By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHAPEL HIll, N.C. — Football is not about yards, Bill Lazor said. It’s about points, and UVa’s football team didn’t score enough Saturday at Kenan Stadium.
Lazor, the Cavaliers’ second-year offensive coordinator, was speaking after a game that he found at once encouraging and frustrating. In its ACC opener, Virginia piled up 468 yards and 23 first downs and kept the ball for 30 minutes and 59 seconds against North Carolina’s vaunted defense.
The scoreboard, though, showed the most important statistic from the 116th game in the South’s longest-running football rivalry: UNC 28, UVa 17.
Midway, the Wahoos had outgained their hosts 228 yards to 173, yet the Tar Heels led 14-3.
“I’m frustrated by the lack of points in the first half,” Lazor said. “We really have to look long and hard at that, and I think we have to do a better job. We gotta come away with points. Yards don’t count in the end. It’s points. Time of possession really means nothing. The team that scores more wins, and that’s all that people remember.”
Virginia had no shortage of first-half opportunities. Senior kicker Robert Randolph, 8 for 8 on field goals through the first two games, missed his first attempt Saturday, a 45-yarder midway through the opening quarter.
Later, on fourth-and-3 from Carolina’s 36, reserve quarterback David Watford overthrew wide receiver Dominique Terrell, who was open past the first-down marker. That incompletion came moments after senior wideout Matt Snyder had dropped a third-down pass from Watford.
Finally, on Virginia’s penultimate possession of the half, a botched exchange between center Anthony Mihota and starting quarterback Michael Rocco resulted in a fumble that the Heels recovered at their 37.
“You can’t do things like that when you’re playing against a good football team,” Virginia coach Mike London said, “and they’re a good football team.”
UNC (1-0 ACC, 3-0 overall) remains unbeaten under interim head coach Everett Withers, who was promoted from defensive coordinator when Butch Davis was fired in late July.
Virginia will take a 2-1 record into its game with Southern Mississippi (2-10 at Scott Stadium next Saturday at 3:30 p.m. Missed opportunities marked the offense’s effort in Chapel Hill, but the special-team units had issues, too, as did the defense.
The Wahoos averaged a modest 14 yards on their four kickoff returns and gained none on their two punt returns. UNC’s T.J. Thorpe, meanwhile, had kickoff returns of 35 and 28 yards.
On offense, Carolina totaled 401 yards, including 222 rushing. The ‘Hoos were missing senior safety Corey Mosley (lower-extremity injury) from the start and lost senior end Cam Johnson, their most effective pass-rusher, to an injury in the first half.
Among the big plays Virginia surrendered: a 40-yard run by Giovani Bernard, a 19-yard run by Erik Highsmith, a 36-yard catch by Dwight Jones, and an 18-yard touchdown catch by Jheranie Boyd.
“They’ve got some guys that can make plays, and a couple times they went up and got the ball, or had a couple nice runs,” said junior middle linebacker Steve Greer, who led Virginia with 10 tackles. “At the same time, though, we’ve got to take it upon the defense to eliminate those and make sure we’re sound in our tackling and our assignments.”
North Carolina’s receivers include the 6-4, 225-pound Jones, the 6-3, 190-pound Highsmith and the 6-2, 180-pound Boyd. Of Virginia’s starting defensive backs, only senior cornerback Chase Minnifield is listed as taller than 5-11, and the Heels capitalized on their size advantage.
“They got some wide receivers who are big and can run, which makes it hard to defend,” Greer said. “They go can up over top, or they can pull away from guys.”
Sophomore quarterback Bryn Renner, who’s from Northern Virginia, completed nearly 86 percent of his passes in Carolina’s first two games. Renner wasn’t as accurate Saturday — 15 of 21 for 143 yards — but he threw two touchdown passses and hurt Virginia with his scrambling.
Renner, a drop-back quarterback, was UNC’s leading rusher at halftime, with 23 yards, largely because Virginia’s pressure from the outside on pass plays left him room to escape up the middle.
“We gotta do a better job of having the inside guys make sure that there’s nobody stepping up and running,” London said.
Renner’s second TD pass, a 17-yarder to Jones, left the ‘Hoos trailing 21-3 early in the third quarter. A season ago, UNC had won 44-10 in Scott Stadium, and another blowout seemed possible. But Virginia answered with a drive that ended with a 41-yard touchdown play.
On third-and-1, Rocco fooled Carolina with a deft play-action fake and then lofted a pass to senior fullback Max Milien, who was wide open near the visitors’ sideline. Milien, who ran 36 yards for a score against Georgia Tech last season, sprinted untouched to the end zone Saturday for the second TD of his college career.
“I saw green grass, and my eyes just lit up,” Milien said. “But I had the easy part. Rocco had a great throw, the running back had a great fake, and that’s what really set the play up.”
Randolph’s extra point made it 21-10 with 10:27 left in the third quarter, and the score had not changed when Virginia got the ball back about 80 seconds later. This drive stalled, however, and UNC went 88 yards for a touchdown on its next possession to go up 28-10.
The Cavaliers’ offense finally broke through again in the fourth quarter, covering 81 yards on a drive that ended with Rocco’s 4-yard scramble for a touchdown.
Senior wideout Kris Burd had two receptions on that drive, and he finished the game with seven catches for 110 yards. Burd wasn’t the only Cavalier who distinguished himself on offense Saturday.
The line, against UNC’s heralded defensive front, allowed only one sack, and redshirt freshman tailback Kevin Parks rushed 14 times for 98 yards. Overall, the Cavaliers totaled 170 rushing yards against a defense that had allowed 60 through two games.
“I think it’s a really good defensive front, very big, very athletic,” Lazor said. “Everyone talks about how some of these [UNC] guys might be draft picks, but I thought our guys really stepped up. We ran the ball effectively for a lot of the day, and protected one-on-one in most cases.”
Parks is from Salisbury, N.C., and the crowd of 55,000 at Kenan Stadium included dozens of his friends and relatives. Parks put up mind-boggling numbers in high school, but the Tar Heels did not recruit him, and he hasn’t forgotten that.
“It played a big part coming into this game today,” Parks said. “A very big part. It was in my head all day that they didn’t want me. I came out here and I used it for my motivation, and I had fun with it.”
Rocco finished 22-of-37 passing for a career-high 287 yards, with two interceptions. The second pick came on the Cavaliers’ final possession, which began with 22 seconds to play. The first came with the score 28-17 and Virginia at the UNC 36. Rocco’s pass over the middle glanced off Burd’s fingertips and into the arms of safety Matt Merletti.
“Kris did a great job of getting open, and we were two inches from completing that ball,” Rocco said. “It would have been a 16-yard gain. Instead it was an interception going the other way.”
Like Lazor, Rocco saw much to like and much to rue Saturday.
“You could see a glimpse of what our offense could be,” he said. “Coach Lazor does a great job, and our offense can be great.”
Lazor said: “I think our guys are committed to getting better, and I’m really excited about the future, but I want it to happen now.
“I know we took steps to get better [Saturday]. I don’t know if we’re just quite ready to say what we’re going to be yet. I have things in my mind, but that doesn’t matter. It’s got to come to fruition. It’s got to happen on the practice field, and then it’ll happen on the field. And it’s coming, and it’s getting better, but we gotta accelerate the process.”
Rocco’s mistakes withstanding, London said the sophomore from Lynchburg “took a step forward in leading the team and doing some of the things that we’ve asked him to do. But everybody’s going to take to take a step up more, everybody that’s playing, from the freshmen all the way up to fourth- and fifth-year guys. We gotta play better, and when we get in a game where we statistically are [superior], we gotta put points on the board, and we gotta stop teams from scoring.”
THE NEXT GENERATION: Defensive end Brent Urban, outside linebacker Daquan “Da-Da” Romero and safeties Rijo Walker and Anthony Harris played extensively Saturday. Urban and Walker are sophomores. Romero and Harris are true freshmen.
Among them, they totaled 17 tackles: six by Walker, five by Romero and three apiece by Urban and Harris. For each player it was a career high.
With Mosley out, Walker made his first start Saturday, and Harris’ playing time increased dramatically.
“Anthony Harris played very well,” defensive coordinator Jim Reid said. “He didn’t play like a freshman out there.”
With junior LaRoy Reynolds, one of Virginia’s starting outside linebackers, slowed by an injury, Reid came into the game planning to give Romero more work.
In the second half, “when Da-Da started playing well, we just kept him in, because we were doing well with him in the game,” Reid said.
BIG-PLAY THREAT: Good things seem to happen when Milien, a converted tailback, touches the ball. For the season, he has five receptions for 82 yards. Does Lazor want to look for him more?
“Absolutely,” Lazor said, “and that short-yard situation was designed to get it in his hands [on the 41-yard touchdown play], and there were some other situations where the ball could have gotten in his hands in the flat, but maybe the guys downfield were open or whatever. We’re trying to develop a situation where we have a lot of guys who can make plays, and put them all in position to make their plays.”