- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 13, 2004

Virginia’s ambitious football team must neutralize Miami’s speed today at Scott Stadium to stake its own claim to a berth among college football’s elite.

“[Speed] dominates on their special teams,” Virginia coach Al Groh said of the 18th-ranked Hurricanes. “It dominates on offense. It dominates on defense. Now you’ve got one of the very fastest players, [defensive back/wide receiver] Devin Hester, who shows up on all three units.”

Faced with a similar chance against another perennial power last month, Virginia lost to Florida State 36-3. Now, the Cavaliers insist they will benefit from the lesson they learned that dreadful evening in Tallahassee.

“That night was just Florida State’s night,” said linebacker Darryl Blackstock, who anchors Virginia’s defense along with Butkus Award finalist and fellow linebacker Ahmad Brooks. “We are a way different team now.”

Groh and Virginia fans certainly hope so.

“I think we are a better team because of Florida State,” said tailback Wali Lundy, a key part of a league-leading offense that produced only 20 yards rushing against the Seminoles. “It brought us down a little off the pedestal that we were on.”

The rejuvenated 10th-ranked Cavaliers (7-1, 4-1 ACC) are tied with Virginia Tech (7-2, 4-1) for the ACC lead with one loss each and are within range of winning the league’s Bowl Championship Series spot because of several recent upsets. Miami went from national title contender to a desperate team after losses to North Carolina and Clemson the last two weeks. The Hurricanes’ plunge and Maryland’s upset of Florida State two weeks ago suddenly placed the steady Cavaliers in control of the conference.

The Cavaliers visit Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech to close the season. Miami (6-2, 3-2) still could capture the league by sweeping its last three games.

“We basically lost to the right people,” said Miami coach Larry Coker, whose team would hold head-to-head tiebreakers over all the possible contenders if it won out. “It’s certainly been an interesting year for us. Certainly the year is not lost.”

Miami has been to four consecutive BCS games, and Coker has a 41-5 record over four seasons. Miami won his first 24 games, going undefeated and winning the national title in 2001, but is now on the verge of being an ACC also-ran in its first season after leaving the Big East.

“We have to just keep believing in ourselves and not lose confidence,” said Hurricanes quarterback Brock Berlin, whose team blew a 14-point halftime lead against Clemson and lost 24-17 in overtime last week.

Miami lost six players in the first round of the NFL Draft after last season and has sustained several costly injuries. But these are only part of the problems for the Hurricanes, who have failed to execute and close out games.

“Their first year in [the ACC], and they’ve suffered two losses, one at home,” said Florida State coach Bobby Bowden, whose Seminoles won nine straight titles after entering the ACC in 1992. “It took us a while to suffer. They’re suffering pretty quick.”

The surging Cavaliers, who have won 16 of their last 17 home games, plan to add to Miami’s miseries while staking their claim as the class of the conference. Virginia leads the league in rushing at 254.8 yards a game thanks to tailback Alvin Pearman (393 yards rushing over the last two games) and Lundy (14 touchdowns). The Cavaliers will test Miami’s suspect defense, which allowed an average of 196.7 yards on the ground in the last four games.

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