Virginia 'sent a message' with hard-fought 17-14 loss at Southern Cal

Mike London was torqued at the officials and proud of his football team. With good reason on both counts.

London's Virginia Cavaliers acquitted themselves well Saturday night in a 17-14 loss at 16th-ranked Southern California.

"That's a great effort … to go toe-to-toe with those guys," London said after his second game as the Cavaliers' head coach.

Granted, Virginia never led, and its final touchdown came with four seconds remaining. But the Cavaliers outrushed and outgained the Trojans and forced them into seven punts.

Virginia's defense was the biggest revelation, containing USC despite the absence of cornerback Ras-I Dowling and safety Rodney McLeod, both injured, for the second time in as many games.

"I thought our defense played excellent," London said.

He wasn't nearly as enamored with the Pacific 10 Conference officials for their botched call that denied the Cavaliers a 36-yard pass on a bold fake punt.

On a second-quarter fourth-and-5 from the Virginia 40, punter Jimmy Howell tossed a pass to reserve tight end Colter Phillips, who rumbled to USC's 24 for an apparent first down, putting the Cavaliers in position to break a scoreless tie.

But officials flagged the Cavaliers for an illegal block below the waist. Replays showed Hampton High graduate and reserve guard Isaac Cain, one of three protectors in front of Howell, the player in question.

London said that as Virginia returned to the field at halftime officials told him they missed the call, that a cut block behind the line on an offensive play is legal.

"That's a shame," London said, "a crying shame."

Not to suggest the mistake cost the Cavaliers (1-1) the game. This was early in the second quarter, and Virginia had plenty of chances thereafter.

Still, when you're a 20-point road underdog, you need all the help you can get.

The spread was reasonable, given the teams' respective openers and recent past. USC had beaten Hawaii on the road 49-36; Virginia had bested Richmond 34-13 at home. The Trojans are annual contenders nationally; the Cavaliers were 3-9 last season.

Moreover, in the 2008 season opener, USC housed Virginia 52-7 in Charlottesville, scoring 24 points on its first four possessions.

That the Trojans wouldn't crack 20 Saturday was unimaginable. Except to the Cavaliers.

"We came here to play and win," London said.

"I think we just came in here with the belief that we could compete with the best teams in the country," said defensive tackle Matt Conrath, who was credited with 1.5 sacks of Matt Barkley.

Whether USC is one of the best is uncertain. Under first-year coach Lane Kiffin, the Trojans certainly aren't as deep as during Pete Carroll's tenure. Their offensive and defensive lines were especially vulnerable Saturday.

Or maybe Virginia's lines are better than advertised. With offensive coordinator Bill Lazor calling another crisp game, tailbacks Perry Jones and Keith Payne combined for 134 yards on 26 carries, while USC's three teamed for 126 on 30.

"We're proud as a team," Payne said.

As in any close defeat, there were moments aplenty to lament.

Robert Randolph missed field goals of 45 and 35 yards, leaving the Cavaliers 0-for-4 this season.

Safety Trey Womack's foolish out-of-bounds hit on Barkley aided a USC drive that ended with Barkley's 11-yard scoring pass to Brandon Carswell one second before halftime.

Perhaps most frustrating, after Cam Johnson recovered a Barkley fumble caused by a Conrath-Darnell Carter sack, Marc Verica threw an interception in the end zone on a second-and-goal from the 4.

Pressured by end Nick Perry, Verica rolled to his left and forced a pass toward Payne that T.J. McDonald picked.

For Cavaliers fans, the poor decision was all too reminiscent of Verica's late end-zone interception at Virginia Tech two years ago, a giveaway that sealed the Hokies' 17-14 victory.

"I knew it was a stupid play," Verica said. "Bad pass and bad decision."

But Verica steadied himself to throw for 190 yards and a touchdown, and not until Randolph's miss with 3:49 left was Virginia toast.

"I think we sent a message tonight," Verica said, "that this is a new team."

David Teel can be reached at 247-4636 or by e-mail at dteel@dailypress.com. For more from Teel, read his blog at dailypress.com/teeltime, and follow him at twitter.com/DavidTeelatDP.

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