crush teams.

Sure, winning games when no one is paying attention to you is one thing.

Champions are the ones who can win a game when everything is on the line.

It is no coincidence two of Virginia's greatest runs came when everyone had left them for dead.

In 2002 the Cavaliers were picked next to last, only ahead of the Duke Blue Devils.

Their response? A second-place finish in the ACC and a beatdown of the West Virginia Mountaineers in Groh's second year at the helm.

This time around, the Virginia Cavalier football team had the opportunity to take the driver's seat in the race to the ACC Championship game last week in its homecoming game against the Miami Hurricanes.

However, the Cavaliers were caught in that famous trap of playing not to lose as opposed to playing to win the game.

The carefree attitude the Cavaliers had when they were upsetting ranked teams like UNC and Georgia Tech was replaced by a tight squad whose leaders failed to deliver when it mattered most.

However, despite the poor play, Virginia was in prime position to win its fifth game in a row and inexplicably become bowl eligible after a 31-3 loss to Duke left them for dead at 1-3.

The Cavalier defense had provided three turnovers, and yet Virginia could only muster three points off these opportunities.  This allowed Miami to stay in it on the road, for the Cavaliers could not improve upon their 17-10 halftime lead.

Miami took advantage by marching down the field late in the fourth quarter to tie it before taking care of business in overtime.

The win may belong to Miami, but the loss, unquestionably, can be blamed on the Cavaliers.

The blame game has several candidates if you are a Virginia fan.

First there is the quarterback, Marc Verica.  Verica had lost a good deal of accuracy on his passes.  He was out of rhythm and kept the offense out of sync throughout the second half. 

Most importantly, Verica had a key fumble in field goal range which prevented the Cavaliers from having a shot at kicking a game winner in the final minute.

Of course, there was no real proof that Virginia could have even made the kick.  Kicker Yannick Reyering had already missed two makeable attempts in the second half.  He looked every bit the part of the former soccer phenom who was just kicking around his final year of eligibility on the gridiron.

Virginia's special teams will need to be shored up soon if the Cavaliers ever want to consistently win close games, for this season and the next.

As much as Cedric Peerman willed this team through its four game winning streak, certainly he must receive some of the blame.  The senior running back is one of the toughest guys in the history of the ACC, and you could tell he was laboring at times.  Still, Peerman's strength was not enough against Miami's speed.  

Peerman's first career fumble came at the absolute worst time, after a 12-yard gain for a first down in overtime.  The drop let Miami pick up the improbable win, and Peerman's cloak of invincibility had been pierced.

Finally, if Al Groh and his son Mike should get credit for this remarkable turnaround, they must also be saddled with some of the blame. 

The Virginia offense completely went away from the run in the second half, passing on short yardage situations and putting a great deal of pressure on a quarterback who still has yet to play in 10 games in his career.

I give credit to Virginia for taking some shots down the field in the second half, but Verica proved unable to connect.  This is something that must be improved upon as the Cavaliers travel down to Carolina to take on the Wake Forest Demon Deacons.

Wake Forest has had their own struggles on offense as of late, going from ACC front-runners to fighting for survival.  Last week's overtime victory against Duke was a must win, and this game at home will be critical for the Deacs if they have any chance of reaching Jacksonville.

Virginia has had a terrible road record under Al Groh and had been blown out by Connecticut and Duke this year before finally notching a win in Atlanta against the Yellow Jackets.

The Cavaliers may have dropped a game they should have won, but that is a reality in athletics.  The good teams dust themselves off and learn from it.

Perhaps that is why being a Virginia fan is such a struggle at times: It feels like the players and staff never learn from these mistakes.  We all start to believe that this year will be different, but when the bright lights of the national media appear, the Cavaliers wilt.

With the news that Peerman's backup, Mikell Simpson, is out for the season with a broken collarbone, the pressure will be on Mike Groh more than ever to create a balanced offense to give Peerman some rest.

The Cavaliers, despite the loss, are still experiencing an ascension not seen since the days of Lazarus.  Coach Groh has always found a way to keep his job safe when the heat is on, and a victory against Wake would help keep the dogs at bay.

So let's see if Virginia can turn a feel-good story into a Cinderella story.  The Cavaliers have the talent to win the ACC—now they need the toughness.

A win would go a long way in proving to everyone that one of the youngest teams in the country is not just learning, they're also evolving.