By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — For the University of Virginia football team, the season will end not with a late-December trip to Washington, D.C., or Charlotte, N.C., or Nashville, Tenn., or Shreveport, La., but with a Nov. 24 visit to Blacksburg.
“That is our bowl game,” senior linebacker LaRoy Reynolds said late Thursday night at Scott Stadium.
UVa closes its third season under head coach Mike London next weekend against Virginia Tech. No matter what happens at Lane Stadium, where they haven’t won since 1998, the Cavaliers (4-7, 2-5 ACC) will finish with a losing record for the fourth time in five seasons. That’s not the ending the Wahoos envisioned after winning their first two games, but they have only themselves to blame for their fate.
On a night when a victory would have kept them in contention for a second straight postseason invitation — and showcased their program to an ESPN audience — the Wahoos stumbled in the first Thursday night game at Scott Stadium since 2006, losing 37-13 to North Carolina.
It was 20-13 late in the third quarter when UNC (7-4, 4-3) dropped sophomore tailback Kevin Parks for a 2-yard loss on a fourth-and-goal run from the 1.
“Seemed like the game kind of turned on that,” London said.
Parks said: “If we get it, it would be a different ball game. We didn’t get it. It hurts.”
Junior quarterback Michael Rocco said: “It’s tough. It was tough on our defense when we didn’t score, and it was a little bit deflating, but football’s like that sometimes. It can change so quickly, and it happened for us today like that.”
After their goal-line stand, the Tar Heels tormented the `Hoos again, covering 97 yards in 12 plays on a drive that ended with junior quarterback Bryn Renner’s 23-yard touchdown pass to sophomore tailback Giovani Bernard, who was uncovered in the middle of the field. Bernard, one of the nation’s most explosive players, did not inflict much damage otherwise, gaining only 57 yards on 15 carries, but his teammates hurt the `Hoos plenty.
Renner, a graduate of West Springfield High School in Northern Virginia, torched UVa all night, completing 29 of 36 passes for 315 yards and three TDs, with no interceptions. Sixteen of Renner’s completions were to Quinshad Davis, a 6-4, 185-pound wideout who totaled 178 yards and set UNC freshman records for catches and receiving yards in a game.
Virtually all of Davis’ catches came on bubble screens, with no defenders near him.
“A lot of the other teams play man and they jam me,” Davis said, “but [the Cavaliers] play a lot of soft man, and they gave us the opportunity to get the ball to me.”
Virginia played without true freshman Maurice Canady, its most physically gifted cornerback. Canady suffered a concussion last weekend against the Miami Hurricanes and wasn’t cleared to play Thursday night. In passing situations, Anthony Cooper, who had been playing safety, lined up at corner alongside starters Demetrious Nicholson and Drequan Hoskey, and the true freshman from Virginia acquitted himself well in UVa’s nickel defense. Overall, though, it was a rough night for the Cavaliers’ cornerbacks.
“I thought that [UNC’s] receivers physically got on our corners there a little bit and [had] an opportunity to catch the ball and get 7, 8 yards a crack,” London said. “We gotta be able to make those players on the perimeter, because that’s what ultimately ended up hurting us.”
It was still a game — the score was 27-13 — when UVa sophomore Phillip Sims dropped back to pass on third-and-14 from his 9-yard line with about 10 minutes to play. In the second quarter, Sims had thrown a 9-yard touchdown pass to Darius Jennings on a broken play, and his target now was the sophomore wideout from Baltimore.
Running a deep route on the left seam, Jennings found himself open behind the secondary. He was running in stride when Sims’ pass hit his hands at the UNC 45, and the play would have gone for an 81-yard touchdown had Jennings held on.
He didn’t. Jennings bobbled the ball before it fell helplessly to the ground.
“It’s one of those plays you work on in practice,” Sims said. “To be honest, this week I really haven’t hit that play. It’s not my favorite play. But I made a pretty decent throw on this one, and we just didn’t hit it tonight. Just the story of the night, I guess you could say.”
That wasn’t the only missed opportunity Virginia will rue. Early in the third quarter, UVa punter Alec Vozenilek sent a kick high into the air. Bernard leads the ACC in punt returns, but he muffed this kick, and the `Hoos recovered at the Carolina 12. But after three plays netted only a single yard, Virginia had to settle for a 28-yard field goal by Drew Jarrett that made it 20-13.
“We left some points on the field, that’s for sure,” London said.
UVa also gave away some points. Late in the second quarter, an inspired defensive stand by Virginia forced Carolina to settle for a field-goal attempt, and when Thomas Moore missed from 40 yards, the crowd roared. Moments later, however, Rocco threw an interception that UNC safety Tre Boston returned 36 yards for a touchdown, and suddenly it was 20-10.
Rocco started Thursday, but Sims replaced him on UVa’s third series. Virginia had rotated quarterbacks in its November wins over NC State and Miami, and London and offensive coordinator Bill Lazor stuck with that tactic against UNC.
The rotation did not work so seamlessly against UNC. On his first series, Sims teamed with Jennings on the TD that pulled Virginia to 14-10. At the start of the next series, however, Rocco went back out with the offense, and on first down he threw the pass that Boston picked off.
“The next series was up, and Mike was the guy,” London said when asked about the decision to take Sims out then.
Sims finished 8-of-17 passing for 50 yards, with no interceptions. Rocco, who was sacked three times, completed 11 of 16 passes for 155 yards — 51 of which came on a fourth-quarter pass to sophomore wideout Dominique Terrell.
Five days earlier, in a 68-50 loss to Georgia Tech, UNC had looked inept on defense. Not so against a UVa offense that had totaled 74 points in its previous two games. Carolina held the `Hoos to 350 yards, about 70 fewer than their average.
“That’s a very talented D-line we played against tonight,” Sims said. “This is what they do. They go and get after quarterbacks. They don’t do a lot of crazy stuff with the linebackers, bringing eight guys and all that stuff to overload you. They let the front four go to work, and that’s how they make their money.”
The Cavaliers lost one of their starting offensive tackles, junior Morgan Moses, to a leg injury with 87 seconds remaining, and his status for the Virginia Tech game was not clear.
“Hopefully it’s nothing severe,” London said.
Before the game, UVa recognized 26 fourth- and fifth-year players in a Senior Night ceremony. That made the loss that followed more painful for the Cavaliers.
“It’s a very quiet locker room in there, with a lot of disappointment, but we’ve just got to pick ourselves up and get ready to play our last football game,” London said.
His message to his seniors?
“You tell them that there’s one more game left,” London said. “There’s one more opportunity, and you always like for your guys to have a positive playing experience. One more opportunity to play with your teammates and play your in-state rival.
“You have to make it your bowl game, basically. That’s what it is. It’s one last game to play.”