By HANK KURZ Jr.
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. —
Virginia would like to use the spotlight of a Thursday night game to show that its football program really is on the way up, even if its record suggests otherwise.
The Cavaliers (4-6, 2-4 Atlantic Coast Conference) host North Carolina on Senior Night. While at least 16 players will be playing their final home game at Scott Stadium, they say sentimentality takes a back seat to winning.
“Everyone who loves college football is watching this game, and it’s a statement game,” senior linebacker LaRoy Reynolds said this week. “... The atmosphere is going to be great, The feeling of playing the last home game, being with the team again and working to get this bowl bid — I think the energy’s going to be there, the passion’s going to be there and the effort is definitely going to be there.”
Virginia has won two in a row after a six-game losing streak, and still needs to beat the Tar Heels and then state rival Virginia Tech in next weekend’s regular season finale to qualify for a bowl game.
The victories at N.C. State and at home against Miami have their confidence soaring.
“We knew we needed to turn this thing around before it was too late,” senior linebacker Steve Greer said. “We did put ourselves in this position. I think everyone’s all-in, everyone’s bought in, so we’re going to have to go out and we’re facing a good team, so we’re going to have to play well.”
North Carolina (6-4, 3-3) would be in contention to win the ACC’s Coastal Division title if not for a one-year postseason ban imposed by the NCAA. The Tar Heels relish the chance to keep Virginia home, too.
“We’re all about trying to spoil other people’s stuff, I guess,” tailback Gio Bernard said this week. “We don’t have a Christmas present. We want to try to take away other people’s Christmas presents, I guess you could say it like that. But for the most part, we just want to keep winning.”
Or get back to it, especially after the way the Tar Heels lost last weekend.
While Virginia won a stirring duel with Miami 41-40 on Michael Rocco’s 10-yard touchdown pass to Jake McGee with 6 seconds left, the Tar Heels broke futility records in a 68-50 home loss to Georgia Tech.
The loss made having a short week a blessing, first-year coach Larry Fedora said.
“You really don’t have time to dwell on it,” he said. “Probably the best thing for us is we play the short week. So mentally you don’t have time to think about it. You don’t have time to cry about it.
“You’ve got to step up. You’ve got to go. It’s time to go again.”
Virginia intends to continue with its quarterback rotation, using both Rocco and Alabama transfer Phillip Sims, even after Rocco completed a school-record 18 consecutive passes against the Hurricanes.
The coaching staff and players might prefer having more time to prepare for Bernard. He has already rushed for 1,008 yards, by far the most in the ACC, and is averaging 7.1 yards per carry. He is also the conference’s top punt returner with a 17.9-yard average and two returns for touchdowns.
“He’s a great player, a great running back, probably one of the best that we’re going to play against,” Reynolds said. “I have a lot of respect for him, but you live for competition like this.”
The Tar Heels are third in the league with an average of 40 points a game. Quarterback Bryn Renner hopes to hit the ground running at Scott Stadium and take the fans out of the game quickly.
“We’re going to be on the road and they’re going to be excited at home,” Renner said. “One thing about college football is it is about momentum. If we control that early and get some big plays, get some stops on defense and make some big plays on special teams, then we’ll be ok the rest of the game.”