By Jeff White (email@example.com)
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — The University of Virginia football team heads into its final bye week on a four-game losing streak after falling 34-20 to second-ranked Florida State.
For the Cavaliers, the defeat followed a familiar script. As in their other losses this season, turnovers played a pivotal role. UVa had three Saturday night at Doak Campbell Stadium.
“It’s very tough,” senior middle linebacker Henry Coley said. “Any losing streak, any loss is tough to take, tough to swallow, especially whenever you’re losing in the ways that we have lost this year, by beating ourselves a lot more than actually getting beat.”
The Wahoos, in their fifth season under head coach Mike London, can still become bowl-eligible for the first time since 2011, also the year they stunned the Seminoles in Tallahassee. To do so, however, UVa must win both of its remaining regular-season games: Nov. 22 against Miami (6-3 overall, 3-2 ACC) and Nov. 28 versus Virginia Tech (4-5, 1-4).
“It’s tough,” senior safety Anthony Harris said. “We wish we weren’t in this position. We realize we can play with some of the best teams around. It’s just coming down to playing consistent for the whole game.”
Had the `Hoos (4-6, 2-4) executed better Oct. 18 in the second half against Coastal Division leader Duke, had they not squandered a late lead against North Carolina a week later, they might already be assured a postseason appearance. At the very least, they would have more margin for error. But they dropped those games, and they can’t change that now.
“This is the position that we’re in, and you gotta welcome it and run to the roar, like Coach London always says,” sophomore quarterback Greyson Lambert said. “And so we’ve got two games left. We’ve got a bye week to get healthy and get our minds right for Miami, and that’s what we’re thinking about.”
Against an FSU team that came in on a 24-game winning streak, the Cavaliers could ill afford a bad start Saturday night, and coordinator Jon Tenuta’s defense forced a punt on the opening series. But on Virginia’s first play from scrimmage, 6-3, 294-pound Mario Edwards Jr. hammered tailback Kevin Parks, and the ball came loose.
The Seminoles (9-0, 6-0) recovered at the Virginia 23-yard line. Three plays later, they scored on a 2-yard run by tailback Karlos Williams.
The `Hoos never folded. Down 7-0, they came up with a takeaway of their own, a leaping interception by junior cornerback Maurice Canady of a pass by FSU star Jameis Winston, and then drove 53 yards for a touchdown. It came on a 16-yard pass from Lambert to redshirt freshman wide receiver Andre Levrone, who leaped to make an acrobatic catch near the right pylon at the front of the end zone.
“The ball was there, and I just went up and took it,” Levrone said.
Winston, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, threw an interception on FSU’s next drive too. This time Harris deflected a pass high into the air, and junior defensive end Eli Harold came down with the ball at the Seminoles’ 45.
Seven plays later, Lambert threw his second TD pass, a 15-yarder to senior wideout Darius Jennings. Ian Frye’s extra-point attempt clanged off the right upright, but Virginia led 13-7 with 24 seconds left in the first quarter.
A three-and-out followed for Florida State, but Cason Beatty’s 67-yard punt pushed the Cavaliers back to their 7, and in a matter of seconds, the momentum shifted, to the delight of the sellout crowd of 82,325.
On first down, Lambert made a regrettable decision and paid a steep price for his mistake. Under pressure, he threw a pass toward the left sideline, where linebacker Terrance Smith stepped in front of Parks and made the interception at the UVa 3.
“I should have gotten to my third and fourth reads on that one,” Lambert said. “I hung onto [Parks] too long, and the guy made a play.”
Williams ran for his second TD, and Roberto Aguayo’s PAT put the `Noles back on top, 14-13, with 14:26 left in the second quarter.
Six seconds later, FSU had another touchdown, on a 22-yard pass from Winston to wideout Rashad Greene, an All-America candidate who finished with a career-high 13 receptions for 136 yards.
This UVa turnover came on a play that the officials initially called an incompletion. After a video review, however, they ruled that Lambert’s swing pass to Taquan Mizzell, which the sophomore tailback dropped, had gone backwards, if only slightly.
“I thought it was a forward pass,” Lambert said, and so did the other Cavaliers.
Florida State scored another second-quarter touchdown, on a 4-yard scramble by Winston, and led 28-18 at the half.
Of the Seminoles’ four touchdowns, only one came on a drive longer than 23 yards – the last one. UVa’s three turnovers, all in the first half, led to FSU scoring drives of 23, 3 and 22 yards, respectively.
“It gets back to you beating yourselves, but that’s kind of been our Achilles’ heel,” Coley said. “We’ve beaten ourselves a lot of the games we’ve played. We just can’t allow that.”
For the season, Virginia has turned the ball over 22 times, the most of any team in the ACC. As disruptive as the Cavaliers have been when other teams have the ball, forcing 23 turnovers, that hasn’t made up for their mistakes.
Against FSU, Lambert completed 20 of 35 passes for 220 yards and a career-high three touchdowns. For all the positive plays he made, however, there also were a “lot of bad things,” Lambert said, “and the bad things are something we definitely need to correct. They seem to be something that kind of is recurring, and so this bye week, hopefully we’ll be able to correct some of those turnover problems. Me, myself, I gotta look at myself and get some of that stuff corrected.”
London said he never seriously considered pulling Lambert from the game.
“I wanted to try to send him a message as well: `Listen, you’re the quarterback. You’re not getting jerked because you throw an interception,’ ” London said. Sometimes you gotta put the stake in the ground, you gotta believe in an individual, and as the game went on in the second half, I thought he did a better job managing the team. So we were going to go with him.”
In the second half, UVa forced another turnover — a fumble caused by linebacker Max Valles and recovered by end Mike Moore — and held Winston and the `Noles to two field goals. FSU finished with 376 yards and averaged only 2.9 yards per carry.
“That’s pretty good defensively,” London said. “So there’s a lot of positive things you can look at it. Obviously you want to win the football game. You want to have a chance to experience something that was experienced [by the Cavaliers at FSU] in 2011, but you gotta play. You can’t have those turnovers that we had in the first half.”
Lambert’s third TD pass, a 23-yarder to junior wide Canaan Severin, came with 8:14 left in the third period, and Frye’s extra point made it 28-20. The touchdown was Virginia’s first in the second half since Sept. 27.
The Seminoles stretched their lead to 31-20 and then to 34-20, but in the fourth quarter UVa had an opportunity to make it a one-touchdown game.
A 26-yard completion from Lambert to one of his roommates, senior tight end Zachary Swanson, gave the Cavaliers a first down at the FSU 15, and senior tailback Khalek Shepherd followed with a 7-yard run. From there, however, the `Hoos went backwards.
Shepherd lost 2 yards on a second-down run, and then backup quarterback David Watford, in for Lambert, lost 2 more yards on a wildcat run that fooled no one. Finally, on fourth-and-7 from the 12, Lambert threw to Jennings on a flanker screen that, read perfectly by the `Noles, resulted in a 1-yard loss.
`Defensively, they executed, and we didn’t execute to get those yards,” London said. “You go back and look at the different aspects of the game, and that was one that they outplayed us. In that particular situation we needed to get the first. We didn’t, and they did and got the ball back.”
That was the final possession for UVa, as FSU ran out the last 5:47. The teams won’t meet again in the regular season until 2019, when the `Noles visit Charlottesville.
“Pretty frustrating,” Severin said of the final drive. “We gotta score points. We gotta finish.”
Against a defense stocked with future NFL players, Virginia had to field a makeshift offensive line. Starters Ryan Doull (guard) and Michael Mooney (tackle) stayed in Charlottesville because of medical issues, and an injury limited left tackle Sadiq Olanrewaju’s availability during the game.
In Olanrewaju’s place, redshirt freshman Jack English, a converted tight end, played most series at left tackle. Not surprisingly, English struggled at times, and so did the line. Through its first nine games, Virginia had allowed only eight sacks. The `Noles sacked Lambert four times Saturday night.
Even so, Severin said, the “fact that we have guys hurt and our line plays like that [is impressive]. In my eyes they played pretty well, going against one of the best D-lines in the nation.”
Lambert said: “They played their hearts out, and I’m really proud of them. They actually played pretty well for the most part, and I couldn’t be happier or prouder, and I wouldn’t trade any of them for the world.”
On defense, UVa lost one of its starting cornerbacks, senior Brandon Phelps, to a leg injury in the first quarter. His replacement, Tim Harris, had played little since Virginia’s Sept. 20 visit to BYU, but he battled gamely Saturday night.
London said he told his players after the game Saturday night he was proud of their effort.
“Now, could you go back and look at some things that obviously were detrimental to having any success?” he said. “Yes, you can. But you go back and look at things that were successful [too].”
After some time to regroup, the Cavaliers will resume their quest for bowl-eligibility Nov. 22.
“It’s always a good time for a bye week,” Coley said. “To get guys back, get guys healthy, and let guys get that mental rest that they need a little bit.”
London said: “I believe in these players … Now it’s time to roll the sleeves up and go back to work again and have an opportunity to finish this thing out in a positive manner.”
UP NEXT: The Cavaliers don’t play again until Nov. 22. Their final two regular-season games are against Coastal Division rivals: Miami, on Nov. 22 at Scott Stadium, and Virginia Tech, on Nov. 28 at Lane Stadium.
Under London, the `Hoos are 3-1 against the Hurricanes. His record against the Hokies is 0-4. UVa hasn’t defeated Virginia Tech since 2003. London was an assistant coach on that Virginia team.