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October 22, 2009

Weekend breakdown of the ACC

MORE: Big 12 | Big East | Big Ten | Pac-10 | SEC | Others

THE SCHEDULE
Thursday
Florida State at North Carolina, 8 p.m.
Saturday
Georgia Tech at Virginia, noon
Maryland at Duke, 1:30 p.m.
Boston College at Notre Dame, 3:30 p.m.
Wake Forest at Navy, 3:30 p.m.
Clemson at Miami, 3:30 p.m.

All the speculation about the likelihood of Miami, Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech finishing in a three-way tie atop the ACC Coastal Division leaves out one important detail.

Those three teams still must leapfrog Virginia, the improbable division leader staging an equally improbable turnaround.

Virginia lost its first three games of the season. According to research provided by Virginia assistant athletic director for media relations Jim Daves, this marked the 59th time an ACC team had started out 0-3. Only two of those teams -- North Carolina in 1998 and again in 2001 -- went on to play in bowl games. None of them won a league title.

The Cavaliers just might buck history.

Virginia has become just the fifth team in ACC history to win its next three games after dropping its first three. Al Groh, the guy who once occupied college football's hottest seat, now is coaching the ACC's hottest team.

"That's what teams are supposed to do," Groh said. "Teams are supposed to get better. Players are supposed to get better. That's what we go out there every day for. Practice and preparation are part of every week, but also obviously practice [and] development of skills. That's what players are supposed to do. That's what coaches are supposed to do for players."

The turning point came after the Cavaliers blew a 27-10 halftime lead in a 37-34 loss at Southern Miss. The loss dropped Virginia's record to 0-3 and caused skeptics to begin planning the obituaries for Groh's tenure.

Virginia (3-3 overall, 2-0 in the ACC) has looked like a different team since. Jameel Sewell has solidified the quarterback situation. After opening the season as a quarterback, the versatile Vic Hall has emerged as a reliable receiver while also continuing to play cornerback.

The biggest changes for Virginia have come on defense. After giving up an average of 31 points per game during that 0-3 start, Virginia has allowed a total of 19 points in the three games since. Virginia has held each of its past three opponents to single digits.

Senior defensive end Nate Collins -- the reigning ACC defensive lineman of the week -- said the change occurred after the coaching staff showed a 90-minute tape that highlighted the physical nature of previous Virginia defenses.

"I think that's carried on to the field," Collins said. "Everyone's buying into being physical all the time, and that's helping us out."

There's still plenty of room on the Virginia bandwagon.

Virginia's three-game winning streak has come against North Carolina, Indiana and Maryland. The Cavaliers play host to Georgia Tech (6-1, 4-1) this week and still have home games with Duke, Boston College and Virginia Tech plus road contests with Miami and Clemson. And it's worth noting Virginia rebounded from a 1-3 start last season by winning four consecutive games, only to end the season on a four-game losing streak.

The Cavaliers have tried their best to ignore the skeptics.

"It's really just about us," senior linebacker Denzel Burrell said. "Everyone in the locker room is together and we're as one. We know there are going to be a lot of naysayers, people who question how we've been playing or how we've improved and things like that. We just try to keep it in the locker room and keep it as a family and continue to work hard, with each player doing everything they can to make themselves better day by day and week by week."

So far, that approach has worked better than anyone could have predicted a month ago.

BEST MATCHUP: Miami QB Jacory Harris vs. Clemson pass defense. Clemson got back into contention for the Atlantic Division title by cooling off Wake Forest QB Riley Skinner. The Tigers can throw the Coastal Division race for a similar loop by harassing Harris. Skinner led the ACC in passing efficiency and had thrown for at least 350 yards in three consecutive games before he went 11-of-24 for 82 yards with two interceptions in a 38-3 loss to Clemson. Harris ranks eighth in the nation in passing efficiency, but he also has thrown multiple interceptions in three of the Hurricanes' games. Harris has been outstanding when his line has given him time to throw, but Clemson DEs Ricky Sapp and DaQuan Bowers give the Tigers a solid pass rush. Harris must keep the ball out of the hands of Clemson SS DeAndre McDaniel, who is tied for the NCAA lead with five interceptions.

PLAYER ON THE SPOT: Duke QB Thaddeus Lewis. We often reserve this spot for a player who's struggling, but we figured this instance warrants an exception. Duke's schedule gets much tougher in the second half, so the Blue Devils (3-3) likely must beat visiting Maryland this week to have any realistic hope of earning their first bowl bid since 1994. Duke ranks 114th in the nation in rushing, so the Blue Devils probably won't beat Maryland unless Lewis has a big day. Recent history bodes well for Lewis. He has thrown nine touchdown passes without an interception in his past three games, and Maryland ranks 93rd in the nation in pass efficiency defense.

NUMBERS GAME: Boston College set all kinds of records Saturday in its 52-20 victory over N.C. State. Sophomore RB Montel Harris rushed for 264 yards and five touchdowns to set school single-game records in both categories. Harris' 264-yard outburst also represented the highest single-game total by any player in the nation this season. The 52 points were the most Boston College had scored against an ACC opponent since joining the conference in 2005.

WHAT THEY'RE SAYING

"We can think no further than [the next game]. I think that's a problem with a lot of people. ... They look at the bigger picture before they take care of the smaller picture. We have to work and get ourselves prepared to play UNC [on Oct. 29]. We can't skip to the end of the season. Before the season, there were so many talks about the national championship. Then we lost. Then we got ourselves back in the rankings. We took another [loss]. We have to be prepared to take every week, week by week and play our 'A' game." - Virginia Tech RB Ryan Williams, to The Roanoke (Va.) Times, on where the Hokies stand in the Coastal Division race after last week's 28-23 loss to Georgia Tech

"When I came to Clemson, some of my family switched over, but a lot of them are still, 'The U this,' 'The U that.' Everybody tells me 'the U' is back, speed and talent and all that. I just laugh it off and say, 'Well, prove it on Saturday.' " - Clemson CB Chris Chancellor, a Miami native, to The (Columbia, S.C.) State, about the Tigers' upcoming game with Miami. Chancellor's uncle, Dennis Scott, played center at Miami from 1994-97

"He's a special back. He has great vision and he just floats, like the puck in air hockey." - Boston College coach Frank Spaziani, to The Boston Globe, about Eagles RB Montel Harris

"It's very tough. We're trying to find new reasons to play, some new inspiration." - Maryland QB Chris Turner, to The (Baltimore) Sun, on the Terrapins' outlook after falling to 2-5

"We've tried everything. We've taken linebackers and moved them to the rush end on both sides. We've blitzed from inside out. We've tried it all. Our big problem is that we haven't been strong enough to get people in enough third-and-longs. We've got to start forcing people to third-and-longs. Our biggest breakdown this year is giving up the big plays. Our defense plays as good as they can play, as good as most teams can play, except we've been vulnerable to the big plays." - Florida State coach Bobby Bowden, on his team's defensive struggles. The Seminoles rank 107th in the nation in total defense and 116th in scoring defense

"He is very mobile, very athletic and throws extraordinarily well on the run. He is just about as dangerous when he gets out of the pocket and he is able to make plays. He reminds me of some of the preparations we made with Brett Favre when I was with the Dallas Cowboys. You have to stay in coverage and plastered to your guy because you lose your guy in coverage and all of a sudden he is scrambling around and he finds them deep down the field." - North Carolina coach Butch Davis, about preparing for Florida State QB Christian Ponder

Etc.: Miami S Randy Phillips is expected to return this week after missing three games with a torn right labrum. Phillips has delayed his surgery until after the season so that he could play the rest of the year. ... When he returns home to face Miami this week, Clemson CB Chris Chancellor will wear No. 6 instead of his usual No. 38 in honor of former Miami Edison teammate Jasper Howard, a Connecticut cornerback who was stabbed to death early Sunday morning. Howard wore No. 6 for Connecticut. Boston College CB DeLeon Gause, who played against Howard while attending Miami Central, also is planning to wear No. 6 this week to honor his former high school rival. ... The father of Maryland QB Chris Turner acknowledged to The (Baltimore) Sun this week that he started a thread titled "Get rid of [Maryland athletic director Debbie] Yow" on a message board of a Maryland fan site. Turner indicated he started the thread merely to show his support for the football program. ... Maryland will wear uniforms with camouflage designs for its Nov. 14 game with Virginia Tech to promote the Wounded Warrior Project, which assists injured military personnel. N.C. State CB Rashard Smith will miss the rest of the season after suffering a knee injury last week against Boston College. ... Georgia Tech's 41-38 victory over Virginia -- ranked first in the nation at the time -- during its championship season of 1990 remains one of the most memorable games in ACC history. It also marks the last time the Yellow Jackets won at Scott Stadium. Virginia has won eight consecutive home games with Georgia Tech. ... Maryland WR Torrey Smith continues to lead the nation with 207.7 all-purpose yards per game. ... Don't blame the defense for North Carolina's disappointing first-half performance. The Tar Heels lead the nation in pass defense (125.17) and rank third in total defense (237.7) and pass efficiency defense (87.55). ... There will be a family reunion of sorts Saturday when Wake Forest visits Navy. Randy Cross, the father of Wake Forest reserve QB Brendan Cross, will broadcast the game for CBS College Sports.

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.



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