By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Almost every week, it seems, UVa football players and coaches sound a familiar refrain, citing turnovers, penalties, special-teams breakdowns, and the offense’s inability to consistently turn yards into points as major factors in the team’s latest defeat.
The storylines changed little Saturday at Scott Stadium, where Virginia fell 16-10 to Wake Forest before a crowd of 41,167 on a sparkling fall afternoon.
“We made the most errors,” third-year coach Mike London said after the Cavaliers’ sixth straight loss. That’s the program’s longest such streak since 2009, when Al Groh’s final team at UVa dropped its last six games.
The Wahoos (2-6 overall, 0-4 ACC) turned the ball over three times Saturday, the last giveaway coming on a muffed punt with 1:59 to play, after which the Demon Deacons (2-6, 0-4) ran out the clock. On defense, UVa allowed only 213 yards but forced no turnovers.
Virginia was penalized five times for 40 yards, which doesn’t sound exorbitant. But two of those penalties — one a late hit by Kyle McCartin in kickoff coverage, the other an illegal block by Henry Coley on a punt return — led to Wake field goals, and that proved crucial in a game ultimately decided by six points.
And then there were the special-teams breakdowns. A week after giving up a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against Maryland, UVa allowed a 60-yard punt return by Wake early in the game. Lovell Jackson’s return gave the Deacons a first down at Virginia’s 16-yard line, and one play later — a Wildcat run by tailback Josh Harris — they had the game’s first TD.
In the final seconds of the first half, McCartin’s personal foul gave the Deacs 15 extra yards and a first down at the UVa 45. From there, quarterback Tanner Price teamed with wideout Brandon Terry on a 41-yard pass play, and then Chad Hedlund booted a 22-yard field goal to send Wake into the break with a 10-7 lead.
“You gotta be smart,” special-teams coordinator Anthony Poindexter said when asked about McCartin’s out-of-bounds tackle on Wake’s Chibuikem Okoro.
“You’re over there on their sideline, you gotta pull off. Clearly [Okoro] was going out of bounds, so you just pull off.”
Also in the first half, redshirt freshman Ian Frye missed a 44-yard field-goal attempt that would have pulled the `Hoos to 7-3. In the second half, sophomore Khalek Shepherd fielded a kickoff in the end zone and, instead of taking the touchback, tried to run it out. Shepherd tripped in the open field and fell down at the 14.
Much more costly was Shepherd’s final touch of the ball. After three plays netted only 4 yards, Wake sent 6-4, 210-pound redshirt freshman Alexander Kinal back to punt with 2:08 remaining.
Kinal, from Adelaide, the capital city of South Australia, is a former Australian Rules Football standout, and his high, booming punts helped Wake win the field-position battle Saturday.
On Kinal’s final punt, a soaring 39-yarder that swirled in the autumn sky, Shepherd overran the ball as he attempted to make a fair catch. The football hit his face mask and bounced directly to a Demon Deacon at the UVa 43. Game over.
The wind might have made Shepherd’s job more difficult, London said, but the return man has “to adjust to whatever the conditions are and the elements are … Their punter got a lot of height on the ball. You could see the nose of the ball tailing all over the place. You just gotta be able to judge it.”
Poindexter said: “When you play, you know things like that can happen, and it was just magnified because it was the last play of the game. He didn’t cost us the game, because there were 80 plays before it in the game that affected it. That penalty right before the half [on McCartin] is just as big. That block in the back [by Coley] gives them the ball again, and they get three points.”
Wake converted only 1 of 15 third-down opportunities against a defense led by senior linebacker Steve Greer (14 tackles), sophomore tackle Chris Brathwaite (career-high nine tackles, including two for loss) and true freshman end Eli Harold (career-high seven tackles).
Still, in a game in which UVa frequently self-destructed, Wake did just enough to win. The Deacons’ 213 yards of total offense were their fewest in an ACC victory since Oct. 22, 1966, when they edged North Carolina 3-0.
“The best thing we did today was not turn the ball over,” said Wake coach, Jim Grobe, a UVa alumnus.
Virginia came into the game ranked 119th nationally in turnover margin (minus-1.9 per game), out of 120 teams. The ‘Hoos are now in last place.
All of the Cavaliers’ turnovers came in the second half. On the first, sophomore tailback Kevin Parks lost a fumble that the Deacs recovered on Virginia’s 37-yard line. What appeared to be a three-and-out followed, but the penalty on Coley, on fourth-and-11 from the 38, gave Wake a reprieve. On fourth-and-1 from the 28, Price’s sneak gained the necessary yard, and five plays later Hedlund’s third field goal made it 16-10.
On second-and-1 from Wake’s 34, Sims, under pressure, heaved a long pass in the direction of sophomore wideout Darius Jennings, who was well-covered along the left sideline. Safety Kevin Johnson, in front of Jennings, leaped and came down at the 5 with the interception.
“Turnovers are such a big thing for us right now, it’s just critical you don’t give them a chance to get their hands on the football,” offensive coordinator Bill Lazor said.
London said that, in such situations, a receiver must act as a defensive back and try to break up the pass. Even a penalty for offensive pass interference on Jennings would have been preferable to a turnover. But Sims’ pass was well off the mark, too.
“I got hit,” Sims said, “and I just wasn’t able to put as much on the ball as I wanted to. But I gotta take care of the ball in the red zone. I can’t put the ball at risk, and that’s on me.”
Sims, in his third consecutive start, completed 22 of 39 passes for 253 yards and one TD, a 13-yarder to junior wideout Tim Smith with 20 seconds left in the second quarter. Sims and Smith, former teammates at Oscar Smith High in Chesapeake, also teamed up on a 56-yard completion in the first quarter.
Smith, who missed the previous two games with an ankle injury, finished with four catches for 79 yards against Wake.
“Tim’s a big-time part of this offense, and we need him each and every week,” Sims said.
The Cavaliers also need to be able to run the ball. They rushed for 186 yards against Duke on Oct. 6 and 168 against Maryland last weekend, and they had every reason to believe they would have success on the ground against Wake, too, even with a new starter, redshirt freshman Jay Whitmire, at right tackle. (UVa’s usual starter at that position, junior Morgan Moses, suffered a concussion against Maryland and didn’t practice all week. But Moses was cleared Friday and played extensively against Wake.)
The Demon Deacons came into the game ranked 102nd nationally in rushing defense. But you wouldn’t have known that Saturday. Virginia netted only 48 yards on 32 carries. Its leading rusher, with 28 yards, was Parks.
Overall, UVa’s offense gained 301 yards, “but at the end of the day the points are really the only things that matters,” Sims said.
For the offense, Lazor said, the “easy story is two things: points and turnovers.”
Virginia’s defense wasn’t perfect, but for the second straight week it held the opposing team to fewer than 240 yards. UVa starts four sophomores in the secondary and another at linebacker. Brathwaite, Harold, sophomore linebacker Daquan Romero, redshirt freshman tackle David Dean, true freshman cornerback Maurice Canady and true freshman end Mike Moore rotate in regularly. (Dean had his first college sack Saturday.)
“All the guys are playing hard,” defensive coordinator Jim Reid said. “You gotta try to get better every week when you have a young crowd, and that’s what we have right now. We got a young crowd, and you have to play brave every play. You can’t be afraid. You can’t back up when you should be coming. You gotta make plays on balls, and the guys are working hard at it.”
As for special teams, London said the recurring breakdowns are “frustrating, because we got a bunch of try-hard kids that want to get it done right, and it’s just not getting done. But we gotta find a way to get it done. That’s what we’re supposed to do, find ways to help them be successful, or personnel it to where that unit can be successful, whatever it may be.”
UP NEXT: The Cavaliers are off next weekend. They don’t play again until Nov. 3, when they visit NC State (5-2, 2-1) in Raleigh, N.C.
The Wolfpack, coached by former UVa assistant Tom O’Brien, rallied to edge Maryland 20-18 in College Park on Saturday.
Sims said he has mixed emotions about the bye week, “because you want to be out there, you want to be out there on Saturday. But when you look at it, you get some guys healthy, get back to the basics and get guys focused again on the things that started the season off [well].”
London said: “That losing taste lingers in your mouth for a while, and the only way you get rid of that is [to] play another game, and obviously we won’t play for a while. But we can go back and do things that are dedicated towards improving our fundamentals of blocking, throwing, catching, all those things.
“That’s what the open week will be dedicated to: fixing ourselves and not necessarily being worried about other schemes and other teams that are coming in. Because we need to do better ourselves, coaching and teaching and getting the players to understand this is what we need to get done.”