By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — In the fourth quarter of a football game in which more than 55 minutes elapsed before North Carolina took the lead, UVa broke down in all three phases Saturday afternoon at Scott Stadium.
*Offense: Leading 27-21, Virginia turned the ball over on second-and-13 from the UNC 35. The call was for a screen pass, but quarterback Greyson Lambert’s throw, intended for tailback Kevin Parks, went directly to Nazair Jones, a 6-5, 280-pound defensive tackle who returned the interception 20 yards.
“We’re taught to look off, away from the screen, and come back and throw it,” Lambert said. “I saw the lineman there, and ultimately I should have just thrown it into the dirt or tried to maneuver around a different way. But ultimately I didn’t get it there, and that’s definitely my fault.”
*Defense: After a spectacular sack by defensive end Eli Harold knocked off the helmets of quarterback Marquise Williams and offensive tackle Jon Heck, both UNC players had to leave the game for one play. With the Tar Heels still trailing 27-21, in came backup quarterback Mitch Trubisky for a third-and-15 play from the Virginia 16.
Trubisky calmly passed to wide receiver T.J. Thorpe, uncovered in the middle of the field, for a 16-yard touchdown, and Nick Weiler’s extra point put Carolina ahead with 4:05 left.
“It was a big play by Eli,” UVa defensive tackle David Dean said. “We thought with the backup coming in we could definitely take advantage of that, but that wasn’t the case.”
*Special teams: After Thorpe’s TD, the Wahoos readied themselves for a possession they hoped would end with a go-ahead field goal or touchdown. Alas, they never touched the football again.
The Heels stunned UVa with an onside kick they recovered at the 46-yard line. After UNC’s drive stalled at the Virginia 21, Weiler came out to attempt a 38-yard field goal with 1:17 left, but he never had to kick.
The `Hoos were penalized for having 12 men on the field, resulting in a first down for Carolina, which ran out the clock to claim a 28-27 victory.
“We let this one slip away,” said Virginia safety Quin Blanding, a true freshman who had a first-half interception.
For the Tar Heels (4-4 overall, 2-2 ACC), it was an exhilarating victory. For the Cavaliers (4-4, 2-2), it was an excruciating loss for which they largely had themselves to blame. UVa outgained UNC and held the ACC’s top offense well below its averages in scoring and total offense — and still lost.
North Carolina coach Larry Fedora said: “We were fortunate to find a way to win.”
The defeat was UVa’s fifth straight in the series known as “the South’s Oldest Rivalry.” And now the `Hoos, who moved into the Coastal Division lead after beating Pittsburgh on Oct. 4, have dropped two in a row and must play three of their final four regular-season games on the road, starting next weekend at Georgia Tech.
“We coached poorly at the end, played poorly, didn’t recognize things that we should have, and it’s disappointing to have an opportunity to be winning the game, or win a game down the stretch, and have the miscues we had,” UVa head coach Mike London said.
“North Carolina did what they needed to do to win the game, so congratulations to them, but we beat ourselves today and played poorly in the last few minutes of the football game.”
Before a Homecomings crowd of 45,200, the largest turnout at Scott Stadium this season, the Cavaliers dominated early. In his first appearance since Sept. 20, when he sprained an ankle against BYU, Lambert capped Virginia’s first drive with a 31-yard touchdown pass to junior wideout Canaan Severin.
UVa’s second drive included a 23-yard completion from wideout Miles Gooch, a converted quarterback, to Lambert on a trick play, and after Parks’ 2-yard touchdown run, the score was 14-0 with 3:06 left in the opening quarter.
By the 4:48 mark of the second quarter, however, it was 21-21, thanks to three big plays by UNC’s quick-strike offense. The Heels got on the scoreboard with a 52-yard touchdown run by Williams, then pulled to 14-14 on a 57-yard pass from Williams to wideout Mack Hollins in the final minute of the first quarter.
After Virginia regained the lead on a 5-yard TD pass from Lambert to Parks, UNC answered with a 63-yard touchdown pass from Wiliams to Hollins, who in the fourth quarter capped a memorable performance by recovering the pivotal onside kick.
Those three touchdown drives by Carolina totaled 2 minutes, 30 seconds.
“That’s 170-something yards of big plays,” London said.
Virginia made its share of big plays, too, and finished with 443 yards. Parks, a fifth-year senior from Salisbury, N.C., rushed for a game-high 111 yards, and Lambert passed for 261 yards and two TDs, both career highs for the redshirt sophomore from Jesup, Ga. But Lambert also was intercepted twice — the first time on the UNC 2-yard line on the opening drive of the second half — and completed only 50 percent (20 of 40) of his passes.
In each of their four losses, the Cavaliers have outgained their opponent.
“It tells us that if we execute and keep doing what we’re doing and actually put the ball in the end zone, then we would win a lot more games,” Lambert said. “And so a lot of that falls on my shoulders and the rest of the offensive guys’ shoulders. We’ve got to get the ball in the end zone.”
Severin said: “We move the ball, we have yards, we have passing yards, rushing yards. We just gotta put points on the board. When you don’t do that as an offense, it’s definitely tough. It’s hard to win like that.”
For the UVa offense, its woes in the third and four quarters Saturday were all too familiar. In the second halves of its past three games, Virginia has scored six points: three against Duke last weekend and three against UNC.
“We had some things that were there [Saturday],” Lambert said, “but obviously they weren’t executed like we wanted to.”
The Heels, meanwhile, scored only seven points in the second half, but they came in a high-pressure situation that didn’t faze a seldom-used reserve quarterback.
“It’s tough to give up a play like that,” UVa safety Anthony Harris said of Trubisky’s improbable TD pass, “let them in the end zone and give them the lead on that play.”
London said UNC scored on “a route that we practice and practice and practice and practice … It wasn’t anything we hadn’t seen, but we just didn’t have guys in position to make the play. And that’s what disappointing. You practice those things and you put yourselves in positions to make plays, to be there, to do the things necessary to win a football game, and at that crucial moment it didn’t happen.”
On an afternoon when Weiler missed both of his field-goal attempts, from 39 and 43 yards, UVa junior Ian Frye was 2 for 3, connecting from 31 and 37 and missing from 50 on the final play of the first half. Overall, though, the Tar Heels were far superior on special teams.
UNC punter Tommy Hibbard pinned the `Hoos at their 1-yard line late in the third quarter and at their 2 early in the fourth.
“It’s hard when your back’s against the wall and you’ve got to make plays, and you’re kind of limited in what plays you can call,” Parks said.
And then there was Carolina’s onside kick, which had it failed would have given the Cavaliers excellent field position.
“That is a big gamble,” said UVa wide receiver Darius Jennings, a senior who caught three passes for 82 yards, including a 42-yarder, and rushed three times for 18 yards.
“It’s high risk, high reward. Unfortunately for us they recovered it. It was just a great play by them.”
In his postgame press conference, London clearly was bothered by what he’d seen.
“Every loss eats at me,” he said. “I want to win football games, and you want to win when you put yourself in position to win games. Again, what’s disappointing is the way that this one unfolded.”
UVa “has shown it can execute against good football teams,” London said, but “today we weren’t good enough. We didn’t do a good enough job. I didn’t do a good enough job coaching. The coaches didn’t do a good enough job coaching their players, and the result is a loss. And now we have to regroup and get ready for a different style of team with Georgia Tech coming up.”
Jennings said Virginia’s seniors have “seen the highs and lows here. We know how this thing can go downhill, but I think this team has been different from the previous teams that I’ve been on. We have a good group … We’re going to correct it tomorrow and just get back at it.”
Lambert agreed. “We’re already on to the next one … We’re putting this one behind us. It definitely hurts. It definitely hurts really bad, but we’re on to Georgia Tech.”
BIG BLOW: One of the best stories on this UVa team has been the emergence of Gooch, a highly respected fifth-year senior who had little impact on offense until this season.
Gooch, who’s from the Atlanta area, continued his fine play in the first quarter Saturday, catching a pass from Lambert for a 22-yard gain and then, moments later, returning the favor with his 23-yard completion to Lambert.
Late in the second quarter, however, Gooch was injured while trying to catch a pass from Lambert, and he had to be helped off the field. Gooch watched on crutches from the sideline in the second half.
“It’s unfortunate for a guy like Miles, whose heart and soul is poured into this team,” London said.
Lambert said: “Miles is a big loss, and we’re praying for him and really hope he gets back. We’ve got a lot of [other] big receivers also, but he filled his role really well. We really want Miles back.”
Gooch is 2 for 2 passing this season, for 51 yards, with a completion to each of his roommates, Lambert and tight end Zachary Swanson. Gooch has caught 24 passes for 371 yards and one TD.
UP NEXT: At 3:30 p.m. Saturday, in a game ESPNU will televise, Virginia (4-4, 2-2) meets Coastal Division rival Georgia Tech (6-2, 3-2) at Bobby Dodd Stadium. The `Hoos haven’t defeated the Yellow Jackets in Atlanta since 2008.
Georgia Tech romped 56-28 at Pittsburgh on Saturday.