By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The three-game winning streak is now a fading memory. After losing at home for the second straight week, this time to Duke, UVa is reeling.
“We put a lot into this,” Al Groh said after the Cavaliers’ 28-17 loss Saturday. “We put everything we got into it, and when you get nothing back in return, it’s a haunting feeling.”
The Blue Devils, who hadn’t won at Scott Stadium in 10 years, scored 16 points in the final 3:45 to stun the Wahoos. The first thirteen of those points came in a span of 23 seconds.
“It all was an explosion,” said Duke coach David Cutcliffe, whose team improved to 3-1 in the ACC and 5-3 overall.
To the Cavaliers (2-2, 3-5), it looked more like an implosion. One moment they seemed headed for their fourth victory in five games. Then, in a flash, they were left to contemplate a devastating defeat. UVa has lost back-to-back games to Duke for the first time since 1981 and ’82.
“It’s always tough losing, but it’s especially tough when you should win the game and you come out a little short,” senior running back Rashawn Jackson said.
Quarterback Jameel Sewell struggled through one of his worst performances as a Cavalier — he finished 8 for 22 passing for 86 yards and threw an interception — but his 1-yard touchdown run on a sneak early in the third quarter helped Virginia take its first lead.
Duke went back up 12-10 early in the fourth quarter, but UVa responded with a drive during which Sewell completed two memorable passes to junior tight end Joe Torchia. The first, on fourth-and-1 from Duke’s 40, went for a 21-yard gain.
The second was a 19-yard strike that Torchia grabbed for his first touchdown at Virginia. Drew Jarrett added the extra point, and UVa led 17-12 with 11:17 to play.
To that point, Virginia had surrendered only four field goals, and its defense had had few breakdowns. But later, on third-and-9, Duke wide receiver Conner Vernon beat senior cornerback Chris Cook, perhaps UVa’s best defensive back, on a slant pattern. Vernon caught a perfect pass from senior Thaddeus Lewis and raced to the end zone to complete a 42-yard play.
Vernon’s touchdown made it 18-17 with 3:45 left. Lewis’ conversion pass was incomplete, but the next series ended when Sewell, on third-and-10 from UVa’s 13, was sacked and fumbled.
Nose guard Charlie Hatcher scooped up the ball at the 7 and rumbled in for a touchdown, and the PAT made it 25-17 with 3:22 left. The Cavaliers then turned the ball over on downs, and Will Snyderwine’s fifth field goal of the game, with 1:05 to play, closed out the scoring.
“It’s unfortunate,” Groh said. “There’s a lot of kids that really played their heart out today to make it a lot closer than it was at the end. Just too many gift points.”
It’s unfortunate, too, that the Cavaliers’ fan base is shrinking with each passing week, but that’s the reality. The attendance for UVa’s first home game this season — the shocking loss to William and Mary — was 54,587.
The figures have since dropped to 48,336 for TCU on Sept. 12, 45,371 for Indiana on Oct. 10, 43,016 for Georgia Tech on Oct. 24, and 41,713 for Duke’s Halloween visit to Charlottesville. That’s the smallest crowd for a Virginia home game since Scott Stadium’s capacity was expanded to 61,500 before the 2000 season.
By game’s end Saturday, only a smattering of Virginia fans remained.
“This is UVa,” Jackson said. “This isn’t Michigan or LSU or Tennessee or Virginia Tech. The fans here aren’t that patient, you know. I guess it’s human nature sometimes to — I don’t want to say tuck your tail, but just to turn your back.
“There were a few fans that really stuck out to me that were screaming on the sideline, ‘Rashawn, UVa, ‘Hoos, we love you, we’re here for you.’ And those were the guys who made this loss feel even worse, because they were really hanging in there for us, and they were really giving us their all, and I appreciate that effort. I appreciate those fans, and I appreciate those people who actually stayed and finished watching the game. And I’m disappointed that we couldn’t help their weekend go a little bit more smoothly, and hopefully they’re not getting bugged about it at work on Monday. I’m sure some of them might, and that’s even more disappointing.”
Virginia must win three of its final four games to avoid finishing the regular season with a losing record for the third time in four years. Its upcoming opponents — ACC rivals Miami, Boston College, Clemson and Virginia Tech — have a combined record of 22-11.
“We’re playing for our pride,” defensive lineman John-Kevin Dolce said. “We’re playing for the season. The season’s not over.”
Jackson, who rushed for a game-high 83 yard (on 16 carries) against Duke, is one of Virginia’s most thoughtful players. He was asked if, as the saying goes, a team is only as good as its win-loss mark.
“I really feel like we’re a lot better than our record shows, but also I agree you are what you are,” Jackson said. “When you’re born, your mom either has a boy or a girl. There’s no in-between.”
Lewis, who has blossomed into one of the nation’s better quarterbacks, completed 24 of 40 passes for 343 yards, with one interception. He’s surpassed the 300-yard five times this season.
“Our guy, if you look what he has done over the past four weeks, tell me a quarterback that has played better,” Cutcliffe said.
The ‘Hoos didn’t make it easy for Lewis. They sacked him six times, led by Dolce with a career-best 2.5. Nate Collins added two sacks and fellow end Zane Parr had 1.5. Those were career highs for Collins and Parr, too. In the end, though, Lewis prevailed.
“Obviously he made the difference for his team,” Groh said. “Despite some challenging times there, a lot of pressure that he was under, he came up with a couple throws that had to be made, and that’s to his credit, and that’s why his team is in the position it is right now.”
Collins said: “We pressured him, but we didn’t get there enough. They did what they needed to do to win.”
Duke totaled only two sacks, but Cutcliffe’s defense held UVa to 196 yards. The running game wasn’t the problem for Virginia.
How much Duke had to do with the Cavaliers’ struggles in the passing game was difficult to say. Virginia’s inability to successfully execute basic passing plays was, at times, mind-boggling.
Junior Marc Verica played two-plus series in the first half after Sewell got hit hard in the backfield, and he was no more accurate than the quarterback he replaced.
Verica completed only 5 of 16 passes for 21 yards before Sewell returned.
Of his team’s problems in the passing game, Groh said, “Protection certainly would have to be better. We can all see that. We dropped some balls when we were open. We can all see that. And we missed some receivers who were open. We can all see that.
“In college football these days, except for some unusual exceptions, a great deal of the scoring comes from the passing game, and when there are problems in three different areas of the passing game, it’s difficult to produce the amount of points that are necessary.”
Duke’s only turnover came when UVa cornerback Chase Minnifield, in the back of the end zone, made a spectacular interception of a Lewis pass intended for Vernon.
Leading 17-12, Virginia took over at its 20-yard line. The clock showed 8:01 to play. The Cavaliers needed first downs. Three straight runs netted only 4 yards, however, and the UVa had to punt. The Devils’ next possession produced their first touchdown.
“Clearly it was a critical stage,” Groh said of his team’s three-and-out “If we can take the ball and move it down the field, we’re going to eat the clock, maybe we’re gonna get some more points. That’s what good teams have to do offensively.
“We had the opportunity to do that. We had the ball, and we had the opportunity to respond to a positive circumstance, and we didn’t do enough with it.”
TOTAL DOMINATION: UVa was fortunate to be trailing only 6-0 after one quarter. In the first 15 minutes, the Blue Devils gained 122 yards, to a single yard for the Cavaliers.
Duke’s time of possession for the quarter: 13 minutes, 26 seconds.
THE LIST GROWS: In the eighth game of the season, Connor McCartin and Paul Freedman became the 13th and 14th true freshmen to play for the Cavaliers.
McCartin, a linebacker from Warrenton, was on the field Saturday when UVa received kickoffs. Freedman, a tight end from Florida, caught a 6-yard pass early in the fourth quarter.
One of the true freshmen whom Groh has played this season — tailback Dominique Wallace — suffered a season-ending injury in September. He’s expected to get his year of eligibility back.
DROUGHT ENDS: Tight ends from Heath Miller to John Phillips routinely caught touchdown passes during Groh’s first eight years as UVa’s coach.
Through the Cavaliers’ first seven games this season, however, tight ends have combined for only eight receptions, none for a TD.
That changed Saturday with Sewell’s 19-yard pass to Torchia, who made a difficult catch on a seam route.
“It felt good,” Torchia said, “but right now the loss is what I’m thinking about.”
A first-year starter, Torchia finished with 44 yards on three catches Saturday. For the season, he has nine catches for 98 yards.
ANOTHER OPTION: As true freshman, Jimmy Howell punted in all 12 games for UVa last year, and he handled the job this season, too — until Saturday.
Groh went instead with junior Nathan Rathjen, a walk-on from Loudoun Valley High.
Rathjen averaged 40.2 yards on six punts against Duke. That’s what Howell averaged in the first seven games, but inconsistency was a problem for him.
“We could see that the performance in recent games left a lot to be desired, so under those circumstances, we’d never know if we didn’t try this,” Groh said. “Probably some degree of improvement.”
NEXT WEEKEND: After two straight games at Scott Stadium, the ‘Hoos have a date with the Miami Hurricanes in South Florida. The starting time for this Coastal Division game will be announced by noon Sunday.
The Hurricanes lead the series 4-2. They rallied 24-17 in overtime at Scott Stadium last year.
In 2007, the ‘Canes’ final game at the Orange Bowl, UVa embarrassed them 48-0.
Miami scored the game’s final 14 points Saturday and beat Wake Forest 28-27 in Winston-Salem, N.C.
PARTING WORDS: “We just gotta stay together,” defensive lineman Nate Collins said. “Right now everyone [outside the program] wants to point fingers, everyone wants to know who’s at fault, who’s to blame.
“We’re all to blame. We lose together, we win together, and the quicker we get this all figured out, the quicker we get ready for Miami.”