Press Conference Notes '09: BC
Nov 10, 2009
Aaron Clark is the only player on the Virginia roster who played in the Cavaliers' last contest against Boston College in 2005.
As the Virginia football team dives lower and lower in the conference standings with each double-digit loss, the opposing teams on the slate don't get any easier. All three remaining teams on the Cavaliers' schedule currently have six wins or more, including Boston College, who comes to Scott Stadium this Saturday. That makes a total of eight Virginia opponents this season who have at least six wins - the Hoos' schedule currently ranks ninth nationally in the NCAA. First-year BC coach Frank Spaziani, a former defensive assistant coach under George Welsh from 1982-90, has his Eagles sitting at 6-3 and 3-2 in the ACC after they were picked for last in the Atlantic Division in the preseason.
Even more jarring than the Eagles' success this season for Virginia, though, is the Hoos' lack of familiarity with Boston College despite being in the same conference. Since the ACC expanded to include the Eagles in 2005, Virginia has played them just once, in Chestnut Hill in 2005.
"There are probably not too many teams that have gone through this whole expansion period and have only had, at this stage, one [game] with somebody else in the conference," Groh said. "We don't have a lot of personal competitive familiarity with them."
Groh noted, though, that though the coaching staff has undergone some changes, the philosophy at BC remains the same. The Eagles are a team that relies on strength more than speed - Aaron Clark called the Eagles' lineman "Hog Mollies," which he said is a term he uses for "real big guys, you know what I'm saying?" Groh also said that, even their schemes have remained relatively constant dating back to era of Tom O'Brien, who coached BC from 1997-2006. Spaziani was the defensive coordinator for the previous 10 seasons and took over as head coach for Jeff Jagodzinski after he was let go after last season - that run includes eight years under O'Brien. And, though current offensive coordinator Gary Tranquil is in his first year with Boston College, his career also overlaps with that of O'Brien - both served as offensive assistants at Virginia under Welsh from 1987-90. All in all, Groh said, both the offensive and defensive systems at BC have changed little since Virginia last played the Eagles in 2005.
"They have a very clear-cut idea of how they want to play, what kind of players fit into that system," Groh said. "They're going to try to force the other team every week to out-execute them, and not give anything away, and they've been quite successful in doing that."
What's Left to Play For?
Watching the Virginia football team these days is hardly an exciting enterprise at the moment. As Sabre editor Kris Wright noted after the Hoos' 35-point defeat in Miami, watching Virginia just isn't fun anymore for Cavalier fans. For the Cavs to become eligible for a bowl game, they would have to run the table against three teams that currently have six wins apiece. Reporters and fans alike are already discussing who next year's coach might be as if coach Al Groh has no shot at another season at the helm. Calling the fans apathetic about the program would be putting it nicely. So, what's left to play for?
Virginia coach Al Groh said he may "dangle a few different hooks" to try to motivate his players on a week-to-week basis.
Virginia coach Al Groh is certainly spending some time trying to sort that out. When asked if the chance to spoil the seasons of Atlantic contender teams Boston College and Clemson the next two weeks, Groh said that is one of many motivations he might provide for his team moving forward.
"Knowing that the same thing doesn't appeal to 100 guys, sometimes we dangle a few different hooks out there each week and see what might take for each individual player," Groh said. "If we can see ourselves in that division for the next two weeks, then that'll bring us to the top here. Now that you bring it up, I'll just put it on my checklist."
According to senior captain Aaron Clark, though, the Hoos don't need reminding of the reasons to keep fighting. For the seniors, they want to make the most of their final three games. And Clark indicated that they too realize the effect of losses piling up not only on them, but on the coaching staff and others.
"There's a bigger picture out there - this is not just in our apartment, there's an organization here that's looking for wins as well," Clark said. "We're all conscious of that, and we all understand that what we do on the field is going to affect lives other than our own, so we really need to focus up and do better."
Most of all, though, the Cavaliers are simply sick of losing. Even if the fans are already moving on to next season, the players are still very much into this one.
"You're playing to win games obviously, but [we're playing for] a sense of pride," Clark said. "Nobody expects the season to go the way it's gone, and you just try to turn it around every week. You've gotta look within yourselves and within your team to find that energy to re-establish some sort of respect."
One thing that Clark said his team will not be looking at is their overall record. If there's anytime to apply Groh's philosophy of a one-game season, now is the time.
"I think in our situation, it's not beneficial to look at the overall record, or the situation we're in," Clark said. "You've got to try to get rid of some of those distractions, and not listen to what everybody's saying, and just play football for your family - your family being the football team."
The necessity for players to keep taking the field feeling as though they have something to prove is something Groh emphasized as well, noting again that a "hangover effect" can result from a win or a loss.
"If a team doesn't feel that it's got something to prove every week, that might have 'em pretty close to where they need to be, but not there," Groh said. Pointing to his half-full water bottle next to the microphone, Groh added, "The picture in my mind is, look, you can fill it up [close to the top], but that doesn't mean you have it all the way up there."
Groh mentioned 2008 graduate Chris Long as a player who demonstrated that quality - Long along with former players Nate Lyles, Allen Billyk, and Earl Sims were at Land Shark Stadium last Saturday for Virginia's 35-point loss to Miami.
"His [Long's] temperament is such that he felt that he had something to prove every week, no matter how many tackles he made the week before, no matter what his team did," Groh said. "He's pretty much on the high end in terms of that - that's why he's had the success that he's had. By the same token, the more players you can have of that mentality on your team, then obviously that creates the type of personality that is greatly to the advantage of the team."
Nate Collins and the rest of the Virginia captains decided to donate $15 dollars apiece to a foundation that supports BC linebacker Mark Herzlich in his battle with cancer.
Several Boston College players come into this game with intriguing storylines - the most notable is Mark Herzlich, who is sitting out the 2009 season after he was diagnosed with Ewing's sarcoma - a rare form of cancer - in May. Herzlich, a linebacker, won the 2008 ACC Defensive Player of the Year award after recording a team-best 113 tackles and six interceptions. Herzlich will receive an honorary Lott Trophy, named after former NFL player and USC graduate Ronnie Lott, as college football's Defensive IMPACT (Integrity, Maturity, Performance, Academics, Community and Tenacity) Player of the Year, it was announced a week ago by the sponsors of the award. This is the first time that an honorary Lott Trophy will be given since the award debuted in 2004.
Teams around the ACC have already raised money for Herzlich, and Virginia is joining the cause. The Cavaliers are donating their per diem money for a postgame meal -15 dollars per player - that will go to Uplifting Athletes, an organization that works with college football players to fundraise and raise awareness for rare diseases like Ewing's sarcoma. The Hoo Crew and the UVa student council are also chipping in, as they have helped collect an additional $3,000 to this point, according to a press release. As a whole, the University has collected $4,600, but the Hoo Crew and Student Council hope to raise that total to $9,494.94, the release says. A ceremonial check will be presented to Herzlich, who is now reportedly nearly cancer free, at the coin toss this Saturday at Scott Stadium.
"It's tragic to see anybody who is considered to be in their prime for athletes, in college, whatever it may be, to go through a situation where, what you've worked so hard for in your life is taken away from you," Clark said. "I think anytime that the rest of the athletic community can step up and help out, and offer whatever they can, is really big, and I know we're excited to be a part of that."
Virginia also has a particular interest in Herzlich because he was very close to being a Cavalier. Herzlich in fact committed verbally to Virginia in June 2005 before he backed out and committed to Boston College. Groh noted that Herzlich also attended lacrosse camp at UVa - "He's very familiar with the University of Virginia, and we're very familiar with Mark," Groh said.
"At one time we were very hopeful that he would be here, so we've had a lot of personal discourse with him during that time frame," Groh said. "As a result of that experience, while we have not played Boston College while he's been there, we have been particularly tuned into the success that he's had as a player. So when we heard about this circumstance in the spring, we were very sensitive to it, so it's nice to see him apparently well on top of this situation and doing very well with it."
Fifth-year senior Will Barker grew up just four miles from Mark Herzlich's home town of Wayne, Pennsylvania.
Virginia players who were already Cavaliers when Herzlich was being recruited - namely, the fifth-year seniors - are also very familiar with Herzlich. Clark said that Will Barker is quite familiar with Herzlich; Barker's hometown of Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, is a mere four miles away from Herzlich's hometown of Wayne.
"I hung out with him - he was real nice, personable," Clark said. "He was a great guy to me."
On a lighter, but nevertheless intriguing note, BC has two other players who have had unlikely career paths. One of those players is the Eagles' 25 year-old starting quarterback, Dave Shinskie, a former minor league baseball player. Shinskie graduated from Mount Carmel Area High School in 2003, and was drafted by the Minnesota Twins in the 4th round of the MLB First-Year Players Draft. A right-handed pitcher, Shinskie bounced around the minors for six years, ending up with the Toronto Blue Jays' AA affiliate in 2009. The Blue Jays released him last spring, and three weeks later he committed to BC.
"A big thing that really is a change of circumstance is they found a player who decided he would rather face blitzes than curveballs," Groh said. "Having Dave Shinskie as the quarterback clearly is a big difference. While he may be an older player, he's really doing a remarkable job for his first year of college football."
Shinskie has thrown for 150.7 yards per game, completing 54.5 percent of his passes, including 11 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Those numbers aren't dazzling by any means, but they aren't too bad for a rookie either. Groh emphasized that he is getting better with every game and that, while Shinskie makes mistakes, he shows the maturity one might expect from a 25 year-old that has been a professional athlete. The last three games, Shinskie has averaged 242.7 yards passing and has thrown four touchdowns, though he did throw three picks in the Eagles' 20-16 loss to Notre Dame two weeks ago.
"I know there are not as many moving parts in baseball as there are in football, so he's seeing some things from a coverage standpoint - moving parts in front of his eyes and whatnot - that sometimes his decisions with the ball are things that he's had to learn from," Groh said. "But, even in those cases, he seems to make those decisions with a poise and a calmness. Maybe he didn't sort it out right, but it didn't happen because he panicked."
Another compelling story is that of placekicker Steve Aponavicius. Once spotted in the stands as a face-painted fan in 2005, Aponavicius was reportedly later seen by a graduate assistant kicking field goals at Alumni Stadium, and a year later he walked onto the team. Now, not only is he the team's starting kicker, he is a very proficient one - with a third-quarter extra point against Central Michigan last Saturday, Aponavicius scored his 263rd point, a new school record. He is also the active career leader in extra points (140) and field goals (40) in the conference. This season, he has nailed all seven of his field goals, though his long is just 37 yards.
"You've got your kicker as a guy who was sitting in the student body one week, and your quarterback who was playing minor league baseball last summer," Groh said. "I don't know how it happened obviously, but I can just imagine: (knocks on the table) 'Hey Coach, can I talk to you for a second?' 'Yeah, what's your name?' 'Well, I'd like to introduce myself, I want to kick for you,' or, 'Hey, I want to be your quarterback.' 'No kidding, really. Hey, come on in, let's talk a little bit longer.'"
While many aspects of Virginia's game have gone downhill the last three weeks, one of those is Virginia's open-field tackling. Several big gains the last three games became even bigger when the Cavaliers missed tackles at the second and third levels of the defense. Groh was asked if there was a method that is taught when players fly in with their heads down to lay a big hit on a ball-carrier, and he gave an emphatic answer of no.
"That's called block-tackling - we don't teach block tackling," Groh said. "There's four fundamental elements of tackling: keep your head up, have a good base underneath you, club with your arms, and fight to stay on your feet. That's good fundamental tackling - flying like a rocket is not good fundamental tackling."
Clark said that Groh emphasized those four elements after the game against Miami, which featured perhaps the most missed tackles by Virginia this season as a result of poor technique. Groh and Clark both said that such tackling stems from a desire for a big hit, or to get on SportsCenter rather than from the coaches.
"We see lots of players in football do that these days," Groh said. "I'm sure there are no defensive players in the country that are running a drill that does that."
Corner Ras-I Dowling, Groh said, is Virginia's best open-field tackler. When asked if players have to overcome instinct in mastering the proper tackling technique, Groh joked that his own physical limitations make him the wrong person to ask.
"I was never fast enough to make a rocket tackle," Groh said. "More like a spitball tackle."
- Each Virginia player dedicated the Homecoming game against Indiana on Oct. 10, a 47-7 Cavalier victory, to "somebody that's really important in their life," starting a new tradition at UVa, Clark said. He said that each player called up that person - or a family member if that person had passed - several days before the game, and dedicated the game to them. "There were a lot of heart-touching stories," Clark said.
- Camp Wahoo, a UVa tailgating group, is holding a food drive this weekend. Read more here.
- Groh said that quarterback Jameel Sewell did not participate in practice Sunday, and that he would "see what [Tuesday] brings," regarding the shoulder injury that held him out of the contest against Miami last Saturday.
- Jimmy Howell will be the starting punter this Saturday, Groh said, after Groh benched Howell in favor of Nathan Rathjen for much of the last two games.
- Groh said that, if games went more according to plan, he would like to see tailback Rashawn Jackson getting around 20 carries per game. "It's been very effective when he's had the ball," Groh said.
- On BC's roster, there are "14 or 15 players who played in the Notre Dame game [two weeks ago] who we were pretty deep into the recruiting with," Groh said, including true freshman linebacker Luke Kuechly out of St. Xavier High School in Cincinnatti. Kuechly's season total of 94 tackles is more than twice that of any other Eagle.
- Virginia center Jack Shields is from Duxbury, Mass., and attended Boston College H.S.
- In addition to BC offensive coordinator Gary Tranquil's stint with Virginia from 1987-90, he also served as the offensive coordinator for Virginia from 1999-00.
- This is just the fourth-ever meeting between the two teams, and Boston College's first trip to Charlottesville. The Eagles have won each of the previous three contests.
- Virginia is scheduled to play at BC next season, and then will not match up with the Eagles again until 2014.
"Every week is an analysis - evaluation of the performance of the players - but then every week is also an evaluation of the match-ups that occur in the game. Individual match-ups are as critical to the conduct of the game as schemes - as least as critical, and oftentimes more critical. You might have a particular player that things have gone pretty well for him a couple weeks, and then he's matched up against a player that, it looks like this guy's gonna be too much for him. Now, hopefully, you have some that go in the other direction - here's a match-up that works to our advantage, and we want to work to that advantage. The individual match-ups, knowing the players, assessing their strengths has as much to do with it. So sometimes, it's difficult for those who haven't done all the analysis to know those circumstances, but a lot of times the answer to the question of, 'Well why did you call that?' or, 'Why did you do this or that?' It's about match-ups." - Al Groh when asked about how he modifies the game plan with a struggling offensive line.
"Our film really didn't have a good angle of it, and somebody told me I should look it up on ESPN 360. I looked it up, and it was pretty gruesome. I can't believe that that was the only injury I sustained from it." - Aaron Clark on the knee injury he sustained during the Georgia Tech game, putting him out of the next game against Duke.
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