UVa offense no longer a weak link

Virginia isn't the only Atlantic Coast Conference team to have entered the 2004 season feeling stout on defense and a little uncertain at quarterback.

Count Florida State, Miami, North Carolina State and Maryland in that group, as well.

But the Cavaliers' concern was more understandable. Of those teams, only Virginia was placing its BCS title hopes in a quarterback transition from Heisman contender (Matt Schaub) to former wide receiver (Marques Hagans).

The others had more plausible reasons for optimism, if only through forced grins (see: Florida State and Chris Rix; Miami and Brock Berlin).

Heading into Thursday night's game against Clemson, the Cavaliers are flashing the widest smile. And of the five ACC teams ranked in the top 25 (a league first), Hagans is providing the most consistent play at quarterback -- by a wide margin.

He leads an attack that rates in the top-10 nationally in scoring, rushing, pass efficiency and total offense. Hagans leads the ACC in pass efficiency at 182.9 (Maryland's Joel Statham is second at 140.7)

Taking for granted a defense playing as well as expected, the Cavaliers have nosed their way into a No. 9 ranking (their best since getting to No. 7 in 1998) behind an offense that has become a team strength.

Hagans' job has been made easier by a rushing attack averaging 284.0 yards a game and an offensive line that has allowed one sack (no other team in the ACC has allowed fewer than five).

And it doesn't hurt to have a tailback in junior Wali Lundy who has run for 10 touchdowns. Of the 25 touchdowns the Cavs have scored this season (Virginia is averaging 45.5 points a game), 19 have been on the ground.

Which makes Hagans' transition from all-around athlete to Schaub's replacement no less pleasing, in coach Al Groh's estimation.

"Given the tasks put before him in the first four games, (he's done) about as well as a rookie quarterback could do," Groh said. "Overall, it's a very positive start for a guy in essentially his first four games as a starter. ... this is the first time he's ever really been the guy."

Hagans spent his first two seasons at Virginia doing a little bit of everything. He caught 29 passes, rushed 47 times for 198 yards and returned 57 punts, including one for a 69-yard touchdown.

He also played some quarterback, appearing in 11 games and starting two when Schaub dislocated his shoulder early last season.

That stint didn't ease concerns in Charlottesville for a team that, for the first time since being ranked No. 1 for three weeks during the 1990 season, was harboring thoughts of a national title.

The question was whether or not Hagans and the UVa offense could carry their share of the weight.

So far, the balance is remarkable. Virginia is ranked seventh nationally in total offense and eighth in total defense.

"The main thing was just to try to get better during the spring and through the summer," Hagans said of his own performance, which includes a 76.1-percent completion rate and only one interception in 71 attempts.

For some, Virginia, California and Purdue are the mystery members of the current top 10. The Cavaliers, who haven't played a ranked opponent, will reveal themselves soon enough.

After Thursday's game against Clemson, Virginia plays another nationally televised game at Florida State (Oct. 16, 7:45 p.m., ESPN) and plays Maryland, Miami and Virginia Tech on three of the final four weekends.

"I'd say we're moving up from double-A or triple-A now to the major leagues," Groh said. "We'll see how well we hit major-league pitching here for the next seven weeks."

Hagans and his offensive teammates don't appear fazed by the upgrade, or the curiosity.

"We can't really worry about what other people think of us," he said. "We just have to go out and play, and let the result speak for itself."

Doug Carlson covers the ACC for the Tampa Tribune.