Stage Set for Showdown in Blacksburg
Nov. 23, 2014
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The regular-season finale was always going to be of enormous consequence for the University of Virginia football team, which has lost 10 straight games to arch-rival Virginia Tech. But the Cavaliers, thanks to a magnificent performance in their final game at Scott Stadium, will be playing for more than pride next weekend.
Some six hours after Virginia Tech suffered a stunning loss to Wake Forest in Winston-Salem, UVa pummeled ACC rival Miami 30-13 on Senior Night at Scott Stadium.
“It was a do-or-die situation, and we came to play,” said junior wide receiver Canaan Severin, one of the Wahoos’ many heroes Saturday night.
The victory, the Cavaliers’ first since Oct. 4, ended their four-game losing streak, improved head coach Mike London’s record versus Miami to 4-1, and raised the stakes for their impending visit to Lane Stadium.
At 8 p.m. Friday, in a Coastal Division game on ESPN, Virginia (5-6, 3-4) meets Virginia Tech (5-6, 2-5) in Blacksburg. The winner becomes bowl-eligible. The loser’s season ends.
“That’s the game of the year pretty much now,” said UVa linebacker Max Valles, who had a career-high three sacks against Miami (6-5, 3-4).
Virginia hasn’t advanced to a bowl since 2011, and a loss to the Hurricanes would have extended that drought. The `Hoos fell behind early Saturday night, after Miami quarterback Brad Kaaya teamed with wide receiver Phillip Dorsett on a 47-yard touchdown pass, but didn’t panic.
UVa answered with 30 consecutive points, a run the `Canes did not stop until the 1:24 mark of the fourth quarter, when Joseph Rodgers returned a blocked punt for a TD in a game whose outcome had been settled.
“We really wanted this for our seniors, to send them out on the right note,” said Virginia quarterback Greyson Lambert, a redshirt sophomore, “and we were able to do that, so it’s definitely a great feeling.”
Before the game, nearly three dozen fourth- and fifth-year players were recognized in a Senior Night ceremony. They included tailback Kevin Parks, who entered his final home game No. 6 in career rushing at Virginia.
With 9:16 left in the first quarter, however, a collision left Parks dazed, and UVa’s medical staff did not allow him to return to the game. In Parks’ absence, his roommate and fellow fifth-year senior Khalek Shepherd delivered a tour de force.
“Wasn’t it outstanding?” London said of Shepherd’s performance.
Shepherd rushed 22 times for 95 yards — both career highs — and his five receptions were a career best, too. Shepherd also had a 17-yard punt return in the fourth quarter to set up junior Ian Frye’s third field goal, a 22-yarder that made it 23-7.
After Parks returned to the sideline, Shepherd said, he was relieved to learn his close friend was not seriously injured. Then he went to work.
“I already knew what he wanted me to do, and that’s ball out, so that’s what I had to do,” said Shepherd, whose scored Virginia’s first and final TD, on a 4-yard run, with 8:30 left in the fourth quarter.
“I know [Parks] had confidence in me, and I know [offensive coordinator Steve] Fairchild had confidence in me, so I just had to show up and perform, and that’s what I’ve been working for since I’ve been here.”
The game was probably his best as a Cavalier, Shepherd acknowledged, “but I’m not even looking at my performance. I’m looking at the performance as a whole. The whole team — offense, defense, special teams — we came together today.
“We have that common goal we’re trying to reach. Our back is against the wall, and we just want to keep fighting and keep fighting. We told ourselves there’s no letup today and we’re going to keep fighting to the end. Today was our day, and we played a good game.”
The Cavaliers’ defense led the way, sacking Kayaa four times and holding tailback Duke Johnson, an All-America candidate, to a season-low 88 yards on 15 carries. Senior safety Anthony Harris finished with a team-high 10 tackles, and Valles and true freshman safety Quin Blanding had seven apiece.
Sophomore safety Wilfred Wahee, filling in for the injured Brandon Phelps in Virginia’s nickel package, made a career-high six stops, and lineman Kwontie Moore, who like Wahee graduated from Norfolk Christian High School, had a sack that resulted in an 18-yard loss.
“Lots of hats to the ball,” London said.
Junior Maurice Canady forced a fumble that another cornerback from Varina High School, sophomore Tim Harris, recovered in the first quarter. Blanding later intercepted a pass by Kayaa, who finished 20-for-33 for 263 yards and one TD.
“It’s definitely good to get back to creating turnovers,” Valles said. “That was us all season up to the [Oct. 4] Pittsburgh game. We got back to that.”
London said: “That’s the type of defense we were playing early on in the season that got us that 4-2 mark. It’s the type of defense we need to play in order to finish out this regular season.”
The offense shined, too, on Saturday night. Lambert, who wasn’t sacked, completed 17 of 25 passes for 146 yards and one touchdown, and his one mistake, a third-quarter interception, did not lead to any Miami points.
Late in the first half, the Cavaliers went ahead to stay on as spectacular a play as UVa fans have seen in many years. On third-and-10 from Miami’s 23-yard line, Lambert passed to Severin, who was running a seam route.
“That’s where I was supposed to throw the football, but I led him too much,” Lambert said.
Not to worry. With a safety closing on him, the 6-2, 210-pound Severin reached out, snared the ball with his right hand and tumbled into the end zone.
“He stuck that big paw out there, and I’ve seen him do that in practice a few times,” Lambert said, “and to finally be able to see that in the game [was great].”
Severin said: “I was surprised I even caught it, to be honest. Greyson put me in a good spot to make a catch, and I made it.”
Asked what he told Severin after the play, Lambert smiled. “Honestly, I just ran over there and kind of brushed his shoulders off a little bit,” Lambert said. “I couldn’t really say anything to him. I really didn’t have any words. It was crazy.”
The Cavaliers never allowed the `Canes to regain the momentum. Late in the first half, with the score 10-7, UVa senior Daquan Romero sliced through the line and blocked a field-goal attempt by Miami. Canaday scooped up the ball and returned it 65 yards to the 3.
“That’s my first blocked kick of my entire football career,” said Romero, a starting linebacker who also had five tackles Saturday night. “It felt good.”
The `Hoos had to settle for a Frye field goal, this one a 17-yarder, but they continued to apply pressure in the second half, and eventually the `Canes broke. In a game in which the Cavaliers played without two key offensive linemen (Ryan Doull and Sadiq Olanrewaju), they still totaled 341 yards, including 195 on the ground.
“It was a great team effort,” senior wide receiver Darius Jennings said. “We had guys step up. We were pounding the ball, we were controlling the line of scrimmage. It was just a good feeling to kind of dominate the way we did.”
London said: “We scored, converted, guys made some catches, made some tough runs, and the defense played well. That’s the way we have to be as a football team.”
Jennings, who usually wears jersey No. 6, donned No. 17 for the home finale in honor of another wideout Miles Gooch, a well-respected senior who suffered a season-ending knee injury Oct. 25 against North Carolina.
“Just to know the kind of player and kind of person that Gooch is, and to know that he would do anything to be on the field, I thought it was only fitting that his jersey got to be in Scott Stadium one last time,” Jennings said.
Jennings honored Gooch with his play, too, catching two passes for 32 yards and, on jet sweeps, rushing six times for 40 yards and a touchdown.
“That’s the type of team we have and the type of young men that are in this program,” London said.
On the night before the game, Anthony Harris, one of the Cavaliers’ captains, had delivered “a passionate speech” to his teammates, Romero said.
Asked about his Friday night remarks, Harris said, “I just kind of shared what I felt in my heart with the team, just how it’s been a long journey from being a little first-year to now, trying to lead the group, and I just thought it was important for us to go out there, play with our heart, have fun and just enjoy the moment of being on the field.
“I felt like guys definitely did that, came out, didn’t really worry about the outcome of the game, but just played the situation, whether it was a drive at a time or a possession at a time.”
The four-game losing streak was difficult, London said, but “you gotta shake that off, and you gotta just move on to the next task. The next task was Miami. The next one for us is Virginia Tech. We don’t have time to sit back and [dwell on] the things that didn’t happen and why they didn’t happen.”
London’s voice almost failed him when he addressed his team in the locker room afterward, but, hoarse or not, he made his point to the jubilant players gathered around him.
“That was a hell of an effort,” London said, “and that’s the type of team we are.”
And now comes the long-awaited date with the Hokies.
“It’s definitely special, playing Virginia Tech for a win-or-go-home type of deal,” Romero said.
MEDICAL UPDATE: Late in the third quarter, the game was stopped for several minutes after Miami’s Herb Waters was injured during a kickoff return. Waters was immobilized and then placed on a backboard before being carted off the field.
“It was really tough seeing something like that happen to one of your teammates and close friends,” Dorsett said.
A few minutes before midnight, Miami announced that Waters had been released from the hospital and cleared to travel home with his team.