By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
MIAMI — The home team turned four turnovers into 28 points Saturday. UVa, meanwhile, forced two turnovers at Sun Life Stadium. But as happened so many times this season, the Cavaliers had nothing to show for their takeaways.
“That’s kind of the tale of the game,” Virginia coach Mike London said after his team’s eighth straight defeat, a 45-26 loss to ACC rival Miami.
The Wahoos (2-9, 0-7) have forced 19 turnovers this season. Not since the opener against BYU, however, have the `Hoos parlayed a turnover into a touchdown. In all, UVa has scored only 13 points off turnovers, the rest coming on a pair of Alec Vozenilek field goals Oct. 12 against Maryland.
“It’s disappointing not to be able to turn those turnovers into points,” London said. “When you’re playing good football teams, you can’t afford not to capitalize on turnovers that our defense causes.”
Also disappointing, from the Cavaliers’ perspective, was sophomore quarterback David Watford’s decision-making on the first play from scrimmage Saturday. Miami cornerback Tracy Howard, reading the play perfectly, stepped in front of a short pass intended for tailback Khalek Shepherd in the right flat and returned the interception 19 yards for a touchdown.
Matt Goudis added the extra point. Six seconds in, the Hurricanes led 7-0.
“The first one was an ill-advised throw,” London said. “Throw it into the ground. Throw it over his head.”
Watford threw two more interceptions before redshirt freshman Greyson Lambert replaced him in the fourth quarter with UVa trailing 38-20. Lambert had a turnover, too, fumbling when he was sacked. Miami defensive end David Gilbert picked up the football and rumbled 72 yards for a TD.
“The defense played a great game,” Watford said. “If it wasn’t for the turnovers … it’s a whole different game. Especially the three interceptions, because that really hurt us.”
His second interception ended a stretch in which momentum had swung back in UVa’s favor. After falling behind 14-3, the `Hoos had pulled to 14-13, and they appeared poised to take their first lead after after junior safety Anthony Harris picked off a pass by Miami’s Stephen Morris late in the second quarter. The interception was Harris’ eighth of the season, and he returned it 11 yards to the Hurricanes’ 43.
From there, the `Hoos moved to the 20, where they faced third-and-4. Rain had been falling throughout the game, and Watford’s high pass glanced off the hands of junior tight end Zachary Swanson and into the arms of Miami cornerback Ladarius Gunter, who returned it 81 yards before junior tight end Jake McGee chased him down and tackled him at the 3.
“Whether it’s raining, whether it’s sunshine, or whatever it is, the ball hits you in the hands, you gotta be able to come down with the catch,” London said.
Three plays after Gunter’s pick, the `Canes (8-3, 4-3) scored their third touchdown. Instead of trailing at the break, Miami went in leading 21-13.
“It does take the wind out of your sail, when you’re driving and you feel like you’re in control, and all of the sudden something happens,” London said. “Now you have to deal with something negative.”
Moments later, UVa safety Rijo Walker, playing for Harris, who had been ejected after officials ruled he targeted Morris with his helmet, forced a fumble that defensive end Jake Snyder recovered at the Miami 40. But the Cavaliers’ ensuing possession ended with a punt, and disaster struck the next time they got the ball.
On second-and-6 from Virginia’s 7, Watford’s pass missed its target, McGee, and the ball bounced off one `Cane into the arms of another, safety Kacy Rodgers II. Rodgers returned the interception 14 yards to the UVa 16, and Miami scored its fifth touchdown two plays later.
“Obviously as a quarterback you’ve got to take care of the ball,” London said. “That’s the No. 1 priority. And when you don’t do that, then bad things happen for the offense. David has to play better.”
For the season, Watford has thrown nearly twice as many interceptions (15) as touchdown passes (eight). He completed only 10 of 25 passes Saturday as UVa saw its three-game winning streak against Miami end.
For Lambert, the appearance was his sixth of the season, and he delivered by far his best performance as a Cavalier. Miami had inserted reserves at many defensive positions by the time Lambert came in, but he completed 13 of 19 passes for 134 yards and wasn’t intercepted.
“I thought Greyson did a nice job moving the ball, moving the team,” London said.
The Cavaliers’ fourth-year coach left open the possibility that Lambert could play a significant role Saturday in the regular-finale finale against Virginia Tech. (That game will start at 3:30 p.m., the ACC announced early Sunday.)
“We’ll go in, we’ll grade this tape, we’ll look at how David played, how Greyson played,” London said. “We’ll look at practice and look at the tape. We’re going to do what’s best for the football team. That’s the main point. But I saw some improvement from guys that had a chance to step up and play.”
Lambert had completed five consecutive passes when he was sacked, a play that resulted in yet another big play for the `Canes. The turnover did not faze him.
“As a quarterback, you always have to have a short memory,” Lambert said. “It’s like a corner, if you get beat by a receiver. It’s sports. It’s going to happen.”
Late in the game, among the players on the field for UVa’s offense were Lambert, redshirt freshman wideout Kyle Dockins (four catches, 48 yards) and five true freshmen: Mizzell, wideout Keeon Johnson (two catches, 51 yards) and offensive linemen Eric Tetlow, Eric Smith and Sadiq Olanrewaju.
A graduate of Virginia Beach’s Bayside High, Mizzell has been slowed by an ankle injury for much of this season. Against Miami, he flashed the skills that made him such a coveted recruit.
Mizzell caught six passes for 45 yards and a TD, and he ran four times for 33 yards and another touchdown. He had not scored as a Cavalier before Saturday.
“No matter if it’s five seconds left in the game or three quarters left in the game, if I’ve got any time to get better in the game, I’ll take that opportunity to better myself,” Mizzell said.
“It just felt so good, being that my ankle held up and I got the touches that I needed.”
UVa’s starting tailback, redshirt junior Kevin Parks, has been a standout all season, and he sparkled again Saturday, carrying 26 times for 130 yards and one touchdown. Parks had 112 yards rushing at halftime but encountered more resistance in the final two quarters.
“I figured they were going to do that, try to stop the run, put eight guys in the box and force us to throw,” Parks said. “But we didn’t [capitalize on] opportunities where we needed to, we didn’t extend drives, and that’s the name of the game.”
And so another Saturday ended in disappointment for Virginia. The `Hoos have lost eight straight games in a season for the first time since 1975, when they finished 1-10.
“It’s very frustrating,” said Parks, the ACC’s third-leading rusher. “I’d be lying if I told you I wasn’t frustrated right now.”
In the first quarter, Virginia gave up a 62-yard touchdown on a bubble screen. Overall, though, a defense buoyed by the return of tackle Brent Urban (two tackles for loss) and cornerback Maurice Canady played well. The Cavaliers held the `Canes to 304 yards, only 90 of which came on the ground.
“You play hard and you do some good things,” London said, “but you gotta be consistent in doing the things that give you a chance to win against a good team like this, and we didn’t do well enough.”
CONTROVERSIAL CALL: With 5:05 left in the third quarter, Harris was penalized after launching himself toward Morris, who was sliding after scrambling for a short gain.
Harris’ shoulder hit Morris’ helmet, and the officials said Harris was guilty of targeting, a rule that was added this season. They did not change their minds after reviewing video of the play, which means Harris must sit out the first half of the Virginia Tech game.
“It’s a difficult call to make,” London said. “Your defender is going to tackle someone, then the quarterback starts to slide and creates the contact himself.”
Later Saturday, a Miami defender was called for targeting. The 15-yard penalty stood, but after a video review the officials decided the player’s action did not merit ejection, and he was able to stay in the game.
UP NEXT: UVa closes the season Saturday at 3:30 p.m. against Virginia Tech (7-4, 4-3) at Scott Stadium. ESPNU will televise the game.
To the winner will go the Commonwealth Cup, which the Hokies reclaimed in 2004 and have yet to relinquish since then. A season ago, Virginia Tech edged UVa 17-14 on a late field goal at Lane Stadium in Blacksburg.
The Hokies, who had a bye this weekend, have lost three of their past four games.