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October 29, 2008

Verica steps in to help spark Virginia run

The state of the distressed economy has raised many concerns. In fact, Virginia sophomore quarterback Marc Verica is even wondering about his decision to major in Economics.

"Maybe that's not the best thing right now," Verica said with a matter-of-fact tone.

With stock-market plunges, government bailouts and job cuts infesting the news, perhaps it isn't. But we can all hope the economy bounces back as strongly as Virginia has under Verica's direction.

After losing three of its first four games and managing only 16 points in a victory over FCS (i.e., Division I-AA) member Richmond the Cavaliers were considered among the worst teams in the nation. They were blown out in losses to USC, Connecticut and Duke by a combined 128-20.

Part of the problem: Incumbent quarterback Jameel Sewell was ruled ineligible under Virginia's academic standards before the season and quarterback Peter Lalich transferred to Oregon State after being suspended for off-field issues early in the season.

That left the reeling Cavaliers with Verica at the controls heading into an Oct. 4 game against Maryland, which was riding a three-game winning streak that included victories over then-No. 23 California and then-No. 20 Clemson.

But Virginia blasted the Terps 31-0 as Verica passed for 226 yards and two touchdowns. They followed with victories over East Carolina, then-No. 18 North Carolina and then-No. 18 Georgia Tech to make a Lazarus-like resurrection from ACC laughingstock to leader in the Coastal Division.

Verica threw for more than 200 yards in each of those victories.

"I'm just a small piece of the puzzle," he said. "But I am so proud of the resolve and character of our team and how we came back."

Backup quarterbacks always are told to be prepared, just in case. But when the season started, Verica didn't know when or if he'd get in the game.

"I was competing in the offseason and in camp like I would be the starter," Verica said. "Pete won the starting job and got the nod against USC and Richmond and I was the backup. But I tried to make a point to approach it as if I was the starter, so if I was called upon I would be ready for my teammates and myself.

"It's easier said than done. You have the responsibility not only to yourself, but to your teammates and coaches to be ready when your number is called and to respond. I would tell any backup never to be satisfied and to keep working."

That's an admirable attitude. But backup quarterbacks don't always perform to Verica's level.

In the first two games of the season, quarterback play was one of several problems for the Cavs. Lalich completed a little better than 50 percent of his attempts for 155 yards with no touchdowns in the 52-7 season-opening loss to USC. He followed that up with 204 passing yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions against Richmond.

Then Verica took over. He has completed 67 percent of his passes for 1,281 yards and five touchdowns, with four interceptions.

"It's just like practice," he said. "The things I look for in games I've seen earlier in the week. Games are won on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. You don't just show up on Saturday and want to win.

"In the back of my mind I knew I was capable of doing this. I'm more confident now."

Verica acknowledges that his success has been enhanced by running back Cedric Peerman, who has rushed for 445 yards and six touchdowns during the winning streak. A defense preoccupied with a productive running back always opens opportunities for a quarterback.

"Obviously, he's a tremendous asset to our team and our offense," Verica said. "He plays with tremendous fire and passion for the game, and it really shows. The rest of us feed off it.

"But aside from his leadership he's a great player. His presence has allowed us to open up the offense. I'm happy for him the way he's playing, and I'm benefiting from it."

Virginia is benefiting from both of them. And after such a slow start the Cavaliers, who play host to Miami on Saturday, are serious contenders for a conference championship.

"We're just taking it one game at a time," Verica said. "This team doesn't get too excited. We stay on an even keel."

If only the economy would do that.

Speaking English

Louisville defensive coordinator Ron English is at it again. For the second time in three years, he has taken over a defense and has orchestrated significant improvement in his first season on the job.

In his first season at Louisville, English has the Cardinals performing better in every major statistical category.

Last season, the Cardinals were 72nd in the nation in rush defense (165.3 ypg), 84th in total defense (416.5 ypg) and 91st in scoring defense (31.4 ppg). This season the Cardinals rank fifth against the run (75.1 yards), 31st overall (306.71) and 54th in scoring (23.3).

Moreover, not all those points can be blamed on English's defense. Louisville has given up five non-offensive touchdowns, on fumble, punt and interception returns. Subtract the 35 points that were attributed to those plays and Louisville's defense allows 18.3 points per game.

English took over as Michigan's defensive coordinator in 2006, and that season the Wolverines led the nation in rushing defense. Michigan was 10th in total defense and allowed 15.9 points per game to rank 15th in scoring defense.

A rivalry renewed

Nebraska-Oklahoma was among the nation's best rivalries when they were the dominant teams in the old Big Eight. But with the formation of the Big 12 in 1996, they were put in different divisions and now play only twice every four seasons, including this year.

"It is funny how young guys and kids are," Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said this week. "History is the last couple of years to them sometimes."

Well, Stoops wouldn't have to educate his players about the rivalry if the Big 12 would learn from the Southeastern Conference. Like the Big 12, the SEC has two six-team divisions. But to keep certain rivalries intact, SEC teams have one interdivisional opponent they play each season, such as Alabama-Tennessee and Auburn-Georgia.

The Big 12 should adopt a similar format so that Oklahoma and Nebraska can resume an annual series. And we'll help out. Here's a potential look at the annual pairings: Iowa State-Baylor, Kansas State-Texas Tech, Colorado-Texas, Kansas-Oklahoma State and Missouri-Texas A&M.

Random thoughts and observations

Minnesota is close to making history. The Gophers were 1-11 last season and have a shot at 11-1 this season, their second under coach Tim Brewster. Minnesota is 7-1 and has home games remaining against Northwestern, Michigan and Iowa and a road game against Wisconsin. The greatest turnaround from one season to the next was a nine-win improvement by Hawaii, which went from 0-12 in 1998 to 9-4 in '99.

The pressure is on Auburn (4-4) this week. The Tigers need to win two of their remaining four games to become bowl eligible. One is a gimme against Tennessee-Martin on Nov. 8. But Georgia and Alabama close out the schedule. Thus, a loss at Ole Miss on Saturday puts Auburn's streak of eight consecutive bowl appearances in serious jeopardy.

How things change. In August, Georgia's treacherous schedule was thought to be the greatest threat to its national championship aspirations. Uh, let's review. Arizona State is 2-5. LSU is solid but not as strong as predicted. Kentucky and Auburn are struggling. If Georgia gets by Florida this weekend, the Bulldogs' championship hopes actually will be enhanced by their remaining schedule.

Texas Tech wide receiver Michael Crabtree will be the seventh player among the nation's top 20 in receiving yardage that Texas will have faced this season. The others: Oklahoma State's Dez Bryant, Oklahoma's Juaquin Iglesias, Missouri's Jeremy Maclin and Chase Coffman and Rice's Jarett Dillard and James Casey. Only Coffman and Dillard had 100 receiving yards against the Longhorns.

By the way, Texas Tech coach Mike Leach has made Crabtree and quarterback Graham Harrell off-limits to the media this week. Two Heisman contenders aren't available to give their thoughts on the biggest game in school history? That doesn't make sense.

Rematches in bowl games are fairly rare, but the Rose Bowl could have one. Penn State and Oregon State could meet again; so, too, could USC and Ohio State. Penn State trounced Oregon State 45-14 on Sept. 6, and the Trojans blasted the Buckeyes 35-3 on Sept. 13.

Arkansas is at risk of losing to a former coach two weeks in a row. Last week, the Razorbacks fell 23-21 to Ole Miss, led by former coach Houston Nutt. This week the Hogs face Tulsa, whose offensive coordinator, Gus Malzahn, held that post at Arkansas two years ago. The game is an opportunity for Tulsa to prove its legitimacy to some degree. Arkansas is the only "Big Six" opponent undefeated Tulsa will face this season. Tulsa is hoping to get into a BCS bowl game, but a win over Arkansas may not help enough. The Razorbacks are just 3-5 and have just one victory over a "Big Six" opponent themselves.

Undefeated Ball State has no more Saturday games remaining. The Cardinals play Northern Illinois on Wednesday, Nov. 5; Miami University on Tuesday, Nov. 11; Central Michigan on Wednesday, Nov. 19; and Western Michigan on Tuesday, Nov. 25.

A report that 15 North Texas players failed a drug test is alarming. Though the drugs involved were not revealed, we can at least assume they're not performance enhancers because the Mean Green is winless and generally considered the worst FBS (i.e., Division I-A) team.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.

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