Nov. 29, 2014
By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The caravan of buses pulled up to the McCue Center around 3:45 a.m. Saturday, and UVa football players and coaches disembarked. They trudged into the predawn stillness, an emotionally draining season officially over.
Eventually, when the Wahoos reflect on their play this fall, they’ll see marked improvement from 2013 in most areas. But it will take time for the sting of Virginia’s season-ending loss to fade.
“It’s real tough,” tailback Kevin Parks said late Friday night at Virginia Tech’s Lane Stadium. “My time is up. A lot of seniors’ time is up. It’s just really tough right now.”
In a game with significant implications — the winner would become bowl-eligible — the Cavaliers fell to the Hokies for the 11th straight season. The recent games in the series have been close, but that’s small consolation to UVa, which surrendered a late touchdown Friday night and lost 24-20 in Blacksburg.
“They made plays when they had to,” Virginia head coach Mike London said, “and we didn’t.”
In 2013, the Cavaliers finished 2-10 overall and 0-8 in ACC play. They improved to 5-7 and 3-5 this season, their fifth under London, and were competitive in every game except one: a 35-10 loss at Georgia Tech. But they have not advanced to a bowl since 2011, and with so much to play for Friday night the `Hoos stumbled in a stadium where they haven’t won since 1998.
Of the seven losses this season, junior wide receiver Canaan Severin said, the last was the most painful.
“It’s Tech,” he said. “Virginia Tech. We needed this one.”
With 2:55 remaining, it looked as if UVa might reclaim the Commonwealth Cup. An 89-yard drive that began with 6:50 left ended with a 20-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Greyson Lambert to tight end Zachary Swanson, and Ian Frye’s extra point pushed the Cavaliers’ lead to 20-17.
“Right before that drive, the offense was waiting to go in,” Swanson told reporters, “and I said, `This is it. We’re going to drive down, we’re going to score, we’re going to go ahead, and our defense is going to get a three-and-out, and we’re going to win.’ ”
The offense, which the Hokies’ swarming defense had stymied for the first 50 minutes, did its part, and Virginia had every reason to believe its defense would deliver, too. But Tech (6-6, 3-5) needed only 67 seconds to drive 75 yards for the winning TD, a 9-yard strike from quarterback Michael Brewer to tight end Bucky Hodges.
“It was definitely shocking,” sophomore linebacker Max Valles said. “It felt like the way we’d been playing all day, we could have just gone out there and gotten a stop, so that was very disappointing for the defense.”
After Swanson scored the go-ahead touchdown, Dylan Sims’ kickoff went through the end zone for a touchback, and Virginia’s defense took the field with 2:55 left.
“I felt great. I felt really confident that we would get the job done,” said junior tackle David Dean, whose 3-yard interception return for a touchdown in the second quarter had given UVa its first lead.
On first down, Brewer, under pressure, threw the ball out of bounds, but junior lineman Mike Moore shoved him after the play and was called for roughing the passer, a 15-yard penalty.
In a rivalry game, London said, “emotions are running high. You just gotta make sure you go to the edge, but you can’t go over the edge. You can play with an attitude and a chip, but you can’t do things that ultimately are going to cost your football team.”
Given a reprieve, Brewer stunned the `Hoos with a 50-yard completion to Hodges, a 6-6, 244-pound redshirt freshman who ran past safety Wilfred Wahee to haul in the pass. On first-and-goal from the 10, Virginia stopped fullback Sam Rogers after a 1-yard gain, but a pass-interference penalty on linebacker Henry Coley gave the Hokies another first down, and they didn’t squander the opportunity.
“They made plays when it counted,” said Parks, a fifth-year senior who’ll graduate as UVa’s fifth all-time leading rusher.
Virginia had 101 seconds to try to drive 77 yards for another touchdown, but the Hokies sacked Lambert for a 12-yard loss on first down, knocking him out of the game. In came another redshirt sophomore, Matt Johns, who teamed with Severin on a 29-yard completion to the Virginia 40 and, moments later, hit sophomore wideout Keeon Johnson for an 18-yard gain to the Tech 41.
A false-start penalty on left tackle Michael Mooney moved Virginia back to the 46, and then Tech sacked Johns for an 8-yard loss. After Johns passed to Johnson for another 18-yard gain, Virginia called its final timeout with 12 seconds left, facing fourth-and-5 from the Tech 36.
Alas, no miraculous finish followed for the `Hoos. Johns was sacked as he rolled to his right, desperately looking for an open receiver, and the Cavaliers had to witness yet another Tech celebration.
“Those seniors, guys who played their last [college] football game, you always hope that they get opportunities to go out on a positive [note], and unfortunately we did not,” London said.
For the second week in a row, UVa had a punt blocked and returned for a touchdown. This one pushed the Hokies’ lead to 10-3 in the second quarter.
“You’re disappointed in that, that it happened again,” London said. “They did a good job of scheming, doing some things that obviously we didn’t execute [against].”
Poor execution plagued the offense, too. In London’s tenure as head coach, the Cavaliers have scored only three offensive touchdowns against Tech, and until the final minutes they struggled to move the ball again Friday night.
In the final game of Steve Fairchild’s second season as their offensive coordinator, the `Hoos gained only 314 yards Friday night, and 54 came on a pass from Lambert to sophomore tailback Taquan Mizzell. Another 40 came on a run by Parks. The Hokies controlled the line of scrimmage, recording four sacks and limiting UVa to 38 yards rushing.
“They sold out to stop the run,” Parks said. “There were eight, nine [defenders] in the box at a time. Everybody’s up there, and you can’t block `em all.”
London said: “Some of our guys were overmatched there a little bit.”
Severin, who caught four passes for a game-high 82 yards, said he expected the offense to be more productive. “But we didn’t get it done.”
The Cavaliers converted only 4 of 18 third-down opportunities, and they came away with little to show from their trips into the red zone.
Late in the first quarter, Parks’ 40-yard gain gave Virginia a first down at the Tech 17, but the drive ended with a 40-yard field goal by Frye.
Mizzell’s 54-yard catch, the longest play of his college career, set up first-and-goal from the 6 midway through the second quarter. Again, the Cavaliers could not achieve the desired result: a touchdown. Three straight runs netted only 2 yards, and Virginia had to settle for a Frye field goal that cut the Hokies’ lead to 10-6.
Early in the third quarter, a 10-yard completion from Lambert to Mizzell gave Virginia a first down at the Tech 25. Parks ran for 2 yards and senior wideout Darius Jennings, on a jet sweep, for 7, and UVa, leading 13-10, appeared poised to strike another blow against Tech.
But the Hokies stopped Lambert for no gain on a third-down sneak, and then swarmed over Parks on another run up the middle to get the ball back on downs.
For three quarters, Virginia had little success in the passing game, either. Heading into the fourth, Lambert was 8 for 19 for 124 yards, with one interception.
The Hokies “did a good job of rushing, mixing up their rushes,” London said. “That’s what they do. [Lambert] had to get rid of the ball a lot earlier than what he wanted to. We gotta protect better in order for him to be productive and efficient in that situation.”
On the Cavaliers’ touchdown drive, however, the offense finally found its rhythm, as Lambert completed 7 of 9 passes for 87 yards.
“This team battles hard,” Severin said. “Hostile environment, rivalry week, that’s what you live for, man. That’s what summer workouts are about, winter workouts, spring ball, preseason, every game leading up to this one, moments like that, drives like that.”
Alas for the Cavaliers, it wasn’t enough. A week earlier, Virginia Tech’s offense had looked inept in a 6-3 loss at Wake Forest. Against UVa, the Hokies, led by J.C. Coleman, who rushed for 118 yards, totaled 433 yards.
“They did a couple things that I guess we weren’t really expecting,” Dean said. “They kind of caught us off-guard, and that kind of freed [Coleman] up a little bit.”
And now the `Hoos head into offseason with mixed emotions.
“We improved as a football team,” London said. “We played better. We did a lot of things that you can look at and you can build on, but ultimately when we don’t have a chance to go beyond the regular season and into other opportunities, it hurts. You want to win football games. That’s the whole objective.”
UVa athletics director Craig Littlepage announced Wednesday that London will return as head coach in 2015. Also back will be numerous starters on both offense and defense, as well as Frye, who made 22 of 27 field-goal attempts this season.
“We showed we can do a lot,” Severin said. “We showed that we can stop explosive offenses. We showed that we can make plays on big-time defenses. That boosts our confidence, and we’re back in the lab tomorrow.”
For UVa’s seniors, however, their college careers are over, and that stoked the emotions in the visitors’ locker room.
“It’s tough,” Severin said. “Henry Coley, Conner Davis, Anthony Harris, Da-Da Romero, Darius Jennings … Those guys, when I first got here, they laid the blueprint out for me. It’s kind of tough to see them have to finish on this note, but now we’ve just got to keep it going for them.”