By Jeff White (email@example.com)
ATLANTA — After three straight defeats, the latest a 25-point loss to Georgia Tech at Bobby Dodd Stadium, the UVa football team desperately needs relief. But Virginia’s quest for a fifth victory gets no easier.
The Cavaliers are on the road again next weekend, this time in Tallahassee, Fla., where defending national champion Florida State awaits them.
“If that’s not a challenge right there, then I don’t know what is in college football,” wide receiver Canaan Severin said Saturday night after UVa’s 35-10 loss to Georgia Tech.
The second-ranked Seminoles, 8-0 overall, are 5-0 in ACC play and lead the Atlantic Division. The Yellow Jackets’ credentials aren’t as impressive, but they overwhelmed the Wahoos (4-5, 2-3) from the start Saturday in their Coastal Division clash.
Georgia Tech (7-2, 4-2) capped its first three possession with touchdowns — each coming on a play of 11 yards or longer — and led 21-7 seven seconds into the second quarter.
UVa’s defense steadied itself after that, but its offense did little damage against a heretofore suspect defense. The Jackets came in ranked 12th among ACC teams in rushing defense (189.1 yards per game), but the Cavaliers ran the ball only 16 times Saturday, for 22 yards.
Fifth-year senior Kevin Parks, who had run 70 times for 355 yards and two TDs in Virginia’s previous three games, finished with 13 yards on five carries Saturday.
“When you’re down 14-0 early like that, you gotta find plays to move the ball and be productive,” head coach Mike London said of the pass-heavy play-calling.
The Cavaliers had an opportunity to make it a one-touchdown game late in the first half, but sophomore wide receiver Keeon Johnson, open in the end zone, stumbled as the ball neared him and failed to catch sophomore quarterback Greyson Lambert’s third-and-goal pass from the 4.
Junior Ian Frye came on for a 22-yard field goal with 4:18 left, and that was it for UVa’s scoring.
“It’s frustrating,” London said of Johnson’s drop. “The guy feels bad about it, but again, you gotta have those plays, you gotta make those plays if you’re going to keep yourself in the football game.”
In its past four games, UVa has scored six second-half points, on a pair of Frye field goals: the first against Duke on Oct. 18 and the second against North Carolina a week later.
“I don’t know what to say,” Severin told a reporter when asked about the offense’s second-half woes.
Lambert said: “It’s the same answer as last week — we just gotta execute.”
Looking to win in Atlanta for the first time since 2008, the Cavaliers passed 41 times on a cold, blustery day, and the targets of those throws had at least a half-dozen drops.
Lambert finished 19 of 32 for 230 yards and one touchdown, with two interceptions, the first on a pass that was tipped. Matt Johns, who replaced Lambert early in the fourth quarter, completed 4 of 9 attempts for 32 yards.
On his final play Saturday, on fourth-and-8 from the Georgia Tech 10-yard line, Lambert threw into the end zone, where safety Jamal Golden wrestled the ball away from Severin for the interception.
Severin led the `Hoos with five receptions for 64 yards Saturday, but that was a play he wanted back.
“My job is to make the quarterback look good,” he said. “That’s my job, so I gotta come up with that. That’s not Greyson’s fault. That’s my fault.”
Georgia Tech’s offense, led by quarterback Justin Thomas, running back Synjyn Davis and wideout DeAndre Smelter, could not have been much sharper in the first quarter. The Cavaliers, meanwhile, found themselves facing second-and-20 from their 11 moments into the game after a poor shotgun snap by junior center Ross Burbank.
“It’s not an ideal start, and that’s not how we drew it up at all, but you gotta play the game and bounce back,” Lambert said.
Virginia went three-and-out on that possession, and its second series was no better. The `Hoos found themselves facing second-and-20 again, this time from their 15, after a holding call on left tackle Eric Smith. Another punt from Alec Vozenilek followed, and Georgia Tech covered 78 yards in nine plays to make it 14-0.
“It’s tough when you’re down against a team like that, because they run that triple-option,” Severin said. “They’re taking so much time off the clock, and they’ve mastered it. I’d be lying if I said they haven’t mastered it. We just gotta come out firing from the beginning, like we did last week against North Carolina.”
The Cavaliers’ only touchdown came on their third possession, which ended with a 13-yard pass from Lambert to senior tight end Zachary Swanson.
Momentum quickly shifted back to the Jackets. On first down from Georgia Tech’s 29, with defensive end Mike Moore in his face, Thomas completed a 65-yard pass to Smelter, who beat cornerback Maurice Canady on the route.
Three plays later, Thomas lofted a pass to 6-5, 241-pound receiver Darren Waller, who outjumped Canady in the end zone for the Jackets’ third touchdown.
“Maurice is arguably our best corner, and they got the best of him today,” London said.
Georgia Tech came in ranked third nationally in rushing offense (326.1 yards). With 268 yards, the Yellow Jackets didn’t hit their average Saturday, but Davis (24 carries for 147 yards and one TD) became the first player to rush for more than 100 yards against UVa this season.
“That’s a good football team,” London said of the Jackets, who have won five of the past six games in the series. “They’re a very good football team, and they have their formula for success. We have to do better.”
On defense, Virginia had one takeaway Saturday, a second-quarter interception by Harris. Safety Quin Blanding, in his first game against Georgia Tech’s vaunted option attack, led the `Hoos with 13 tackles.
“It was quite challenging,” said Blanding, a true freshman from Virginia Beach. “I’m not so used to that speed of the triple-option coming that fast. The first half I was kind of adjusting to it. The second half I came out knowing what they like to run and just coming out and playing the defense.”
Harris finished with 10 tackles, and sophomore linebacker Max Valles had nine, including two for loss. Moore, a junior, had a game-high three tackles for loss.
The Jackets finished with 409 yards, about 70 fewer than their average coming in, but “we definitely let them have too many explosive plays, and that hurt us in the end,” UVa defensive tackle David Dean said.
Florida State is even more explosive. To have a chance to beat FSU, the Cavaliers know, they can’t afford those defensive lapses, and they must turn yards into points on offense.
“We’ve got competitors on this team,” Severin said. “We’ve got big-time players that can make big-time plays. We just gotta go out there and do it and compete against [FSU].”
The challenge facing UVa is huge, Dean acknowledged, “but we’re not going to back down from it. We’re going to be ready and step up to the plate and give them everything we’ve got and try to get the W.”
Two of Virginia’s final three regular-season games are on the road, starting Saturday at 6:30 p.m. in Tallahassee.
ESPN will televise the game, the Cavaliers’ first at Doak Campbell Stadium since 2011, when they upset the `Noles 14-13.
“It doesn’t get any easier for us,” London said Saturday night in Atlanta. “We gotta leave this place understanding that when you get down in the red zone, you gotta score touchdowns, and you gotta minimize mistakes defensively as far as assignments.”
FSU is coming off a Thursday night victory over ACC newcomer Louisville. After falling behind 21-0, the Seminoles stormed back to win 42-31 at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium in Louisville.