- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 29, 2001

The coach was criticized for a late-game decision that didn't affect the outcome. Star tailback Antwoine Womack was reduced to a spectator on crutches following a first-half injury, and will now miss a good portion of the season after requiring ankle surgery. The starting quarterback was yanked early after two costly interceptions. Not to mention penalties that can make a coach consider Russian roulette as a viable option.
Was that any way for the Al Groh era to begin at Virginia?
The Cavaliers coach said he didn't go into last week's game at No. 22 Wisconsin looking for a "silver lining." It's a good thing, because it was a gray, overcast sky as the Cavaliers fell 26-17 in a game they effectively lost before halftime. The skies are growing darker after the team's best player was lost for at least a big chunk of the season.
Womack left Camp Randall Stadium with a high sprain of his right ankle, an injury which required surgery and could sideline him until at least October. Quarterback Matt Schaub threw two interceptions, allowing the Badgers to take control of the game. It still might have been a competitive game if Womack's 74-yard run on a screen pass hadn't been negated by a clipping penalty.
To make matters worse, George Welsh's successor has been chided on talk shows and in the press after choosing to kick an extra point late in the game rather than go for a two-point conversion. The Cavaliers cut the lead to 26-16 with less than 6 minutes left on a touchdown catch by Tyree Foreman. Groh had his team kick the extra point meaning the Cavaliers would need two scores to win. A successful two-point conversion could have cut the deficit to eight, and another touchdown and two-point conversion could have tied the game and possibly forced overtime.
The former New York Jets coach said the call was based on instinct, rather than charts suggesting going for two was the logical strategy.
"A lot of people live by those charts," Groh said. "But you have to feel the game, and I was trying to feel the game. I was trying to win the game [in regulation], not tie the game. I didn't have a very strong conviction that overtime was going to be a good situation for us."
The good news is the Cavaliers have an opponent this week they can beat up Division I-AA Richmond. It is a perfect opportunity for Virginia to get the season back on track and reconfigure the offense in Womack's absence. Virginia is off next week and hosts Penn State in what should be a season-defining game on Sept. 13.
The 57-year-old Groh's home coaching debut at his alma mater figures to go much better than the debacle in the dairy land. The coach announced that Bryson Spinner (Episcopal High School) will start at quarterback after coming off the bench and throwing two touchdown passes. But the quarterback situation is far from resolved as neither Schaub nor Spinner has shown the productivity required to keep the job.
Groh recently said he has grown "bored" talking about the quarterbacks and the inevitable controversy, and sees that position's struggles as a sign of the offense's overall breakdown.
"We didn't get much going in the running game," said Groh, who posted a 9-7 record in his only season as coach of the Jets last year. "I thought the pass protection was spotty. That makes it hard for the quarterback, either of them, to get into a rhythm."
The Cavaliers should be fine this week without Womack, the ACC's leading rusher last season. But Groh won't be able to rely on junior Arlen Harris to carry the load against quality opponents like the Nittany Lions. Without Womack, the Cavaliers are in deep trouble with a loaded schedule that sends them to No. 19 Clemson a week after the Penn State game.
Virginia could have three losses with No. 6 Florida State, No. 9 Virginia Tech and 11th-ranked Georgia Tech still on the schedule. It doesn't help the Cavaliers that their three winnable ACC games against Maryland, North Carolina and N.C. State are all on the road in October. There is a possibility that the Cavaliers especially without Womack will suffer the program's first losing season since 1986.
There were scattered signs of promise coming out Wisconsin. Spinner showed he can be effective. Foreman (Sherwood High School) has successfully converted from tailback to fullback, and caught a 14-yard touchdown pass. The defense displayed it can be competent.
But the negatives, punctuated by Womack's injury, were much more glaring than the positives in the coach's debut.
Groh's tenure began with interceptions, penalties, a serious injury to a star and the coach being second-guessed. The ex-NFL coach who came home with a lot of fanfare knew his first game would be closely monitored.
"If we win, then the guy is going to be a genius and a magician," Groh said before the game. "If we lose, it's going to be like 'What was the big fuss about?' "


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