Monday, November 30, 2009

requiem for an era: The Games That Mattered

You didn't think it'd be just a one-part series, did you? Today we'll look back at ten of the games that defined the Al Groh era. Five of the best and five of the worst. These are what I consider Al's greatest triumphs and failures.

We start with the bad: the five worst games of the decade. These are the ones that caused Al the most problems and UVA fans the most heartache.

#5: November 29, 2008
Virginia Tech 17, Virginia 14

Sadly, there's plenty of these to choose from, so you pretty much have to pick one. This is the one that got away. VT fans are still counting their blessings that Vic Hall graduates this year and that Poly managed to escape with that one; Hall befuddled the Hokie defense to the tune of almost 7 yards a carry out of the wildcat and scored two touchdowns. Tech went ahead by a field goal, but Hall peeled off a 39-yard dash sprint late in the fourth. Unfortunately, after it appeared the Poly D had figured out the wildcat, Marc Verica came in to throw a pass on third down, and chucked it unnecessarily into the end zone where, like many of his passes that season, it landed in enemy hands, effectively ending the game. If I could have one do-over play in all of Groh's tenure, that'd be it.

Where I was: At home in Michigan for Thanksgiving, watching this game on national TV.

#4: October 14, 2006
Maryland 28, Virginia 26

Nothing is sweeter than beating Virginia Tech, but nothing is worse than losing to Maryland. If that makes any sense. So when you have a 20-0 lead at halftime, and even a 20-7 lead at the end of 3, that's pretty good, right? Unfortunately, the Twerps knocked out two quick touchdowns, and then, for the coup de grace, returned a Jameel Sewell interception to the house to put the game out of reach. A late Kevin Ogletree touchdown wasn't enough to tie the game as the two-point try failed, and the biggest opponent comeback of the Al Groh era was complete.

Where I was: Newly arrived in Washington (the state) for about a year and a half and following on Gamecast because this one wasn't on TV out there.

#3: October 22, 2005
North Carolina 7, Virginia 5

Nothing illustrates the frustrating home-and-away dichotomy that's characterized UVA athletics like this two week stretch in October 2005. As a sneak preview, the previous game, a 26-21 win over then-powerful Florida State, is on the next list; this game followed it, and it was pure grade ugly. Ranked #23 after the upset, we rolled into Chapel Hill and played a game unfit for a team that has ambitions of being ranked in the top 80. The offense managed just three points and 199 yards, and the result was our prompt removal from the rankings, not to appear again for two years.

Where I was: Travelling, actually. I had a three-week stay in Rhode Island for a school and I had to go back home on that day. I learned about the score on the ticker in a damn rest stop. That is not how you want to learn about this stuff.

#2: October 16, 2004
Florida State 36, Virginia 3

The high-water mark. Actually, that was the week prior, when Virginia appeared at #6 in the rankings. We were an up-and-coming power and confidence boiled high among the fans: a large group of them showed up at our opening game at Temple with their chests painted S-C-R-I-M-M-A-G-E. The game in Tallahassee was #6 at #7 and totally failed to live up to the billing as Groh's team managed to roll up all of 20 yards on the ground. The defense failed equally spectacularly, and the team has never been ranked that high since. The regular season ended with a fairly respectable 8-3 record, but was followed up by a disappointing OT loss in the Whatever Bowl in Boise.

Where I was: Throwing things at the TV inside my Norfolk apartment.

#1: September 5, 2009
William & Mary 26, Virginia 14


Where I was: Sailing. I was invited to crew a long-distance race that weekend and figured I could pretty easily afford to miss this game. I was right in all the wrong ways. The race didn't go any better, either.

Well, that was certainly a fun trip down memory lane, yes? I didn't even have room for that pitiful loss to Wyoming. It's probably not good when the honorable mention is that damn ugly and the one that caused Beta Bridge to get painted to boot. Better times are coming, though. Here are some better ones.

#6: December 28, 2002
Virginia 48, West Virginia 22

You didn't think I'd actually put wins on the same plane as losses by having the same number of them, did you? Bonus win here. This win snapped a four-game losing streak in bowls. The team and fans felt slighted after finishing second place in the conference and being relegated to the fifth-selecting bowl in the pecking order, and took it out on the favored Mountaineers. More than 73,000 fans showed up to watch the game - the largest non-BCS crowd that season and would carry that title over for a few seasons more, too. Wali Lundy, then a freshman and a member of Groh's first real recruiting class, racked up four touchdowns. The game would catapult Virginia back into the national consciousness and made the fanbase confident that this still-new coach would live up to the promise he brought.

Where I was: Gathered at home with a couple high school friends who were also attending UVA and all home for Christmas.

#5: November 10, 2001
Virginia 39, Georgia Tech 38

There weren't any national implications to this game, at least not as far as we were concerned. A five-game losing streak had seen to that. This game is on here purely for the entertainment value. Georgia Tech came into the game ranked and it certainly looked like another loss was on tap. It was a pretty pedestrian sleeper of a game after three quarters, with Tech holding a 20-14 lead.

Then came the fireworks. The teams combined for a whopping seven touchdowns in the final quarter, all but the first (a Billy McMullen reception) followed by a failed two-point conversion. The offenses took turns parading downfield and gobbling up yardage in huge chunks. One Tech touchdown was answered with a 100-yard kick return. The teams combined for a total of 813 yards passing on 101 attempts throughout the game, and Bryson Spinner matched Tech's George Godsey throw for throw. The final UVA offensive play was a well-remembered hook-and-ladder from McMullen to Alvin Pearman, a weak desperation shove that Pearman caught at his shoelaces and took untouched to the house for the winning touchdown with less than 30 seconds to go, capping the frenzied final quarter. For pure excitement, there isn't a better game on this list.

Where I was: After the clock ran out, on the field.

#4: October 9, 2005
Virginia 26, Florida State 21

We carried a two-game losing streak into this game against the #4 team in the country that dropped us from the rankings. Marques Hagans made damn sure it stopped there. Hagans was the undisputed star of the game, passing for over 300 yards on 27-of-36, and perhaps more importantly, frustrating and tiring out the Seminole pass rush by scrambling around and making play after play. He orchestrated two scores with less than two minutes to go before halftime, turning a narrow 13-10 margin into something quite a bit more commanding. Withstanding a brief Seminole rally in the fourth quarter caused me to bounce drunkenly through the streets of Boston, yelling "UVA!" at anyone I thought cared, which was everyone.

Where I was: As mentioned, Boston, for the second week in a row, getting totally destroyed on what I later calculated was about 17 Sam Adams Lights. It's a mystery to me how I remember this game, but I do. I spent the previous week standing in Boston College's stadium in the pouring rain, watching us lose, so I consider this one my reward. A friend of mine had insisted we go to some bar or other that was the gathering place for Notre Dame alums as they watched another loss to USC; I agreed on the condition that we'd stay and watch UVA after that one was over.

#3: November 10, 2007
Virginia 48, Miami 0

Oops. It was Miami's party and they cried if they wanted to. The Hurricanes' last game in the Orange Bowl didn't go as planned. ESPN was on hand to record the moment, the Rock was a scheduled guest in the booth (he is a former Hurricane defensive tackle, for the unfamiliar) and a whole host of Hurricane luminaries were on hand for the festivities. We had already set some kind of record for games won by less than a field goal's margin and Virginia football had never, in its history, won a game in Florida. Lots of history to be made here, and we made it by handing Miami its worst ever shutout loss in that stadium. The defense dominated, the offense did whatever the hell it wanted, and the special teams even blocked a punt. To this day I have no idea how this happened, but damn if it wasn't fun to watch.

Where I was: Entrenched in my recliner in Washington, with my jaw on the floor for a solid two hours.

#2: November 23, 2002
Virginia 48, Maryland 13

Before this game, Ralph Friedgen claimed he expected to beat teams like Duke and Virginia. Groh finished 5-4 against him, so he doesn't say silly things like that anymore, at least not in public, but this at least shut him up for a year, and cost him the Orange Bowl besides. If the ensuing bowl game was what put UVA in the national consciousness for a while, this game put Matt Schaub in the UVA consciousness. He set a UVA record for pass yardage in a season, let only four passes out of 27 fall incomplete, and threw for three touchdowns in a brilliant upset of the #18 team in the country.

Where I was: At Cornell University on a ROTC trip. So I missed this game. Damn it. We heard the result on the radio and everyone else in that gym must have wondered what all that whooping and hollering was about.

#1: November 29, 2003
Virginia 35, Virginia Tech 21

I am letting personal bias get in the way of my so-called journalism here, but since this isn't actually journalism, screw it. Groh's sole win over Poly deserves a spot somewhere, and it was a fitting way to spend my last football game as a student. There was a very palpable feeling that this game was ours to win even before it started, and the game played out that way. It was just our day. Tech came in not playing well, and we took advantage. I can still see the solo Hokie, about four rows in front of me, gamely jingling the keys to his '88 Dodge Ram as we picked up yet another important third down for what seemed like the fourth time in a row - it's my own personal metaphor for futility. For one glorious day, at least. I don't know what possesses a Hokie to come to the game by himself and sit by himself in the student section, but this isn't Blacksburg so he left without any beer stains on his shirt and his wallet still in his pocket.

Where I was: Closing out my game-watching career at UVA the only place you should ever close out a senior year: on the 50-yard line when the clock ran out. Thanks for the memories, Al.

So there you have it. I was even more depressed than usual by the fact that I didn't even have room for all the really crappy losses during the Groh era, but I cheered up after I expanded the wins list and still didn't have room for the 18-17 thriller win over Maryland or the 37-27 comeback win over UNC, or a couple other fringe considerations either. Al Groh certainly brought us our fair share of losses we could really have done without, but the better memories outnumber and overshadow them.

Tomorrow: the players that helped make it happen.


Just a little bit of housekeeping - the recruiting board needs an update, so here it is. Life goes on even without a coach.

2 comments: said...

You may have already seen this - a little recap of the 7-5 loss to UNC:

Frank (Philly) said...

I went to 3 of those games.

1. UNC/UVA - I've never seen a more frustrating (regular season) football game in my life, and I root for the Eagles.

2. FSU/UVA (win) - The best game I've ever attended. I had planned to leave early because I had a marketing exam to study for. Stayed the whole game and got wasted out of my mind afterwards. Got a C on that exam. Good times.

3. MD/UVA (win) - First time I got to rush the field.