- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 2, 2008

Reliability and steadiness are usually welcome traits for any team.

Unless, that is, those apply to Virginia‘s football program over the last year.

Rarely a month passed in the offseason when there wasn’t some roster attrition. And just five weeks into the season, the Cavaliers (1-3, 0-1 ACC) would be shackled with their worst start since 1982 if they can’t surprise Maryland (4-1, 1-0) at Scott Stadium on Saturday.

It’s the worst sort of consistency imaginable, especially since it is nearly impossible to escape the constant stream of setbacks facing the program.

“One of the things we’ve always understood is that adversity and the negativity that goes with it is just a part of life,” coach Al Groh said. “If you’re impacted by that, it just drains away all the positive energy needed to produce positive results. It’s an ongoing thing where teams need to insulate themselves from those circumstances.”

Perhaps now more than ever in Charlottesville.

Groh’s future is a popular topic, with murmurs circulating of a possible firing if the Cavaliers can’t reverse a woeful September. The month ended with Saturday’s 31-3 loss at Duke, which snapped the Blue Devils’ 25-game conference losing streak.

But it isn’t so much that Virginia is struggling a season after Groh was named the ACC coach of the year for producing a 9-4 season filled with fortuitousness and a New Year’s Day date in the Gator Bowl. It’s that a brutal offseason filled with academic and disciplinary matters sapped the Cavaliers of much of their remaining talent.

Losing a pair of first-round NFL Draft picks (defensive end Chris Long and guard Branden Albert) didn’t help. Then quarterback Jameel Sewell, a two-year starter, left school for academic reasons, as did cornerback Chris Cook and defensive end Jeffrey Fitzgerald.

Ultimately, almost a dozen players with eligibility remaining aren’t around - with opening-week starting quarterback Peter Lalich the latest to join the list after his dismissal from the team last month in the wake of a probation violation related to underage possession of alcohol.

“You have to try to cover your eyes and ears to it so you don’t let it distract you,” wide receiver Kevin Ogletree said. “Stuff that has happened, it all happened for a reason. We all know we can’t do anything about it at this stage. We’re just trying to go with what we have and finish this season out with what we’ve got.”

Ogletree, who missed last season with a knee injury and has 22 receptions, is one of the Cavaliers’ bright spots. So too is linebacker Clint Sintim, who leads the ACC with four sacks. Dependable fullback Rashawn Jackson fared well as a ball-carrier late against Duke, cornerback Ras-I Dowling had two interceptions Saturday and Virginia has found solid options at punter and kicker.

And that’s about it.

The Cavaliers rank 117th of 119 teams nationally in rushing offense (66 yards), 118th in total offense (251.3) and 119th in scoring offense (9.0). A woeful turnover margin of minus-1.75 - 113th in the country - exacerbates matters.

“We’re just trying to figure things out,” Sintim said. “We knew coming in it would be a little bit different, and we lost a lot of players. We’re continuing to get better. We’re developing, and we’re getting better, and we’re on our way to being a better team.”

It just might take a while. Fifteen players already made their first career starts this season, and the Cavaliers have a combined 72 freshmen and sophomores on their roster.

The inexperience exists, as at so many other positions, at quarterback. Sophomore Marc Verica, who entered the season with no career snaps, was placed in the unenviable spot of learning on the job after Lalich’s departure and will make his third career start Saturday. He was solid in his first appearance against Connecticut, then threw four interceptions last week.

The constant tumult robbed the Cavaliers not only of developed players but also of a solid chance of replicating the success enjoyed during Groh’s first seven seasons. While Groh’s teams rarely win points for artistry, they typically are disciplined groups with a penchant for opportunistic play.

This year, not so much.

“We’ve had some real good success as the team that minimized penalties, didn’t turn it over, played good special teams and didn’t make errors,” Groh said. “We had all that reverse on us [Saturday] - too many foolish penalties, six turnovers, four at one position. We didn’t get very good production from special teams. All the things that were good in the past were exactly what got us.”

And the good in the past is increasingly fleeting. Groh, whose contract was extended through 2011 last year, is believed to be making about $1.9 million this season. Yet the accumulation of losses and off-field imbroglios - and fan frustration with both - could create an environment conducive to a coaching switch regardless of finances.

That is, unless things change - a prospect that would dim if Virginia can’t take advantage of a three-game homestand beginning Saturday.

“I think when you’re losing, it’s important to make sure you get some positive things out of it,” Ogletree said. “We’re not happy about the outcome. We’re going to take the position that we know it’s a young season. Some teams may fall apart when we’re just getting ourselves going. We’re going to compete and not throw the towel in ever.”

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