By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — UVa’s wide receivers, stung by criticism of their uneven play through seven games, responded Saturday with a performance of which they could be proud.
“There were some good things that happened out there,” head coach Mike London said.
Alas, it went for naught. On Homecomings at Scott Stadium, the Cavaliers dropped their fifth straight game. This time they fell victim to Georgia Tech, which, despite turning the ball over five times, never trailed in its 35-25 victory.
The outcome marred a memorable day for UVa wideouts Darius Jennings and Tim Smith, who between them had 23 catches for 270 yards and two touchdowns. For the first time in the program’s history, the Wahoos had two players with at least 10 receptions in the same game.
Smith and Jennings, who were back in the starting lineup for the first time since Virginia’s Sept. 28 game at Pittsburgh, came away with mixed emotions Saturday. The `Hoos fell to 2-6 overall and 0-4 in ACC play.
“As an athlete, as a football player and as a competitor, you just want to win,” said Jennings, who had a career-best 13 catches for 119 yards and two TDs.
“It’s great that we were able to improve in the passing game, kind of something that we haven’t done throughout the season, but it still wasn’t enough. It doesn’t matter what our stats are, we still have an L on the board at the end of the day.”
On an afternoon when sophomore quarterback David Watford set school records for completions (43) and attempts (61), Smith finished with 10 receptions for 151 yards, both career highs. Watford’s 376 yards passing were a career high, too, and the fourth-most in UVa history.
“Dave has the heart of a lion, man,” junior tailback Kevin Parks said. “The kid is playing good ball. He’s our leader. We followed him today, and he played with his heart. We gotta get more guys playing at a high level like David.”
On this day, at least, Smith and Jennings were the playmakers UVa’s coaching staff has hoped they would be.
“[There are] a couple positives that we can take away from this game,” Smith said. “Me, Darius, David, a couple other guys, we definitely stepped up on the offensive side. We’ve been taking a lot of criticism at the receiver position, so we just took it upon ourselves to make a statement today.”
Watford said: “We knew it was going to happen. It was just a matter of time before they showed it.”
Jennings’ second TD, on a 12-yard pass from Watford, pulled Virginia to 28-23 with 3:23 left, and then Watford passed to junior tailback Khalek Shepherd for the 2-point conversion.
The home fans roared their approval, but when UVa’s defense desperately needed to make a stand, it could not do so.
On second-and-10 from its 25-yard line, Georgia Tech (5-3 overall, 4-2 ACC) picked up 38 yards on a wheel route, a pass that had burned the Cavaliers in Atlanta last fall. Of the 507 yards the Jackets gained Saturday, nearly 400 came on runs out of the triple-option. But they also had two completions of 24 yards as well as the 38-yarder.
“It comes down to playing our assignments,” senior defensive end Jake Snyder said. “Turnovers were a big focus this week, as they have been all year. We were able to create a bunch of them, we did a good job with that, but we gave up too many big plays, and that’s what hurt us.”
Three plays after the 38-yard completion from quarterback Vad Lee to running back Robert Godhigh, David Sims ran 29 yards for his second touchdown, and that was it for UVa’s comeback hopes.
Earlier in the final quarter, after pulling to 21-17, Virginia had given up a 65-yard touchdown run by Godhigh.
“It’s devastating,” sophomore defensive end Eli Harold said. “The offense came back and gave us an opportunity to get back off the field, and we failed to execute.”
Against a UVa defense that started four true freshmen 0- tackle Donte Wilkins, cornerback Tim Harris, strong-side linebacker Max Valles and, in his college debut, weak-side linebacker Zach Bradshaw — the Yellow Jackets needed only three plays to cover 73 yards for a touchdown on the game’s first series.
Georgia Tech’s second possession, however, ended when Wilkins forced a fumble that Harold recovered at the Jackets’ 37-yard line. That was the first of four first-half turnovers for Georgia Tech, but Virginia turned none of those mistakes into points.
The Cavaliers have 13 points to show for the 15 turnovers they’ve come up with this season.
“Anytime [opposing teams] turn the ball over, we need to put points on the board, score after those turnovers, help our defense,” Parks said. “The opportunities we get, we gotta seize.”
Still, junior linebacker Daquan Romero said, “you can’t blame the offense, because we still allowed touchdowns, even when they were doing their job to get us back in the ball game. [The offense] would get a touchdown, and we would allow a touchdown. We can’t keep doing that as a defense, even with those five turnovers.”
Junior Alec Vozenilek pulled Virginia to 7-3 with a 28-yard field goal early in the second quarter. The Jackets answered with a touchdown that made it 14-3. This time the Cavaliers responded in kind, moving 73 yards on a drive that ended with Parks’ 6-yard TD run.
With the score still 14-10, an interception by junior safety Anthony Harris gave Virginia the ball at its 41-yard line with 43 seconds left in the half. Completions of 5, 21 and 19 yards to Jennings moved the Cavaliers to the Jackets’ 14, and then a pass-interference penalty gave them a first down at the 2 with 16 seconds remaining.
Offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild called a run by Parks, who bulled his way to the 1. At least four precious seconds ran off the clock before Virginia called its final timeout of the half, at :06. UVa’s coaches chose to stay on the ground, and Parks was stopped for no gain as time expired in the half.
“We got down there, and obviously you could have kicked a field goal, but we’re 2-5,” London said. “We got one yard to score. We’re trying to score a touchdown. We did a great job moving the ball down there, and wanted to try to get in the end zone and score a touchdown.”
London was asked if he considered throwing a pass on second down. An incompletion might have left UVa with time to kick a chip-shot field goal.
“Again, you can talk about play selections, personnel groupings that we’re in,” London said. “But what we tried was a jumbo package play where we had an extra guy in, moved the ball in, tried to show them something different and capitalize on it, and we didn’t.”
Parks said: “If we get that, it may be a different ball game we’re talking about right now.”
The Cavaliers totaled 444 yards Saturday, but they will rue the plays they didn’t make. On fourth-and-1 from the Jackets’ 10 midway through the first quarter, Watford’s pass to fullback Billy Skrobacz was off the mark.
“I just missed him,” Watford said.
Georgia Tech’s final turnover came on a fourth-and-5 pass from the UVa 31 early in the third quarter. Anthony Harris came down with the ball for his second interception of the game — and fifth of the season — but he would have been better off knocking the ball to the turf for an incompletion. Instead of starting at its 31, UVa began the drive at its 4, and a punt soon followed.
“We’re not perfect,” Watford said. “We’re giving everything we have, and that’s all I can ask from my guys. We didn’t quit this game. We kept fighting to the end, and that’s all I can ask from my offense and my defense. We just have to keep working and keep pushing.”
YOUNG GUNS: Bradshaw became the 12th true freshman to play for UVa this season. A broken hand delayed Bradshaw’s debut, but London said the coaching staff had planned all along to use him this season.
Like junior safety Brandon Phelps, the 6-3, 215-pound Bradshaw starred at Damascus High in Maryland.
Of coming out for the game’s first series with classmates Bradshaw, Valles and Tim Harris, Wilkins said, “I loved it. As we went out, we told each other, `We gotta do it for the Class of 2017.’ ”
Snyder said: “It’s tough anytime you got four freshmen [playing], especially with an offense like [Georgia Tech’s]. But those guys did a great job learning the system, getting in, knowing what to do.”
Wilkins was credited with seven tackles, Valley with five and Bradshaw with two. Tim Harris made one stop.
UP NEXT: UVa’s three-game homestand ends next Saturday, when No. 9 Clemson visits Scott Stadium. The Cavaliers meet the Tigers (7-1, 5-1) at 3:30 p.m.
Clemson bounced back from a blowout loss to Florida State by defeating Maryland 40-27 in College Park this weekend.
The Tigers have won two straight over the `Hoos and lead the series 37-8-1.
London said he expects junior tight end Jake McGee, who was held out of the Georgia Tech game because of hip and knee injuries, to be available against Clemson. Urban, Nicholson and Canady are less likely to play against the Tigers.