As Virginia went about the business two weeks ago during the off week of taking stock in all the myriad aspects of its football program that needed improvement, an interesting and somewhat unexpected phenomena started to take place in the weight room of all places.
Players were setting personal bests at surprising rates in terms of amount of weight lifted and number of times they could lift set amounts of weight. In coach Mike London's mind, that was the beginning of what he hopes is becoming a tradition in Charlottesville — the great November push.
"During the open week, they maxed on their bench presses and power cleans, and there were 25 or 30 new maxes," said London, whose team will be going for its third straight win against Miami (5-4 overall, 4-2 Atlantic Coast Conference) when it hosts the Hurricanes noon Saturday. "Sometimes teams lift to maintain as the season goes on. We lift to continue to get stronger as the season goes on. That is evident in the numbers that are put up. So, we talked about winning in November … transferring that effort that happens in the weight room on to the field as well."
Last season, U.Va. (3-6, 1-4) managed to work its way into the Chick-fil-A Bowl by going 4-1 in its final five regular-season games, including a 3-1 stretch in November. U.Va. must win its last three games this season — against Miami, North Carolina and at Virginia Tech — to get bowl-eligible, but it started November last weekend with a stunning 33-6 win at North Carolina State.
While using late-season weight room exploits as a catalyst for on-field success may seem like nothing more than the football coaches' version of Motivational Speaking 101, it appears to be working. U.Va.'s players are buying into the concept.
"It's crazy to kind of see this far into the season guys are getting new reps (and weight maxes)," said U.Va. defensive tackle Brent Urban, who had one of the Cavaliers' season-high six sacks against the Wolfpack, and who said he's been able to achieve a new personal max on the bench press. "It's something like more than half the guys are getting new maxes, so that's great to see."
As far as the actual on-field plans for Miami, London said early this week he'll continue to use an unconventional two-quarterback system with Phillip Sims and Michael Rocco that helped U.Va. outgain N.C. State 446-216 in yards. Of course, U.Va.'s defense made life easy for the offense by holding a third straight opponent under 236 yards, including 19 rushing yards, and forcing N.C. State to commit five turnovers.
"If we'd lost that game, we'd still have three games to play, but there's nothing to look forward to," said U.Va. linebacker Daquan Romero, a Phoebus High graduate who's slated to get his second career start Saturday. "This was like a spark. It's like a spark to win this game. This was a game that we needed, and we actually came together as a team. We talked about it. We ate it. We slept it. That's what we were focused on."
After beating Virginia Tech 30-12 on Nov. 1, Miami isn't short on confidence, either. The victory snapped a three-game losing streak and put Miami in control of its own destiny in the ACC's Coastal Division standings.
Getting a handle on freshman running back Duke Johnson, who had 100 rushing yards and 217 all-purpose yards to go along with a touchdown run against Tech, will be one of U.Va.'s primary concerns.
U.Va.'s challenge became more difficult Thursday when freshman defensive end Eli Harold, a pass rush specialist who started his first career game at N.C. State, was ruled out for the Miami game due to unspecified medical reasons.
There has been talk Miami may choose to self-impose a postseason ban to hopefully lighten possible impending NCAA sanctions. Miami coach Al Golden said he hasn't been privy to any such conversations.
"Our team understands that you're not guaranteed anything," Golden said. "You're not promised anything in this game. You could have the type of team that could go 12-1 next year, and the one game you lost prevents you from having an opportunity to win the ACC Coastal and playing in Charlotte. So, I think our guys understand there is urgency here and these games are important in November."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times