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Groh-ing Pains

Scott Haynes, College Editor

On Campus Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - The ACC changed quite a bit in 2001. Not only were there four new head coaches among the nine teams in the conference, but one of those new regimes actually wrestled the conference title away from league powerhouse Florida State. Ralph Friedgen and the Maryland Terrapins captured the 2001 ACC title, while posting a remarkable 10-2 record, earning Friedgen National Coach of the Year and putting the Terps in a BCS Bowl (a 56-23 loss to Florida in the Orange Bowl).

Meanwhile, down in the Chapel Hill, John Bunting was following a similar path. The Tar Heels won eight games on the season, despite three straight losses to start the year (Oklahoma, Maryland and Texas). The Heels aided Maryland in its quest toward the league title, by completely embarrassing the Seminoles (41-9) in week four. UNC's finish earned the team a spot in the Peach Bowl, a 16-10 win over Auburn.

Not far away in Winston-Salem, Jim Grobe was brought in to lead Wake Forest back to gridiron glory. The Demon Deacons had just one bowl appearance since 1992 (the 1999 Aloha Bowl). Although Grobe did not get the immediate results that both Friedgen and Bunting did, the Demon Deacons did make strides in the right direction, as the team posted a winning season (6-5), including solid wins over East Carolina and North Carolina. Fueled by the conference's top rushing attack, Wake Forest took Maryland (27-20), NC State (17-14), Clemson (21-14) and Georgia Tech (38-33) to the limit, before succumbing to defeat.

Al Groh
Al Groh gave up the head coaching duties with the NY Jets to come back to the college ranks.
In Charlottesville, a new era was beginning as well, with Al Groh returning to his alma mater to take over for George Welsh. Groh gave up the head coaching duties with the New York Jets to come back to the college ranks. His first year would be a trying one, as replacing the winningest coach in school and ACC history would not be easy.

Under Welsh, the Cavaliers had amassed just one non-winning season since 1986, that coming in his final season at the helm, a 6-6 campaign in 2000. In all, Welsh led the Cavs to 12 bowl games and a remarkable 13 consecutive seasons with at least seven victories.

Trying to stay the course would prove to be impossible for Groh, especially with only 11 starters returning in 2001.

With only half their starters returning and a tough schedule with non- conference foes like Wisconsin, Penn State and Virginia Tech, not to mention the grueling ACC slate, the Cavaliers finished just 5-7, including a 3-5 record within the league. The team opened with a trek to Madison to take on Big Ten stalwart Wisconsin. The young Cavs gave the Badgers all they could handle, but fell nonetheless, 26-17. The team barely got by in-state foe Richmond next (17-16), but continued its winning ways with a thrilling upset of nationally-ranked Clemson in Death Valley (26-24). A whipping of conference lapdog Duke was next (31-10), but Virginia could not sustain the momentum, as the rest of the league slate was murderous. Five straight losses at Maryland (41-21), at North Carolina (30-24), home against Florida State (43-7), at NC State (24-0) and finally a home loss to Wake Forest (34-30), would ultimately tell the tale of Groh's debut season. With a losing record on the horizon, the Cavs would bounce back with two wins in their last three games, including a big win over Georgia Tech thanks to a gadget play. The lone loss down the stretch was against intrastate rival Virginia Tech (31-17), but once again the team would rebound, knocking off Penn State (20-14) to bring down the curtain on the 2001 season.

With the new season just weeks away, Al Groh will attempt to make progress in his sophomore campaign. A defensive coach in the NFL, Groh must first address Virginia's offensive deficiencies. Virginia was adequate in the passing game last year (fifth in the league at 239.0 ypg), but the Cavs finished eighth in the league in both scoring (20.8 ppg) and total offense (345.0 ypg), while residing in the league basement in terms of rushing (106.0 ypg). One of the worst rushing attacks in the country last year, Virginia averaged just 3.4 yards per carry and ranked 101st nationally in running the football. There really isn't a proven runner like Virginia greats Tiki Barber or Thomas Jones on the roster, so expect more passing again this year. Junior quarterback Matt Schaub and All-American candidate Billy McMullen proved to be the team's top tandem. Splitting time under center last season, Schaub would complete nearly 60 percent of his passes, for 1,524 yards and 10 TDs. McMullen, the 6-4, 205- pound wideout, was one of the top receivers in the country, catching a school- record 83 balls, for 1,060 yards and 12 TDs. More of the same will be needed in 2002, at least until someone emerges in the ground game.

Defensively, Virginia switched to a 3-4 system in 2001 and struggled, allowing 27.6 ppg (sixth in the ACC), on 430.6 yards of total offense (eighth in the ACC). Running the ball was difficult for Virginia, but the same could not be said of the opposition. Teams chewed up huge yardage against the Cavs on the ground, amassing 202.8 yards rushing (eighth in the ACC and 94th nationally). Stopping the run is mandatory in 2002, and leading the charge will be senior linebacker Angelo Crowell. A Butkus Award candidate, Crowell is coming off a season in which he tallied 144 tackles (four sacks, six TFLs and two interceptions). The secondary will be called upon to step it up this season, as the most experienced unit on the defense. With returning starters in cornerbacks Almondo Curry and Art Thomas and safeties Jerton Evans and Shernard Newby, this unit could really shine.

With 12 starters returning from last year (six on each side of the football), Groh has a solid base to work with in 2002. Add to that, one of the top recruiting classes in the nation and Groh's plan is beginning to take shape.

When rebuilding, patience is key. The Cavaliers took a step back last season, but to get back to national prominence, sometimes a step back is what is needed.

Growing up as a team under a new head coach is tough enough. In the always competitive ACC it's even harder.

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Scott Haynes at shaynes@sportsnetwork.com.

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