Virginia Game A Pivotal Point For The Gamecocks

One of the biggest games of the season will come early for the Gamecocks. Virginia comes to town and while Billy McMullen, the leading receiver in UVa history, and leading tackler Angelo Crowell are gone, Virginia quarterback Matt Schaub was the ACC's leading passer and Player of the Year last fall, and he's back ...

Coach Al Groh hit the mother lode in recruiting last year, and he threw his novices right into the fire. Tight end Heath Miller was the ACC's top pass-catching tight end and a Freshman All-American, running back Wali Lundy led the Cavs in rushing and the nation's freshmen in all-purpose yardage, and linebacker Darryl Blackstock was the National Defensive Freshman of the Year.

Offensive tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson, the anchor of the offensive line, and end Kwakou Robinson, one of four returning D-Line starters, also broke in last year as true freshmen. The linebacking corps of Blackstock, Kai Parham and Ahmad Brooks, who comes to Charlottesville via Hargrove Military Academy, will make history before their college playing days are over.

The Cavaliers play host to Florida State in midseason and to Virginia Tech in the finale, but must travel to NC State and Maryland for consecutive November matchups.

Mountaineer mauler: Wali Lundy amassed 239 all-purpose yards and scored four touchdowns in Virginia's 48–22 Continental Tire Bowl win over West Virginia.

Youth movement: Of Virginia's 22 bowl game starters, nine were freshmen.

Ball! Virginia led the nation last season in fumble recoveries with 22.

2002 results: 9–5 (6–2 ACC)

Bowl Game: Beat West Virginia 48-22 in Continental Tire Bowl

Returning starters: 9 offense, 7 defense, both kickers

2003 Schedule:

A. 30 Duke

S. 6 at South Carolina

S. 13 at Western Michigan

S. 27 Wake Forest

O. 4 at North Carolina

O. 11 at Clemson

O. 18 Florida State

O. 25 Troy State

N. 1 at NC State

N. 13 at Maryland

N. 22 Georgia Tech

N. 29 Virginia Tech

Schedule Analysis: The heavy hitters come late in the season for Virginia. Al Groh's young squad will have an excellent chance to take a 5-0 record to Clemson, a team the Cavs beat 22-17 last year. The Florida State home game on Oct. 18 will obviously be the biggest home game in years for Virginia, but the Cavs also face stiff road challenges in November with NC State and Maryland. Should Virginia split with Florida State and NC State, the Thursday night game at Maryland on Nov. 13 could be for the ACC title.

Final Word: The top four teams in the ACC all look like title contenders prior to the season. Virginia's strengths are its momentum from last season, strong recruiting classes and a top-flight quarterback. Weaknesses include a defense that was soft against the run and an offense that did not run effectively last season. Virginia could finish first in the ACC just as easily as fourth, though with what Groh is building in Charlottesville, the Cavs can expect to be closer to first than fourth for the foreseeable future.

Gameock Slant: Lou Holtz took his flock of roosters into Virginia's coop last season and promptly turned the ball over seven times. That's no way to win on the road. Take away any two of those turnovers and the Gamecocks win that game. Take away any three of those turnovers and the Gamecocks win that game in convincing style.

What that translates into is that the Gamecocks could have given away four turnovers to the Cavs last season and still won the game - on the road. This season Virginia comes to the Brick City and we expect things to be different.

Al Groh has recruited well. "What I said last year (before the season began) was that we had a terrific recruiting class. If we got one more like it we'd really be good, and if we got two more like it we'd be as good as anybody, " Groh said on signing day. "We're on track with that."

"On track," is right; the upside for the Virginia Cavaliers in 2003 is nothing short of tremendous. Groh and his staff will welcome 41 returning lettermen next season; including  19 starters from a team that finished second in the Artlantic Coast Conference in 2--2 with a 6-2 conference mark.

But Holtz's Gamecocks have not been sitting still. USC can boast some pretty good recruiting classes of their own over the same time period. Classes so good that many would argue they have actually outrecruited Groh in terms of trench personnel - those all important linemen on both sides of the ball. South Carolina is much bigger and deeper on both the offensive and defensive lines where key battles are often won and lost.

But Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback Matt Schaub headlines nine returning starters on offense for Virginia. As last season's ACC Player of the Year, he guided the Cavs to three fourth-quarter victories and set or tied at least 10 school records.

He will not be intimidated playing in Williams-Brice unless the Gamecock defensive line gives him a reason to be early and often.

"It's good to finally turn things around here, not only for my sake but for the team's sakes, "Schaub said. "We're looked at differently in the football world."

Virginia leads the all-time series over the Gamecocks 21-11-1, but South Carolina will have the opportunity to close the gap this season. If the Gamecocks can apply pressure to Schaub and disrupt the Cav passing game, while at the same time establishing a balanced attack on the USC offensive side of the ball, this contest should go South Carolina's way in the friendly confines of The Cock Pit in Columbia.

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