By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — UVa did what it had to do Saturday to stay in contention for the ACC football championship, dismissing Duke 31-21 in a Coastal Division game at Scott Stadium. And now a prime-time appearance on national television awaits the team that was picked to finish fifth in the Coastal.
At 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Virginia (4-2, 7-3) will face Florida State (5-2, 7-3) at Doak Campbell Stadium on ESPN2. This game matches two of the conference’s hottest teams.
The Cavaliers have won three consecutive games and four of their past five to climb into second place in the Coastal Division. The Seminoles have won five straight and are second in the Atlantic Division.
If the Wahoos can beat FSU — something they’ve never done in Tallahassee — they would enter their Nov. 26 regular-season finale against Coastal leader Virginia Tech (5-1, 9-1) needing a victory to advance to the ACC title game.
“It’s definitely exciting,” wide receiver Kris Burd said Saturday at Scott Stadium. “We haven’t been able to write our destiny in November in a long time.”
Not since 2007, in fact, has UVa been in this position. Until Saturday, that also marked the last season the ‘Hoos had defeated the Blue Devils.
“This was a game of redemption for us,” said defensive tackle Matt Conrath, who played brilliantly Saturday, making nine tackles, including two for loss, forcing a fumble and blocking a field-goal attempt.
On Military Appreciation Day, Virginia’s coaches wore camouflage. A crowd of 45,733 — the smallest for an ACC game at Scott Stadium this season — saw UVa score first, on the first of sophomore quarterback Michael Rocco’s two touchdown passes, a 6-yarder to sophomore tight end Jeremiah Mathis.
But the Blue Devils (1-5, 3-7) rallied for two second-quarter TDs, the first coming on a pass from Sean Renfree to wideout Donovan Varner, an All-ACC candidate who finished with seven catches for a game-high 132 yards.
Sixty-four came on one play, as Duke capitalized on confusion among the UVa defenders. At the last moment, middle linebacker Steve Greer had to leave the game because of an equipment issue, and his replacement, Tucker Windle, appeared unsure about his assignment. Varner ran past Windle on a crossing route, gathered in Renfree’s pass, eluded safety Rodney McLeod’s diving tackle attempt and raced to the end zone.
Virginia stuffed Duke’s running game throughout, giving up only 34 yards on the ground. But the Devils had more success through the air than Jim Reid, UVa’s defensive coordinator, would have preferred. Renfree also completed a 51-yard pass to wideout Conner Vernon and a 41-yarder to tight end Braxton Deaver.
Even so, Reid said, “I thought that we would play better [than in last year’s loss at Duke], and we did.”
Indeed, the game turned on a gem from All-ACC cornerback Chase Minnifield. On the first series of the third quarter, with the score 14-14, defensive end Cam Johnson closed fast on Renfree, who unloaded a pass to the left flat. Its target was Desmond Scott, but Minnifield stepped in front of the junior tailback, snared the pass and ran 54 yards along the home sideline, giving Virginia its first interception return for a touchdown since 2009.
“We’d just changed our coverage for that play,” Reid said, “but Chase made it look like the same coverage we had run the two or three previous snaps. He’s a very coy guy now, this guy Chase Minnifield.”
Minnifield is among the team’s fifth-year seniors, a group that also includes such players as Burd, Conrath, defensive tackle Nick Jenkins, linebacker Aaron Taliaferro, cornerback Dom Joseph, center Anthony Mihota and fullback Max Milien.
Burd played the starring role on the game’s most memorable play Saturday. Late in the first half, on first-and-10 from Duke’s 38, Rocco threw left to Burd, who made an over-the-shoulder catch at the 31 and then tightroped his way along the UVa sideline to the end zone.
“I was running with him,” said Mike London, the Cavaliers’ second-year head coach. “I was tippy-toeing down the sideline as he was going.”
Officials reviewed the play, but the video offered no clear evidence that Burd had stepped out, and the touchdown stood.
“As a little kid in rec league, you’re always practicing the tightroping-down-the-sideline thing, and it came to reality,” Burd said, smiling. “I’ve practiced that move plenty of times before. Just business as usual.”
For the second straight week, UVa dominated its opponent in the second half. On Nov. 5 in College Park, Virginia outscored Maryland 17-0 after the break and won 31-13. The ‘Hoos outscored the Devils 17-7 in the second half Saturday.
“The last two weeks we’ve just come into the locker room knowing that we can play better,” said Milien, who caught four passes for 62 yards Saturday, both career highs.
“We know what the coaches expect out of us, so we just come out of halftime knowing that we just gotta pick it up, get it together and play like we should play.”
As usual, junior tailback Perry Jones dazzled for Virginia. His teammates call him Superman, and Jones showed why against Duke. He rushed 15 times for 74 yards and caught three passes for 30 yards. On two of those receptions, Jones’ extra effort resulted in a first down, and the other one went for 9 yards.
Jones leaped over the line for a 1-yard TD with 6:52 left in the third quarter to put the ‘Hoos ahead for good.
“We just try to use all of Perry’s abilities as much as possible,” London said.
And so it was that UVa’s special-teams coordinator, Anthony Poindexter, called on Jones when Duke went back to punt late in the third quarter. Early in the game, true freshman Dominique Terrell had misplayed a Duke punt, and Poindexter wanted to take no chances.
Jones did not disappoint. He returned the punt 21 yards, slipping several would-be tacklers along the way, and would have gained more had he not run into teammate Jake Snyder, a collision that slowed Jones’ progress and allowed Devils to catch up with him.
“We’ve said repeatedly Perry can do everything, and every time he gets an opportunity he proves it,” offensive coordinator Bill Lazor said. “He amazes us sometimes too. I didn’t realize personally that he’d be up there returning that punt, but I’m glad he did, and I think it was fun to watch.”
Senior Robert Randolph closed out the scoring with a 29-yard field goal with 1:13 left in the third quarter. The Blue Devils picked up four first downs in the final period, but their best scoring opportunity went awry when Will Snyderwine missed a 34-yard field-goal attempt with 5:50 remaining.
“We’ve worked extremely hard since training camp,” said Jones, one of the Cavaliers’ captains. “So seven wins, I guess we’re happy with that, but we’re not satisfied yet. We want more. We’re going to stay hungry.”
In the locker room, London gathered his players around him after the game. “This is a good team,” he said. “I told you we were going to be a good team.” And the Cavaliers had believed their coach, even if many others had not.
“Everyone knows that very few people picked us to be very good,” Lazor said. “Very few people picked us to make any kind of impact in the ACC, and it’s easy to get angry or frustrated about that, but what we’re trying to do is just go out every day and play. Some guys might in the back of their minds think we’re proving people wrong. I just like to think we’re proving what we can be.”
The ‘Hoos finished 4-8 in 2010, so this has “been rewarding,” London acknowledged. “But at the same time we’re not done yet.”
SOURCE OF INSPIRATION: Team chaplain George Morris, a representative of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, received a game ball in the locker room Saturday night after some heartfelt comments from offensive tackle Morgan Moses to the other Cavaliers.
Morris’ father passed away one morning this week. That afternoon, Morris, a beloved figure in the football program, attended the team meeting at the McCue Center, to London’s surprise. “But George shared with the team that the last words out of his father’s mouth [were] to go tell the team to press on,” London told reporters Saturday.
“To have a situation like that happen and have him be with the team, I just wanted to pass along to him that our thoughts and our prayers are with his family as they put his father in the ground. It was an emotional last couple days here, and being able to play a good, hard, aggressive, physical game … and come out with a victory, it makes it even better.”