New QB at Helm of Virginia's "Laserball" Offense

<img src= width=120 height=40 align=left>There might be Gamecock fans somewhere who think USC caught a break because UVA's star quarterback, Heisman candidate Matt Schaub, injured his throwing shoulder playing against Duke last week. Well folks, think again. UVA is just reloading ...

... and Anthony Lamont Martinez, a 6-3, 249-pound baseball pitcher with a 94 mile-per-hour fastball, will now be throwing darts at the helm of UVA's explosive West Coast offense.

Last year, right around this time, UVA named a backup quarterback as the starter against the Gamecocks. The Gamecocks were 1-0, coming off their second New Years Day Bowl victory, and ranked 22nd nationally. UVA, on the other hand, was 0-2, and had just suffered through a 40-19 spanking at the hands of Bobby Bowden's Florida State Seminoles, and they were changing quarterbacks again. Back then, outside of Virginia, the new starter, Schaub, was basically an unknown backup laboring for playing time along with several quarterbacks on UVA's depth chart. Before his emergence against the Gamecocks in the nationally televised September 7, 2002 game, we had not heard of Schaub and he had done virtually nothing to distinguish himself.

At the time, nobody had a clue as to what Schaub was about to do with Groh's offense in the 2002 season. Starting with the Gamecocks, the unheralded Schaub began to shine. He led UVA to a 34-21 upset and eight more victories thereafter. Operating Al Groh's West Coast Offense, the previously unknown Schaub completed more passes (288) at a higher percentage (68.9) than any quarterback in the ACC. He also threw more TD passes (28) than any ACC quarterback, including NC State's Phillip Rivers. Perhaps his most impressive statistic of all is this one; he threw only seven interceptions in 418 attempted passes.

Much of UVA's pre-season hype for the 2003 season centered around its now injured quarterback. For example, UVA's Athletic Department asserted that Schaub is the nation's "Number 1 returning QB." The talk became so extreme that in April 2003, The Cavalier Daily, UVA's student paper, suggested The Downtown Athletic Club of New York City should rename its Heisman Trophy, the annual award given each year to the best player in college football, to the "Scheisman."

The Schaub for Heisman talk was not just some April Fools Day joke by a bunch of UVA student journalists run amuck. Everyone at UVA from Groh to the Athletic Department spent much of the off-season hyping Schaub for the Heisman. UVA's 2003 media guide even has a picture of Schaub wearing tuxedo, a formal declaration of his Heisman candidacy. Sports Illustrated recognized Virginia's effort to promote Schaub's candidacy for the Heisman award. In an August 21, 2002, article titled Heisman List-Mania, the magazine said, "Virginia spared no expense for its senior star." Virginia has even erected an Internet website touting Schaub for the Heisman: The Sports Illustrated article reported that UVA's Assistant Media Relations Director, Cathy Stewart, is the chairwoman of an eight-person committee that is directing Schaub's Heisman campaign. Stewart stated, "No billboards, no bobble-heads. We're taking a softer approach. We want to get [Schaub's] name out there."

So much happened between then and now, that it is easy to forget that at this time last year Schaub was in basically the same situation as Martinez. At that time, he was just an unheralded, off-the-bench player still battling Marques Hagan for a starting quarterback slot. The circumstances now are remarkably similar. Once again, the Gamecocks are facing an unknown, off-the-bench, UVA quarterback. Once again, the game is nationally televised. UVA is even talking about moving Hagan back over to quarterback from his slotback spot. Lets hope that the comparisons end there.

UVA's West Coast offensive scheme, emphasizes frequent short, safe passes to backs, tightends and receivers. It is a system very conducive to high levels of production by quarterbacks. It was the launching pad for Schaub's completely gaudy 2002 statistical performance. It is the same system that awaits the dart-thrower Martinez. Groh calls the system, "laserball."

Martinez, a red shirt freshman, came off the bench in relief last week and led UVA to 27-0 victory. Martinez completed six of 15 passes for 76 yards and a touchdown. He threw no interceptions. The Duke game proves that Martinez has all the tools for picking up the reins of UVA's offense without slowing it down a lick. Martinez' prep school resume is so impressive, that he makes the South Carolina quarterbacks sound like leftovers.

When he signed with UVA in February 2002, Martinez was labeled a SuperPrep and PrepStar All-American, and he was ranked as the fourth best pro-style quarterback in the nation by Rivals. In high school, Martinez passed for 5,010 yards and 47 touchdowns. UVA even defeated Tennessee in the recruiting battle to win Martinez' services. There can be no doubt that the Gamecock defense will have its hands just as full in defending the flame-thrower Martinez as it might have if Schaub, the Heisman candidate, played.

There may be some who scoff, but it is clear to us that UVA's 9 wins last year, as well as Schaub's Heisman candidacy, would not have been possible without a lot of help from the other talented UVA players, most of whom have returned with an extra year of experience. The now injured Schaub, using to air his opinions, described the talent of this UVA team. On August 4, 2003, he stated: "We definitely have a shot at the national title." On August 11, he said, "My prediction, of course, would be for us to finish undefeated. I feel that the sky is the limit for this year's team. We will be as good as we want to be." And what does Schaub think about UVA's chances when it visits Williams Brice Stadium on September 6? On August 25, Schaub said, "We think we can play well as we did last year. We just have to prepare to play a tough four quarters of football and work our game plan and play within ourselves and we will do fine."

Now Martinez not Schaub will be working the game plan. And we get the feeling that UVA does not believe there will be any significant drop off in its performance. In fact, we get the impression, the Gamecocks are a mere speed bump on UVA's drive to the national championship.

A couple factors are different from last year game. First, the Gamecocks now employ a Tampa 2 defense. The Gamecocks' 4-3 defense, when well-executed, is particularly adept at stopping West Coast offenses. If the Gamecocks' defensive linemen can put good pressure on UVA's new quarterback, and if the thin, depleted linebacking corp can blanket the UVA backs and tight ends, there is a chance that the Gamecock defense could disrupt Martinez' UVA offense and cause turnovers. Turnovers are absolutely needed, as well as mistake-free football by the offense and the special teams, if the Gamecocks are to compete against this nationally-ranked and very talented ACC team.

The second factor is the South Carolina fans. A loud and vocal crowd will probably make a difference in the game, particularly if it adversely affects the decision-making by UVA's new, inexperienced quarterback. In the likely 90-degree sun, faint-hearted fans from other schools might wilt, but that will not be the case for the iron fans who come to games at Williams Brice We expect that the ESPN microphones and the UVA quarterback will find that the Carolina crowd is loud, hostile and disruptive.

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