By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Seven regular-season games remain for a UVa football team that self-destructed Saturday against Ball State at Scott Stadium. The only viable option for them, the Cavaliers said afterward, is to press on, no matter how much the 48-27 loss to the Cardinals might sting.
“It hurts, but you can’t let it end the season,” junior tight end Jake McGee said. “We still have seven games, at least. If you let this spiral out of control, it just gets worse. As leaders on the team, you have to keep the guys together. If we can do that, we will be OK.”
Junior tailback Khalek Shepherd said: “It’s a long season. You have your ups and downs. All we can do right now is bounce back and get ready for Sunday and prepare for next week. We can’t linger on this unfortunate loss.”
On an unseasonably warm afternoon, in front of the smallest crowd (38,228) at Scott Stadium this season, the teams were tied 17-17 at halftime and 24-24 late in the third quarter. But then the came the second of Virginia’s four turnovers, leading to a touchdown that put Ball State (5-1) ahead for good in a game that lasted nearly four hours.
In all, the Cardinals turned the Wahoos’ first three turnovers into 17 points. Fourth-year coach Mike London’s team compounded its problems by getting flagged for 13 penalties (for 93 yards), including two personal fouls called on sophomore defensive end Eli Harold.
“Obviously today we didn’t play well,” London said, “and it was embarrassing to have that happen here at home.”
Ball State, which won nine games last season, had no turnovers and only one penalty Saturday. Senior quarterback Keith Wenning became the Cardinals’ career passing leader in a game in which he completed 23 of 41 attempts for 346 yards and two touchdowns.
“That’s a good football team,” London said. “I gotta give them the credit, but you can’t have that many penalties, you can’t turn the ball over, and you have to be able to do something to stop the run, and particularly the passing game. You gotta put pressure on the quarterback.
“We didn’t do a very good job today, obviously. We got a lot of work to do, and we’ve got to take ownership in this and then move forward and get ready for [Maryland].”
A week after UVa’s defense forced three turnovers, recorded seven sacks and allowed only 199 yards against ACC foe Pittsburgh, Ball State’s offense found the going much easier.
Virginia sacked Wenning only once, and the Cardinals totaled 506 yards. Wide receivers Jordan Williams and Willie Snead (whose father is a former UVa wideout) combined for 263 yards and two touchdowns on 15 catches, and tailback Jahwan Edwards ran for 155 yards and three TDs.
After Ball State stretched its lead to 10 points eight seconds into the fourth quarter, UVa (2-3) answered with a drive that ended with junior Alec Vozenilek’s second field goal, a 38-yarder that made it 34-27.
Plenty of time remained for the `Hoos to catch the Cardinals, but two plays later Wenning teamed with Williams, who got behind sophomore cornerback Maurice Canady, on a 72-yard touchdown pass. UVa never recovered.
“Disappointing,” London said. “It’s an explosive play. It led to points. But if that does happen, you have to turn around and you gotta be resilient. You gotta bounce back from that, and we didn’t do a very good job of bouncing back today.
“Give all the credit to the quarterback. He runs their system in a very efficient manner, and they outplayed us in every aspect, and they deserved to win.”
Virginia’s offense, ineffective in the 14-3 loss to Pitt, was significantly more productive against Ball State, finishing with 236 yards rushing and 223 passing. But mistakes spoiled what could have been a banner day for the offense. Penalties nullified two apparent touchdowns for UVa, the second a 79-yard pass from sophomore quarterback David Watford to senior wide receiver Tim Smith.
“For as many points as we put up, we probably could have doubled it if we didn’t beat ourselves with turnovers and penalties,” senior offensive guard Luke Bowanko.
Smith leaped to make a 46-yard reception late in the first quarter, and on the next play junior tailback Kevin Parks bulled over from the 2-yard line for the first of his two rushing touchdowns.
Parks finished with 104 yards on 16 carries, but he also lost a fumble at the end of a 32-yard run early in the third quarter. He appeared to be down before the ball came loose, but the officials upheld the fumble ruling after a video review.
The other turnovers: an interception thrown by Watford on a pass intended for wideout Kyle Dockins, who appeared to run an incomplete route; a fumble by McGee after a short reception; and a fumble by safety Anthony Harris on a punt return late in the game, after the outcome had been decided.
“With the penalties, with the turnovers, mental mistakes, we were kind of shooting ourselves in the foot,” Watford said.
In the fifth start of his college career, Watford had a 27-yard touchdown run and completed 21 of 36 passes for 209 yards. But he will rue missed opportunities. On Virginia’s second series, Watford overthrew his target on back-to-back plays: first junior wideout Darius Jennings, who was wide open in the end zone, and then true freshman tailback Taquan Mizzell, who was at the Ball State 5, with no one between him and the end zone.
For Johnson, it was also his college debut, and he hauled in three passes for 46 yards. He made a difficult catch for a first down on the first pass thrown his way.
“I was excited,” Johnson said. “It was my first game in college, but at the same time we didn’t get the win, so at the end of the day me and the rest of the team have to get better.”
After falling behind 24-17, UVa responded with an 11-play touchdown drive that started with a pass — a 5-yard completion from Watford to Shepherd — and ended with 10 consecutive runs.
The score was still 24-24 when senior defensive tackle Brent Urban and junior linebacker Daquan Romero combined to stop Edwards for no gain on fourth-and-1 from the Virginia 22. That was the final highlight, however, for Virginia’s defense.
Ball State’s final three touchdowns came on plays that covered 32, 72 and 17 yards, respectively.
“It’s just tough as a defense to give up big plays like that, just bouncing back from that and staying together and motivated, to try to shut them down the next time,” Urban said. “It’s tough to stay together like that. We made a lot of the same mistakes over and over again, and it really hurt us.”
London said he expects his players to rally around each other.
“My goal is to make that we do what we need to do to help these players be successful, and that’s what I’m committed to doing,” he said. “I go to work every day with that mindset. The players come to play. When they don’t play as well as we need to, then this is the result of it. But they’re not quitting in that locker room there.”
Urban and junior linebacker Henry Coley led the Cavaliers with 10 tackles apiece. Urban also broke up two passes, and Coley had a team-high 2.5 tackles for loss.
“It’s tough,” Urban said. “It’s a big loss.”
Seated nearby, Coley was no happier. “Everybody, from the coaching staff all the way down to the players, we put in a lot of time and effort, and to see that go to waste on a Saturday …”
Coley shook his head. “We just didn’t care of business,” he said.
BRIGHT SPOT: With sophomore Ian Frye, who handled extra points and field goals in UVa’s first four games, sidelined by a hip injury, Vozenilek took over those duties Saturday.
As usual, he also handled the punting, and Vozenilek showed off his versatility against Ball State. He averaged 45 yards on his four punts, with a long of 56, went 3 for 3 on extra points and made both of his field-goal attempts, connecting from 39 and 38 yards.
“Alec did a great job today and scored some points for us and moved the field with his punting,” London said.
UP NEXT: UVa closes the regular season with seven consecutive ACC games. The first comes Saturday at Byrd Stadium in College Park, Md.
In a 3:30 p.m. game to be shown on ABC, ESPN2 or ESPNU, Virginia (2-3, 0-1) takes on Maryland (4-1, 0-1). The Terrapins were ranked No. 25 this week but will drop out of the polls after losing 63-0 to No. 8 Florida State in Tallahassee.
Under London, Virginia’s record against Maryland is 1-2. The Terrapins lead the series 43-32-2.