With both of its starting cornerbacks sidelined Saturday, Virginia allowed 435 passing yards to Clemson, the fourth-most against the Cavaliers in 124 seasons of football. A similar challenge awaits this week as Virginia's depleted secondary attempts to slow a prolific air show.
Coach Mike London announced Monday that cornerback Demetrious Nicholson will miss the remainder of the season with the turf toe that has benched him the past four games. Moreover, London is not optimistic that cornerback Maurice Canady (medical condition) will return from a two-week absence for Saturday's contest at North Carolina — defensive tackle Brent Urban, sidelined three games with a sprained ankle, is more likely than Canady to return.
Talk about bad timing for cornerback issues.
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The Cavaliers (2-7, 0-5 ACC) are mired in a six-game losing streak and are fresh off a 59-10 loss to Clemson. And while the Tar Heels (3-5, 2-3) aren't in the Tigers' class, they average 302 yards passing per game, third-best in the ACC behind Florida State and Clemson.
DreQuan Hoskey and true freshman Tim Harris replaced Canady and Nicholson last week and likely will start again Saturday. Clemson victimized Harris for completions of 33, 37 and 96 yards, two of which went for touchdowns.
"I think he'll handle it the right way," Hoskey said Monday of Harris. "He's still learning. … I don't think it will affect him that much right now."
Harris and Hoskey's coverage priority against North Carolina figures to be sophomore receiver Quinshad Davis.
Last season at Scott Stadium, Davis tied an ACC record with 16 receptions, many on bubble screens from Bryn Renner that confounded Virginia. Those 16 catches accounted for 178 of the Tar Heels' 319 passing yards.
Davis caught only two passes in last week's victory at North Carolina State, but both went for touchdowns, of 2 and 59 yards. The latter came on a pass from fellow receiver Ryan Switzer, who became the second North Carolina wideout to throw a scoring pass this season — Davis connected with T.J. Thorpe against East Carolina.
Tar Heels coach Larry Fedora's penchant for gadget plays isn't lost on Virginia. Two years ago in Charlottesville, his Southern Mississippi team gained 31 yards on a fake punt en route to the go-ahead touchdown in a 30-24 Golden Eagles victory.
Renner and Marquise Williams, who split time at quarterback, have the luxury of throwing to the ACC's premier tight end: Eric Ebron. If Virginia's safeties/linebackers/nickel backs aren't on point, look out.
Ebron has 21 receptions for 376 yards in the last three games, with a career-best nine catches against N.C. State. His 44 receptions for 669 yards this year are single-season records for a North Carolina tight end.
Virginia faithful rightfully trumpet Cavaliers tight end Jake McGee, but he's a notch below Ebron.
A notch below for most of 2013, Virginia is attempting to avoid its first seven-game losing streak within the same season since 1981, and once again, some questions at London's weekly news conference, at least indirectly, touched on his job security.
For example, the Roanoke Times' Doug Doughty asked London about a theory that he's too nice for the job.
"I demand a lot from the players, I demand a lot from myself," said London, suffering through a third losing season in four years at Virginia. "I am an emotional, fiery, energetic guy. There's no niceness in that. There's a way I believe you have to play, with energy and passion. …
"There's an expectation of wanting to play tough, smart and aggressive. When it's not like that, then (players) understand and know that it's not good enough. … The time to be nice is when the game is over and you shake hands."
But London conceded that the defeats wear on him.
Players "tend to believe that their self-worth is tied up into every play," he said, "and you want so much for (them to succeed). … When those things don't happen, a piece of you disappears as well. I try to be grounded. As you guys know, I talk about faith, family and football being priorities for me, (but losing) takes a physical toll on you personally."
"Our bowl season," London said, "is these next three games coming up."