Mike London’s fevered dream sequence springs to life

[READ COLUMN IN THE CAVALIER DAILY]

It’s late on a Saturday night, and Mike London sits quietly at home, trying to wake himself from a dream.

His weary mind bristles with the image of himself galloping down the Virginia sideline, inching ever closer to the end zone as the deafening noise around him washes away any trace of fatigue in his 49-year-old legs. Running stride-for-stride alongside him is Chase Minnifield, whose unlikely odyssey across the field, at least from his point of view, has taken up the better part of 10 minutes.

When Minnifield’s gutsy 65-yard interception return is finally brought to a halt, London stops to gaze up at a scoreboard that reflects his team’s sizable fourth-quarter lead. His frenzied players can’t stop jumping up and down; orange-clad men and women in the stands brace themselves for yet another rendition of the Good Ole Song; the Hill remains chock-full of bright ties and sundresses; and perhaps most amazingly of all, the Cavaliers are going to win their first football game of the season.

But no matter how many times he pinches himself, London can’t seem to wake up. Could this be real after all?

Could he really have just become the first Virginia football coach in 49 years to have won his debut game? Could a team that was outscored 111-41 during the fourth quarter last season have possibly come out with a 13-0 fourth quarter advantage? Could a group that lost its top four rushers and three of its top four receivers from a year ago have gone for 205 yards on the ground and racked up 283 yards through the air? All against the school where London spent so many years playing and coaching?

You better believe it. The 2010 Cavaliers — thought by many to be the chicken feed of the ACC this year — looked like a complete football team Saturday night against Richmond, a highly touted Football Championship Subdivision program that took down Duke in last year’s season-opener.

Compare this opening night to last year’s, when they faced another well-regarded FCS squad in William & Mary.

This year Virginia quarterback Marc Verica’s go-to guy was junior wideout Kris Burd, whom he hit seven times for 122 yards and a touchdown. In last year’s season-opener, quarterback Jameel Sewell’s favorite target was redshirt freshman cornerback B.W. Webb, who finished with 68 yards and a touchdown – on three interceptions.

This year, though, the Cavaliers gave up only one turnover, a first-quarter fumble by senior wide receiver Dontrelle Inman. Last year, they spent most of their time figuring out innovative ways to give the football to the other team, coughing it up seven times against the Tribe.

This year, Verica threw for a career-high 283 yards. Last year, Virginia played three quarterbacks, all of whom combined for just 137 yards through the air.

This year, the Cavaliers kicked off their season in emphatic style and uplifted the spirits of a beleaguered fan base. Last year, they had initiated Operation Demolition, in which they left the program in pieces for next year’s team to put back together.

Then again, this isn’t really the same team from a year ago at all. Fresh faces abound, and even the returning players look like better-designed versions of their 2009 selves.

Verica appeared calmer and more confident than ever as he stood tall in the pocket and delivered strikes all over the field. Oh, and he didn’t throw a single interception.

At running back was sophomore Perry Jones, whose opening 38-yard scamper was 29 yards longer than his other nine career rushes put together. Jones did his best Tazmanian Devil impression as he cut and spun around defenders with lightning quickness en route to his 74 yards on nine carries.

He would have had more if it weren’t for Keith Payne, the unheralded senior running back who fell from grace last year but rebounded in style Saturday. Payne — who quit the team in training camp last year — relentlessly plowed through heaps of defenders all night, bulldozing his way to 114 yards rushing on 16 carries. He capped the game’s opening drive by scoring his first touchdown since Nov. 10, 2007, which was against Miami during the Hurricanes’ final game at the Orange Bowl. Then he scored three more.

“I know it’s been a long time coming for him,” said London, whose only words on Payne at ACC Media Day in July were that he was confined to “the academic doghouse.”

Other players were also critical to the victory. Inman caught seven balls for 88 yards, already exceeding his 2009 yard total; sophomore linebacker LaRoy Reynolds racked up eight tackles, more than he had all last season; sophomore cornerback Devin Wallace filled in admirably for the injured second-team All-American Ras-I Dowling; the defense as a whole held Richmond to 5-15 on third-down conversions and 0-2 on fourth down.

Saturday was about guys stepping up in big moments. When the defense needed a stop, they got it. When the offense was faced with third and long, they didn’t run it up the gut — they threw deep and converted. For once, when the Wahoo faithful shook Scott Stadium with a fervor that begged for some semblance of success on the gridiron, they got it. Almost every time. The only booing that ever rang out was directed at the referees.

This win certainly doesn’t mean Virginia solidified itself as a powerful force to be reckoned with in the ACC. What it did give them was the confidence to make them believe they can become one.

Snap out of it, Mike. This ain’t just a dream.

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