By HANK KURZ Jr.
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. —
Maybe a visit from a longtime rival will pull Virginia out of its funk.
The Cavaliers (2-4, 0-2 Atlantic Coast Conference) have lost four straight, three of them decisively, and play upstart Maryland on Saturday in a critical game for both programs.
It marks the start of the second half for Virginia. The Cavaliers finished 8-5 last season, went to their first bowl game since 2007 and know they need to start winning again to show that last year was no fluke.
“This week is a big game. There’s no hiding it,” Cavaliers junior center Luke Bowanko said this week. “Right now this is the biggest game of our year. It’s our bowl game. We gotta make our move.”
Having the Terrapins (3-2, 1-0) come to town can only help, Bowanko said.
A year ago, when Virginia rallied to win six of seven after a 2-2 start, things just fell into place, and that good fortune has been among the things missing. Since that hot streak, the Cavaliers have lost six of seven against Bowl Subdivision teams, the only victory by 17-16 against Penn State this year.
And the Nittany Lions only lost because they missed four field goals.
“At this point, we can’t wait ... for (good things) to happen, hope that they happen,” Bowanko said of the four losses by an average of nearly 22 points. “We have to make them happen. ... I think it’s one of those things when you’re on a skid and things don’t seem to go your way, but this weekend, or next weekend, or whenever it is, a play gets made and you’re like, ‘Wow, that feels good. Let’s do it again.”’
The Terrapins know how it feels, and seem to have found some stability after some turbulent times, including the departure of more than two dozen players since second-year coach Randy Edsall arrived. Maryland sits atop the ACC’s Atlantic Division standings, where few expected to see them any time soon.
“I like how our guys are competing and how they are finishing, playing hard for 60 minutes and winning games in the fourth quarter,” Edsall said. The Terps bounced back from consecutive losses by beating ACC rival Wake Forest 19-14 last week, scoring the go-ahead touchdown with just 5:37 remaining.
The game figures to have recruiting implications, too. Virginia recruits in Maryland, and has 11 natives on its roster.
“It’s a pretty big game and you come here, the fans let you know it’s a big game,” Maryland senior defensive lineman AJ Francis said. “You get here, you play the game and you understand why it’s a big rivalry because they don’t like us and we don’t like them and that’s just how it is.”
The Terps will bring the nation’s seventh-stingiest run defense into Scott Stadium. They allow just 81 rushing yards per game, but also expect run-first Virginia to be more efficient on offense than it has shown. Virginia’s running game has picked up in recent weeks after a slow start, and coach Mike London made a change at quarterback last week, inserting Alabama transfer Phillip Sims into the starting lineup.
After the Cavaliers took a 17-14 halftime lead at Duke, they were outscored 28-0 after halftime.
“Sims is a pretty good quarterback, a pretty good player,” Francis said. “Last week was his first start in a long time, and he had the jitters. We’re not really thinking he’s going to come out nervous again. He was on the road last week against a pretty good football team in Duke. Now he’s at home, making his first home start.
“I feel like he’ll definitely be prepared for us this week.”