First look: Virginia Cavaliers

When ex-Virginia defensive coordinator Mike London left Richmond to return to Charlottesville as the head coach, he probably knew he would have his hands full.

The Cavaliers finished last season in a downward spiral, going 3-9 and costing Al Groh his job after nine seasons. Among the indignities: Virginia lost to William and Mary at home and has been to one bowl game in the last four years.

London's debut went well, with a 34-13 win over a Richmond team quarterbacked by ex-Trojan Aaron Corp, but this week poses an entirely different test. Among other things, it will be Virginia's first game ever played in California in its 122 years of existence. The last time they played USC, in 2008, the Cavaliers lost 52-7.

The big task for London and his staff was to cobble together a running game and --- who knows? -- maybe they found their back last week. Fifth-year senior Keith Payne, who was buried on Groh's depth chart, ran for 114 yards and four touchdowns against Richmond. That might have been a product of playing a smaller team, as Payne is 6-foot-3 and 255 pounds. USC has a powerful front seven, though it looked undisciplined at times in a shootout win at Hawaii last week.

Payne isn't the only player to benefit from the coaching change. Quarterback Marc Verica, who started only one game last year, completed 23 of 34 passes for a career-best 283 yards and a touchdown against Richmond.

London had Virginia playing strong defense in 2006 and 2007 and he got a break in January, when cornerback Ras-I Dowling decided to wait until after his senior season to enter the NFL Draft. Dowling is rated a first-round prospect by ESPN's draft analysts. He missed the Richmond game with a hamstring strain and is questionable for Saturday's game at the Coliseum.