- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 10, 2004

CHARLOTTESVILLE — After shredding Maryland’s defense for 170 yards, Virginia tailback Alvin Pearman finally was contained Saturday evening — by a swarm of reporters.

It didn’t take long, however, for his team’s 16-0 victory over the Terrapins to be forgotten. The focus immediately became this week’s home game with Miami — a critical contest to the Cavaliers’ hopes for an ACC title and the program’s first trip to a BCS bowl.

It also is a chance for Virginia to atone for its 36-3 rout by Florida State on Oct.16 — a result that seemed to doom the Cavaliers to also-ran status. But the ACC title picture changed in the last two weeks when Maryland upset the Seminoles and Miami lost to North Carolina and Clemson.

“It’s the biggest game I have ever played in my life,” Pearman said of the Miami game. “We all know that. We know the challenges that will be here. We will be looking for a fight.”

The Cavaliers (7-1, 4-1 ACC) are tied with Virginia Tech for first place in the conference. With a win, Virginia would have the inside track toward its first title since 1995, when it was co-champion. The Cavaliers still have a trip to Virginia Tech ahead, while the Hokies visit Miami after meeting Virginia on Nov.27.

“Most of the predictors in July had two teams from the same state being on top,” said Virginia coach Al Groh, meaning Miami and Florida State. “It just wasn’t from this state.”

Saturday will be the final home game for Groh’s first recruiting class. The fourth-year coach has raised the Cavaliers from a 5-7 record in his first season to two trips to the Continental Tire Bowl. Now he will find out whether his 10th-ranked team is ready to threaten one of the country’s perennial powers.

“We have been working to become this kind of team for the better part of three-plus seasons,” Groh said. “I’ve said on earlier occasions maybe we are closer to the model than we have ever been, and maybe we closed in a little bit more on the model [against Maryland].”

Meanwhile, the No.18 Hurricanes (6-2, 3-2) have been downgraded to a tropical depression after the consecutive losses. Miami went from being an undefeated national title contender ranked No.4 to third place in the ACC . Now, in a bizarre twist, the ‘Canes are underdogs trying desperately to salvage their season.

“People are getting fired up and tearing goal posts down,” said Miami coach Larry Coker, whose team blew a 17-3 halftime lead last week and lost to Clemson 24-17 in overtime. “We need to beat somebody good. We’re playing somebody good on Saturday.”

The Cavaliers have been grinding opponents into submission. They had 290 yards on the ground against Maryland, which entered with the ACC’s top rushing defense. Pearman and Wali Lundy (107 yards rushing, two touchdowns) took full advantage of the veteran, athletic offensive line.

The defense was just as effective in blanking the Terps behind one of the nation’s best linebacking corps, led by Ahmad Brooks (two interceptions) and Darryl Blackstock. The unit held Maryland to 51 yards rushing and excelled on third downs.

“We took a lot from the Florida State loss, adjusting to the speed and quickness of the game,” said right guard Elton Brown, the offensive line’s catalyst. “Miami has similar athletes to Florida State. If we can just go back in our minds and think about how that day went, [with] the team speed and the way they played … we have a good idea how this team is going to come in here and play.”

Virginia’s players are convinced their confidence is fully back after trouncing the Terps, especially because they feel they have a true home-field advantage since Groh’s arrival. Virginia has won eight straight and 16 of the last 17 games at Scott Stadium.

“The fans have really turned this place around,” Pearman said. “I have been here since Day One and seen the transformation. It means a lot as a player to look up and see the student section going crazy, painted faces. [Students wearing] ties are out the window. That means things are really changing around here.”

And Saturday, the Cavaliers plan to prove things have really changed on the field, too.

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