Virginia football coach Al Groh was rehashing the Cavaliers’ shaky victory over Maryland on Saturday when the voice of Terrapins boss Ralph Friedgen came sneaking into the visitors’ press tent via the Byrd Stadium PA.
It didn’t matter, because Groh had the last word on a day when the interstate rivals staged a largely sleep-inducing, sloppy game whose outcome depended on which of them best survived offensive ineptitude.
Turned out it was Virginia, thanks mainly to senior defensive end Nate Collins’ 32-yard interception return for a third-quarter touchdown that put the Cavaliers ahead to stay. The victory wasn’t pretty, but Groh couldn’t have cared less.
The ninth-year boss has endured a lot of fuss and feathers (but so far no tar) around Charlottesville following 5-7 seasons in 2006 and 2008. And when the Cavaliers lost their first three this season, you would have thought Groh tried to burn down Monticello.
Events since emphasize the danger of premature judgments. Saturday’s 20-9 triumph at chilly, soggy Byrd was Virginia’s third straight - and winning coaches tend to ignore the unpleasant details, at least temporarily.
“That was a magnificent effort by our players,” Groh said. “I have the highest level of admiration for what these kids gave tonight and how they’ve stuck together and been unified. As a result they did something they can be very proud of. … They have a hard shell. They’re pretty hard to crack.”
And what about the big turnaround, unexpected or otherwise?
“We’re just getting better, staying with it, keep fighting,” he said.
Whoever thought success could be that simple? Of course, it helps if you’re playing a poor opponent that apparently doesn’t have a clue.
Probably we should say a word about the Terps here, and that word is pathetic. The punchless Terps are 2-5 at this miserable moment, with a bowl bid as unlikely as the Fridge taking up ballet in the offseason.
Back to Groh, though. The Cavaliers’ attack, if that’s the word, accumulated just 201 yards after rolling up 536 a week earlier in an unlikely 47-7 demolition of Indiana. But there were mitigating circumstances, such as injuries to running back Mikell Simpson and quarterback Jameel Sewell, plus the wet conditions. Simpson missed all of Saturday’s proceedings, and Sewell departed late in the third quarter.
Yet the Virginia defense rose up mightily, especially on the big play by Collins moments after Robert Randolph’s field goal cut Maryland’s lead to 9-6 with 2:02 left in the third period.
His victim was Maryland quarterback Chris Turner, who didn’t complete a pass for positive yardage for the first 20:53 and wound up hitting on just 16 of 38 for a miserly 158 yards. This time Turner’s short toss was tipped by linebacker Darren Childs into the hands of the 290-pound Collins, who took off for the end zone like a flying rodent out of Hades.
“Collins deserves a lot of credit, but Childs also came through on a scheme we had devised,” Groh explained. “It was a collective effort by our defense.”
The Cavaliers have won their last nine October games - “I’m German, it’s Oktoberfest,” Groh explained - and must continue to improve with games ahead against toughies like Georgia Tech, Miami, Boston College and Virginia Tech. But recently unhappy fans of the Wahoos will have to keep their tater traps shut about Al for a while at least.
No such luck for Friedgen, who became a huge hero in College Park when his first three teams went 31-8 with appearances in the Orange and Gator bowls.
But sports are a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately racket, and the Fridge hasn’t done much to delight folks who bleed black and red every autumn. Since 2004, the Terps are just 35-32 overall and 19-26 in the ACC - numbers that recall unhappily the torturous tenures of unlamented predecessors like Joe Krivak, Mark Duffner and Ron Vanderlinden.
Over the past year or so, the once-imposing Friedgen has lost more than 100 pounds. Could it be too much of that came off the top?
During his postgame session, Groh insisted, “We came in here anticipating the toughest of games.”
That’s standard coach-speak, of course, but you have to wonder why.
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