Coach Al Golden stood among a heap of reporters at football media day last month, explaining how he had taught his players to compete among each other.
Summer practices were nearly complete and several starting positions were still up for grabs. Now, Golden said, it is time to educate the Owls to win, a trick they haven’t been able to consistently master for a long time.
That task is a work in progress, as evidenced by the Owls’ 9-3 season-opening loss to Buffalo in double overtime Thursday at UB Stadium. It’s a commodity that could take much of the season to acquire.
“We’ve taught them how to compete,” Golden said. “We’ve taught them how to have unities. We’ve taught them a lot of things, now we got to know how to compete and win. The only way to do that is through demonstrative performance.”
It’s Golden’s goal to revamp this program from a perennial loser into a team that can consistently compete in the Mid-American Conference. The Owls have not had back-to-back winning seasons since 1978-79.
“This is a challenge,” the first-time coach said. “A lot of people don’t want a challenge. This is something that drives me everyday, so I’m thrilled to be here.”
Golden said winning comes from doing the little things correctly – eliminating penalties, holding onto the football and tracking the ball on defense.
“I want to be efficient,” Golden said. “I 2006 want to be effective. I want to focus.
“I still think we could be tougher and that’s one of the challenges that I’m levying to the kids right now.”
The offense could have used some extra
muscle with about four minutes remaining in the game against the Bulls. Down 3-0, the Owls had first-and-goal from the two-yard line.
Senior tailback Tim Brown ran the ball up the gut on three consecutive plays, but could not penetrate the goal line.
Instead of jogging off the field with the lead, the Owls settled for a game-tying 20-yard field goal and overtime.
The fact the Owls were still in the game at that point – the score easily could have been at least 9-0 – was a testament to the defense’s toughness.
Three times the Owls’ defense came up big inside the red zone, forcing the Bulls to settle for three field goal attempts.
Kicker Taylo Packwood, a true freshman, missed his first two attempts before booting a 27-yarder to give Buffalo a 3-0 lead.
Golden constructed Virginia’s defense into one of the nation’s best in his five seasons as defensive coordinator.
Improvements over last season’s unit were immediately apparent Thursday. The Owls pressured the Bulls all game and limited the Buffalo offense to 354 total yards, lower than any mark opponents had last season.
The defensive line, composed of three first-year starters and a few inexperienced reserves, notched three sacks and 3.5 tackles for loss.
Freshman linebacker Junior Gallette burst onto the collegiate scene with 2.5 tackles for loss and nine tackles, which tied him for the team lead with senior linebacker Ryan Gore.
Gore, one of just two returning starters on defense, is expected be the unit’s backbone.
“We’re trying to really push him to become more of a leader, to step out of his shell a little bit and be a leader,” Golden said.
The offense returned only five starters, leaving many positions wide open. Several players battled for time at quarterback, tailback and fullback.
Quarterback Adam DiMichele said to win, the team must come together as one.
“If we’re all on the same page and have one common goal in winning,” DiMichele said.
“I’m sure things are going to be on the fast track and I’m sure people are going to be surprised.”
The Owls’ offense was not on the fast track against Buffalo, amassing only 183 total yards.
The unit finally clicked on its last drive in regulation. Starting at the Temple 23, DiMichele completed three passes of 9 or more yards, and Brown bolted for both a 12 and 15-yard gain.
The drive set up the Owls only first-and-goal situation, but they couldn’t finish the job.
DiMichele tossed an interception in overtime and, three plays later, Buffalo’s James Starks ran 18 yards for the winning, making the Owls failure to reach the endzone loom that much larger.
No one said learning to win would be easy.
John Kopp can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.