By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The home fans at Scott Stadium saw nothing worth cheering in the second half Saturday until late in the third quarter, when the sun appeared during a stoppage in play.
That drew a roar from the soaked spectators, but the sun soon vanished behind the clouds, and more rain pelted the stadium.
On an afternoon when conditions were less than ideal, UVa was anything but perfect. And so the Cavaliers’ three-game winning streak — and brief stay atop the ACC’s Coastal Division — ended in emphatic fashion.
No. 11 Georgia Tech romped 34-9 before a crowd announced at 43,016, the smallest figure for a UVa home game since Scott Stadium’s capacity was expanded to 61,500 for the 2000 season.
The victory was the Yellow Jackets’ first in this town since Nov. 3, 1990. Before the game, second-year coach Paul Johnson told his team that it could be the one to break that streak, and his players responded by overwhelming the Wahoos.
Georgia Tech (5-1, 7-1) had the ball for 42 minutes and 43 seconds, its highest time of possession in at least 20 years. The Jackets’ triple-option attack totaled 362 yards rushing, getting 125 and 103, respectively, from running backs Jonathan Dwyer and Anthony Allen. Quarterback Josh Nesbitt added 82 yards and, like Allen, rushed for two touchdowns.
Coming off a performance at Maryland that earned him ACC-defensive-lineman-of-the-week honors, Virginia senior Nate Collins turned in another tour de force.
Shifted during the week from end to nose tackle, his position for his first three years at UVa, Collins made a team-high 16 tackles, including two for loss.
His teammates didn’t rise to the same level, though, and so Virginia lost in October for the first time in nearly two years.
“We knew that we had to enhance our performance [from] last week,” Cavaliers coach Al Groh said. “We were playing the best team that we’d played, and we had to play the best that we had played. Unfortunately, we didn’t do that today.”
Missed opportunities will haunt the Wahoos (2-1, 3-4) when they review videotape of this one. In the first half, with the score 3-3, Virginia had first-and-goal at the 2 but came away with only a field goal.
“I definitely felt like if we could have punched it in, we’d have taken some air out of that defense,” UVa quarterback Jameel Sewell said.
Then, midway through the second half, UVa had first-and-goal at the 6. This drive stalled, too, and the ‘Hoos had to settle for a Robert Randolph field goal that made it 20-9.
“The biggest thing is, we just gotta finish drives,” said senior wide receiver Vic Hall, who had five catches for 51 yards. “It’s great to get points, but we’d rather get six or seven instead of three. Points are points, but it’s kind of bittersweet.”
Not since Nov. 22, 2008, when they lost 13-3 to Clemson, had the Cavaliers failed to score a touchdown. Randolph, a sophomore walk-on, matched his career high with three field goals Saturday, including a career-long 49-yarder that bounced off the crossbar and through. Overall, though, the ‘Hoos produced few highlights on the rare occasions when they had possession.
“If we’re going to go anywhere in the future, we have to score points,” said Sewell, who completed 18 of 32 passes for 168 yards, with no interceptions.
UVa went into halftime trailing 13-6, a deficit that did not appear insurmountable. But the Jackets got the ball first in the third quarter, and they manufactured a magnificent drive that took 10:47 off the clock.
It started at their 18-yard line. It ended, 17 plays later, with the first of Allen’s touchdown runs.
“For an offense to have the ball 10 minutes is amazing,” said Hall, who plays safety when the opponent is in passing situations. “They just really, really executed on that particular drive.”
Eleven points separated the teams early in the fourth quarter when UVa’s Nate Collins stopped Dwyer for no gain on a third-and-7 from Tech’s 37. Instead of having to punt, however, the Jackets were awarded a first down after Virginia cornerback Ras-I Dowling, well away from the play, was called for a late hit.
After the game, Groh, who’d shed his waterlogged shoes before meeting with the media, was still incensed about the call.
“Looking forward to reviewing that,” he said. “I’d say you gotta have a real conscience to make that call.
“We just hope that in competitive athletics that it’s the competition from snap to end of play that determines the outcome. I think that’s what all competitors are hoping for.”
The Jackets marched on, and when Allen ran 20 yards for a TD with 9:37 remaining, the outcome was sealed.
Georgia Tech finished with a staggering 71 carries. The Cavaliers had 12, their fewest since Oct. 18, 2003, when they ran the ball nine times against Florida State.
Fans hoping to see more of senior tailback Rashawn Jackson, who’d rushed for a career-high 90 yards in Virginia’s 20-9 win at Maryland last weekend, were disappointed. Jackson carried once Saturday, for no gain.
Another UVa tailback, Mikell Simpson, playing for the first time since suffering a neck injury Oct. 10 against Indiana, carried six times versus Georgia Tech, for 4 yards.
Neither Jackson nor Simpson carried in the second half. Virginia’s leading rusher against the Jackets was Sewell, who gained 26 yards on five carries.
“I thought we going to run the ball a little more, but that’s a decision that was made [by the coaching staff],” Sewell said.
Groh noted that Virginia didn’t have the ball much in the second half and trailed when it did. Moreover, he said, “unfortunately we didn’t do enough with the running game in the first half, whether it was block it, run it or whatnot, to say that that was necessarily the aggressive way to go after the goal line.”
Simpson said: “We got down, and [the Jackets] were taking 10-minute drives and eight-minute drives, so at that pace, we can’t come out and run the ball, because then we’re going to get into a time-of-possession thing, which they killed us on. So we just tried to come out and score quick, and moving the ball through the air was the best thing.”
Dropped passes and poor throws limited the effectiveness of that strategy. In the final minute of the third quarter, sophomore wide receiver Kris Burd nearly came up with a low pass from Sewell in the end zone, but it was ruled an incompletion, and an official review upheld that call.
Later on that drive, on third-and-goal from Georgia Tech’s 13, Sewell fired a hard pass to Burd, who failed to hold on after being hammered by a defender in the front of the end zone.
Sewell blamed himself for some of the incompletions.
“In those conditions, it’s tough to catch the ball when it’s behind [the receiver] or too high,” he said. “You have to be perfect.”
Poor execution hurt Virginia throughout. The ‘Hoos were 2 for 11 on third-down conversions and 0 for 1 on fourth down.
The Jackets, by contrast, were 8 for 17 on third down and 1 for 2 on fourth.
“Clearly, we didn’t make enough on third down today to do what’s necessary and stay out on the field a substantial amount of time against that team,” Groh said. “We allowed them too many conversions, frequently after we had had good plays preceding on first, second or third down.”
MIXING AND MATCHING: In the Cavaliers’ 3-4 defense, their starting linemen last weekend at Maryland were Collins at left end, sophomore Nick Jenkins at nose tackle and sophomore Matt Conrath at right end.
Conrath severely sprained his ankle in the second quarter, however, and sophomore Zane Parr, who usually plays on the left side, went the rest of the way at right end.
With Georgia Tech coming to town, Groh decided to shake up his lineup. Collins had started at nose tackle in the Cavaliers’ win over the Yellow Jackets in Atlanta last year, and Groh wanted him back at that spot.
So when UVa came out for Georgia Tech’s first possession Saturday, Parr was at left end, Collins was in the middle and junior John-Devin Dolce, who’s listed on the roster as a nose tackle, was at right end.
Collins responded with a dominant performance.
“Nate Collins looked like he made about a hundred tackles this week,” Groh said. “It just made sense to put him right back where he was [against Georgia Tech] last year, and clearly he confirmed that by his performance.
“Frankly, I would have been questioning myself if the game was over and we hadn’t played him at nose tackle.”
Collins made a career-best 16 tackles. Parr, in his first start, was credited with 12. It was also the first start for Dolce, who made seven stops.
Jenkins, whose play Groh has praised this season, rotated in periodically at nose tackle Saturday.
“Sometimes with the matchups, that’s the way it goes,” Groh said.
SLIPPING AND SLIDING: For the second straight Saturday, the Cavaliers played in miserable conditions. There were a few breaks in the rain at Scott Stadium, and it wasn’t as cold as it had been in College Park, but the weather made passing difficult.
“It was hard to deal with,” Simpson said, “but [the Jackets] played in the same weather as us, so we can’t use that as an excuse.”
Not since Nov. 16, 2002, when the Wahoos beat N.C. State, had significant rain fallen during a UVa game at Scott Stadium.
Groh walked into his press conference in stocking feet. After sitting down in front of the room, he looked at the bottle of Aquafina on the table.
“After standing out there in that all day, I’d think the last thing I wanted to see was a bottle of water,” he quipped before taking a sip.
NO. 5 RETURNS: Virginia’s Oct. 10 win over Indiana was marred by a third-quarter play on which Simpson, who’d rushed for four touchdowns in the game, hurt his neck.
Simpson was placed on a back board, carted off the field and taken to UVa Medical Center, from which he was released that night. He sat out the Maryland game but started against Georgia Tech. He rushed six times for 4 yards and caught four passes for 30 yards.
“It felt good to get back out there,” Simpson said, “just to be out there with my guys and competing again, because that was kind of a scary situation. But that’s behind me, so I’m moving on.”
STREAK ENDS: UVa kicker Robert Randolph made his first 11 field-goal attempts this season, including his first two Saturday, before missing from 35 yards late in the second quarter.
“I bobbled [the snap] a little bit,” said Hall, the holder, “and it sort of messed up the rhythm for Rob.”
Randolph connected from 30 yards early in the fourth quarter. For his college career, the sophomore walk-on from Naples, Fla., is 15 for 17 on field goals.
GUEST OF HONOR: Before the game, Ray Roberts raised the Power of Orange flag at Scott Stadium.
At halftime, Roberts, who wore No. 72, became the 12th player in UVa to have his jersey retired, joining Anthony Poindexter (3), Ronde Barber (19), Tiki Barber (21), Terry Kirby (42), Ray Savage (56), Tom Scott (65), Mark Dixon (66), Chris Slade (85), Herman Moore (87), John Papit (87) and Chris Long (91). All of those numbers remain active.
Roberts starred at offensive tackle for George Welsh in the late ’80s and early ’90s and twice received the Jacobs Trophy as the ACC’s top blocker. He spent nine seasons in the NFL.
Six former Virginia greats have had their numbers retired: Shawn Moore (12), Frank Quayle (24), Bill Dudley (35), Joe Palumbo (48), Jim Dombrowski (73) and Gene Edmonds (97).
NEXT WEEKEND: Virginia (2-1, 3-4) hosts Coastal Division rival Duke (2-1, 4-3) at 3:30 p.m. at Scott Stadium. Duke beat Maryland in Durham, N.C., on Saturday.
UVa had won eight straight in the series before losing at Duke last year. With that victory, the Blue Devils snapped a 25-game losing streak in ACC play.
“I think we know that we all want redemption on Duke after last year,” Collins said.