By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
ATLANTA — Given Georgia Tech’s production on offense Saturday, especially in the running game, it’s easy to forget that UVa led for most of the second quarter. And that, on the Yellow Jackets’ 2-yard line with 11 minutes left in this football game, Virginia was poised to cut its deficit to six points.
In the end, that was small consolation for the Cavaliers, who fell 33-21 to the reigning ACC champions before a homecoming crowd of 48,016 at Bobby Dodd Stadium.
Five games into Mike London’s first season as head coach at UVa, his team has yet to beat a team from the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision. The Wahoos are 0-2 in ACC play and 2-3 overall, with wins over Richmond and VMI.
“We’re a young team that’s just got to find its identity here,” London said. “I think that’s the frustrating part about it a little bit. You try to find who you are, what you are, who you can rely on. We’ve got to get those questions answered for sure, and quickly.”
Junior fullback Max Milien gave UVa its only lead with a 37-yard touchdown run early in the second quarter. The TD was Milien’s first as a Cavalier. The run was the longest of his career, as was the 13-yard reception he had earlier in the drive.
“That’s a bright spot,” London said. “You try to find silver linings in a lot of things, and I thought Max did a nice job. He’s an asset for us on offense, for sure, so we’ve just got to keep finding ways to utilize him.”
When the game ended, many UVa players stayed on the field and exchanged greetings with Al Groh, the man London replaced as coach after last season.
Groh is now Georgia Tech’s defensive coordinator, and his unit came in ranked 10th among ACC teams in scoring defense (25.4 points per game). The Jackets sacked UVa quarterback Marc Verica four times and limited wideout Kris Burd to one catch. The ‘Hoos finished with 376 yards, but 98 came on a touchdown drive after Georgia Tech’s victory was secure.
“Everybody’s got to get better [on offense],” said Verica, who was mostly ineffective until UVa’s final drive. “Everybody’s got to do a better job of just beating their man. Whether it’s a lineman against a pass-rusher, or a receiver against a defensive back, or myself beating the coverage, everybody’s got to step it up.”
The Cavaliers’ defense had bigger problems against Georgia Tech’s vaunted triple-option offense. The Jackets rushed 74 times for a staggering 477 yards and and 4 touchdowns.
Fullback Anthony Allen repeatedly pierced UVa’s 4-3 defense, totaling 195 yards and 3 TDs on 25 carries. Senior quarterback Joshua Nesbitt added 109 yards and a touchdown on 21 carries, and in the fourth quarter, on a drive that started at the Jackets’ 3, he had a career-long 67-yard run.
The Jackets (3-1, 4-2) didn’t punt until about 13 minutes remained in the game. Much of their yardage came on fullback dives through the middle of UVa’s defense.
“They’re so adept at running their offense,” London said. “We didn’t execute our plan against them defensively, and that’s why they rushed for what they rushed.”
In the first half, UVa forced two turnovers and stopped the Jackets once on fourth down. Yet Georgia Tent went into the break leading 13-7, thanks to Nesbitt’s 1-yard touchdown run in the final seconds of the second quarter.
The Cavaliers turned the ball over only once Saturday, but that mistake proved costly. On the opening drive of the third quarter, UVa perfectly executed a flanker screen on third-and-16 from its 23. Senior wideout Dontrelle Inman caught Verica’s pass and weaved his way upfield for a 19-yard gain, only to have the ball ripped out of his hands at the end of the play.
The Yellow Jackets recovered at Virginia’s 41, and the first of their three second-half touchdown drives followed.
“They’re very good at what they do, and we had no margin for error in what we were trying to do,” London said.
Even so, the outcome remained in doubt when the Cavaliers got the ball back with 13:01 to play. Chase Minnifield’s 19-yard punt return had given them good field position at their 39, and on first down Verica passed to Inman, who broke a tackle and turned the play into a 52-yard completion.
On first-and-goal from the Jackets’ 9, Verica threw an incompletion. On second down, senior tailback Keith Payne ran for 5 yards. On third down, Payne gained 2 more. On fourth down, Verica tried to hit Matt Snyder on a slant pattern, but cornerback Rod Sweeting had the junior wideout well-covered, and the pass was incomplete.
UVa players and coaches wanted a pass-interference call. The officials saw the play differently, “and that’s the way the game goes,” London said.
Verica said Snyder, who finished with 4 catches for 96 yards, both career highs, was the “third progression in that play,” the first two being tight end Colter Phillips and Payne.
“They took away the first two,” Payne said, “and he was the last guy there. It was kind of a bang-bang play in the end zone. It was really tight coverage, and we just didn’t come up with the play.”
As they had a week earlier in a 34-14 loss to Florida State, the Cavaliers gained most of their yardage in the second half Saturday.
“I think as a unit offensively we just have to start the game with a greater sense of urgency,” offensive coordinator Bill Lazor said. “I’m talking about everyone, not just the players, myself first and foremost.”
Sophomore tailback Perry Jones said: “That’s been our biggest problem this season, coming out a little bit flat. We’ve just got to pick up the intensity as a whole. It’s not just one individual person.”
For the first time since 1990 and ’91, the Yellow Jackets have posted back-to-back wins in this series. Next up for London’s team is another ACC foe looking to assert itself against UVa.
North Carolina hasn’t won at Scott Stadium since 1981. The ‘Hoos host the Tar Heels there at 6 p.m. Saturday.
“We’ve just got to regroup,” London said. “Don’t hang your heads down. We’ve got to come together as a team and just get ready to go again.”
Verica said: “A loss is a loss, but we still have a lot of games to play. We’re excited, and we’re ready to accept the challenge. It’s easy to point fingers … when things aren’t going well, but we’re going to stick together, because we’re a family, and that’s what families do.”
NON-FACTOR: Burd, a junior, came in as the Cavaliers’ leading receiver, with 22 catches for 378 yards and 4 TDs in the first four games. His only catch against Georgia Tech went for 3 yards.
“Sometimes it works out that way,” Lazor said. “We certainly go into every game wanting to get our best players the ball, and he’s one of them. I’m disappointed that he only got one. I think we threw a couple others up to him. One we got a pass interference, another we didn’t. We took some shots with him, at least that we threw deep to him. We just didn’t connect.”
UP FRONT: Heretofore an offensive tackle, true freshman Morgan Moses played extensively at right guard Saturday in place of starter B.J. Cabbell, a senior.
At left tackle, redshirt freshman Sean Cascarano took over when starter Landon Bradley left with a hand injury midway through the third quarter.
Asked how the freshmen performed, London said, “It’s hard to tell right now, but Morgan came here to play and Sean had to play, he had to be pressed into duty. So we’ll have a chance to look at the tape and see how they did.”
Moses, a 6-6, 350 pounds, is the largest player on UVa’s roster. London was an assistant coach at Virginia when another massive offensive lineman, Elton Brown, joined the program.
As a true freshman, Brown worked into the lineup at offensive guard, and that may be the path Moses follows too.
“You don’t have to do as much on the inside as you do on the outside, out there on the edge,” London said.
“We try to put him in a position, like all these guys, in position to be successful. He’ll be a good player. He’s a young player. He’ll learn as we go along. But the only way you learn is to play.”
STEPPING FORWARD: Darnell Carter, who played little for the ‘Hoos before this year, continues to impress in his final season. Late in the second quarter Saturday, the 6-3, 240-pound fifth-year senior deflected a Nesbitt pass near the line of scrimmage and then grabbed the ball before it hit the ground. The interception was Carter’s first.
“I thought it was a pretty athletic play, and we need to find more opportunities to get him on the field, and we’re going to do that,” London said.
In the third quarter, when Virginia had first-and-goal at the Jackets’ 1, Lazor put Carter in at fullback. No. 57 did his job, helping clear a path for Payne, who bulled into the end zone for the first of his two touchdowns.
Carter said he’s been practicing with the offense, too, for a couple of weeks.
“We don’t really have too many big fullbacks,” he said. “Coach just said he’d try me out and see how it looked. In practice I was looking pretty good, so he said he were going to take it to the game.”
CHALLENGING CIRCUMSTANCE: UVa’s offense struggled against the 3-4 defense that Groh brought with him to Atlanta.
“I think in any game the scheme of course is going to make a difference,” Verica said. “It was clear that they were trying to attack. They were blitzing a lot and playing a lot of man-to-man coverage, and we have to do a better job of answering that challenge.”
The Jackets “were making it difficult for us to throw kind of easy completions,” Verica said. “There wasn’t really a lot of soft coverage. A lot of it was challenging us at the line of scrimmage, man to man, press. So everybody’s got to do a better job of finding ways to get completions in that situation: the line, the receivers and myself. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”
BRAGGING RIGHTS: UVa’s Rodney McLeod and Jeremiah Mathis may talk a little trash to teammates Nick Jenkins and E.J. Scott this week.
McLeod and Mathis are graduates of DeMatha Catholic High, which beat Good Counsel 31-28 on Friday night in Olney, Md. Jenkins and Scott starred at Good Counsel.
Such connections are not uncommon within a college team. When he was a senior at Matoaca High, for example, Burd faced a Deep Run High team that included brothers Matt and Jake Snyder.
In the Central Region, Division 5 championship game, Matoaca went into halftime ahead 35-7. Deep Run came back to win 41-38 in overtime, as the Snyders occasionally like to remind a certain teammate at UVa.
“It’s a sensitive topic,” Burd said, “but we talk about it. It’s funny, but back then I was like, ‘I can’t believe this is my last game.’ ”
UP NEXT: The first of three straight home dates for UVa is next Saturday. North Carolina (1-1, 3-2) visits Scott Stadium for a 6 p.m. game that won’t be televised.
UNC defeated Clemson in Chapel Hill on Saturday. The Tar Heels haven’t beaten the ‘Hoos in Charlottesville since 1981.