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Short on Cavalier attitude

Virginia is heading into its Saturday matchup with USC with plenty of questions and in search of an identity after losing key players for a variety of reasons

August 25, 2008|David Wharton | Times Staff Writer

There was something magical about Virginia's football team last season, scoring one close victory after another, sneaking into the top 20 like pulling a rabbit out of a hat.

But magic can be elusive. Just ask the Cavaliers' coach.

"This isn't Shangri-La," Al Groh said. "Things happen in life."

The star defensive end turns pro. The starting quarterback goes on academic suspension. A young linebacker runs afoul of the law.

The Virginia team that faces third-ranked USC in the season opener Saturday must replace 14 starters and find an identity. In other words, the Cavaliers need to conjure some new tricks.

Could they have picked a tougher start?

Asked that question at a recent media day, Groh offered two words in response: "Clearly not."

His team's transformation began with the exit of All-American defensive end Chris Long, a first-round NFL draft pick who had anchored a highly ranked defense in 2007.

"Obviously, it's not going to be easy replacing him," linebacker Clint Sintim said. "Or even possible to replace him."

Other key seniors and veterans departed with Long, including two tight ends who combined for 76 catches, the interior offensive line, the punter and the kicker.

But those losses were predictable. The off-season brought unforeseen setbacks.

Several players ran into classroom problems, including quarterback Jameel Sewell, who was suspended for a year. So the Cavaliers found themselves with a quarterback competition, choosing between three backups.

Even worse, the leading candidate is among a handful of Virginia players who have run afoul of the law. Last month, sophomore Peter Lalich was arrested for underage possession of alcohol.

His case was continued until next summer and will be dropped if he stays out of trouble. Linebacker J'Courtney Williams was not as fortunate, leaving the team after being charged with credit card theft.

More recently, allegations have surfaced that the new defensive coordinator and Groh's good friend, Bob Pruett, violated NCAA rules during a previous stint as Marshall's head coach.

Pruett has denied any wrongdoing and Groh dismisses the tumult surrounding his team as "only significant to people who want to stir it up."

Besides, the Cavaliers have enough to deal with on the field.

Lalich, who appeared in eight games as a backup last season, is competing with the less-experienced Scott Deke and Marc Verica. Groh describes all three as traditional pocket passers, a change from the elusive Sewell, which could require a shift in Virginia's offensive scheme.

The coach has a history of waiting until the last moment to announce his starter -- as in when his offense takes the field in the opener. His quarterbacks aren't giving away any secrets.

"Until any of us have done anything in a game worthwhile to be talking about, I think it's in our best interest to stick to ourselves and keep working to do what's best for our team," Deke told reporters.

With so many holes to fill, a poll of Atlantic Coast Conference media predicted Virginia to finish fifth in the conference's Coastal Division. Cue the standard underdog response.

"We read the expectations," tight end John Phillips said. "And that's motivation."

The Cavaliers have been here before, picked to finish in the middle of the pack in 2007. Instead, they were 9-4, winning an NCAA-record five games by two points or fewer and earning a New Year's Day invitation to the Gator Bowl, where they came within two seconds of defeating Texas Tech.

If nothing else, Virginia returns with a veteran coach who has quietly led the program to five bowl games in seven years and might have something up his sleeve.

"Coach Groh has been around a long time," USC Coach Pete Carroll said. "He's been in the [Bill] Parcells, [Bill] Belichick style of play. . . . I know we've battled him in the NFL for years at different times and they've turned out really good teams."

Virginia features a trio of seasoned linebackers, a strong receiving corps and proven running backs in Cedric Peerman and the speedy Mikell Simpson.

Groh has employed various tricks in preparing them for the opener, not the least of which was blasting the USC fight song over loudspeakers during spring practice. "I may be able to hum it," Sintim deadpanned.

The Cavaliers understand the challenge they face Saturday as 19.5-point underdogs.

"We're playing a team that has earned the right to be in a league of their own," Groh said of USC. "They clearly are the class of college football."

At the same time, the coach has reminded his players about last fall, the close victories, looking to recapture something intangible.

"You don't have to be better than somebody the rest of the year, you've just got to be better on one day, one Saturday," Phillips said. "You've just got to find a way to win that one day."

Like pulling a rabbit out of a hat.

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david.wharton@latimes.com

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USC SEASON OPENER

* at Virginia

Saturday, 12:30 p.m., Channel 7

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