Sept. 13, 2015

By Jeff White (

CHARLOTTESVILLE — For the University of Virginia football team, preparation for William & Mary was always going to begin in earnest Sunday. But the Cavaliers would be embarking on that project in immeasurably better spirits had the final minute of their home opener unfolded differently.

“It’s tough,” senior wide receiver Canaan Severin said after Virginia surrendered a touchdown with 12 seconds left Saturday and lost 34-27 to No. 9 Notre Dame at Scott Stadium.

“We had `em,” sophomore linebacker Micah Kiser said. “We had them right where we wanted them, and we just didn’t finish.”

After rallying for two fourth-quarter TDs — the second of which gave them a 27-26 lead with 1:54 left — the Wahoos stood on the brink of what would have been the signature victory of Mike London’s tenure as their head coach.

As was often the case last season, when five of their seven losses were by eight points or fewer, Virginia stumbled late. The Fighting Irish floored the `Hoos with a stunning counterpunch, a 39-yard TD pass from backup quarterback Deshone Kizer to star wide receiver Will Fuller.

“I was just speechless,” UVa quarterback Matt Johns said later of his emotions on the sideline.

Kiser passed to Torii Hunter Jr. for the two-point conversation, and Notre Dame’s escape act was complete. The Irish, who opened with a 38-3 romp over Texas, improved to 2-0 but lost their starting quarterback, Malik Zaire, to a season-ending ankle injury late in the third quarter.

The `Hoos are 0-2 after losses to No. 13 UCLA and Notre Dame. No team in the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision has played a tougher schedule.

“It’s hard,” Johns said, “but you gotta stay positive. I’m just so proud of this team. Our defense had a lot of big stops today. [Notre Dame] just made a play at the end.”

In the locker room afterward, London said, he reminded his team that the `Hoos had “played two really good football teams. The goal was to get better going from the first game to the second game. I believe we did that, but we got a long ways to go to continue to get better overall.”

In the second of three straight home games for London’s team, Virginia will host William & Mary (1-0) at 3:30 p.m. Saturday. The Tribe, perennially one of the better teams in the NCAA’s Football Championship Subdivision, was off this weekend after opening Sept. 5 with a win over Lafayette.

The `Hoos “need to flip the switch quick,” said senior offensive guard Ross Burbank, one of the team’s captains.

“We just gotta move forward from it,” sophomore safety Quin Blanding said. “That’s the bottom line. We can’t dwell on it. It’s over and done with. It’s the past, and now we’ve just gotta move forward.”

Virginia’s offense will enter the William & Mary game with confidence after totaling 416 yards against a heralded Notre Dame defense, a marked improvement from the opener against UCLA at the Rose Bowl.

In the fourth quarter, the Cavaliers piled up 152 yards Saturday.

“Everything was rolling in our favor at that point,” Burbank said. “We were driving down the field. Even with a couple penalties and a couple missed plays, we were really able to get into our rhythm, which we couldn’t find last week.”

Severin said: “That just goes to show what we’re capable of doing.”

Johns, in perhaps his best performance as a Cavalier, completed 26 of 38 passes for 289 yards and two touchdowns. He scrambled for another TD on a 4-yard run on which he took a hard hit in the end zone.

“Matt continues to get better,” London said. “He’s got some guts.”

So does Severin, for whom the Irish had no answers Saturday. He may not have the national reputation of Fuller — yet — but Severin finished with 11 receptions for 153 yards, both career highs.

“When a catch was needed,” London said, “he was the guy that was in the vicinity and making it happen.”

Severin said: “I spent a lot of time watching [film of Notre Dame]. A lot of time. A lot. I felt like I was ready to make plays against them. I felt like I knew their tendencies. I just wish we’d come out with a W.”

Defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta used more players than he had against UCLA — redshirt freshman end Chris Peace and senior tackle Andre Miles-Redmond made their first career starts Saturday — with mixed results.

Notre Dame tailback C.J. Prosise, a Woodberry Forest School graduate from Petersburg, rushed 17 times for 155 yards and one TD. Zaire ran for 87 yards and midway through the third quarter threw a perfect deep ball to Fuller for a 59-yard touchdown. But the Irish were 0 for 10 on third down against UVa, which sacked Zaire twice.

“Defensively, it was a little bit of a bend-but-don’t-break mentality,” London said.

Alas for the `Hoos, they finally broke on the Irish’s last possession.

After Virginia’s final touchdown drive, whose highlights include a 4-yard completion from Johns to Severin on fourth-and-3 and a 34-yard completion from Johns to sophomore wideout Ryan Santoro, Notre Dame began its last possession at its 20-yard line.

The clock showed 1:48 remaining. One stop, and Virginia would walk away victorious. It nearly happened. On fourth-and-2 from the Notre Dame 28, however, the 6-4, 230-pound Kizer bulled forward for a 3-yard gain. The next two plays produced completions of 12 and 17 yards, and suddenly the Irish were in UVa territory.

Then came the coup de grace: the play on which UVa defenders Kiser and Mike Moore came agonizingly close to hitting Kizer before he could unleash the long pass to Fuller.

“The running back came up and he got in the way, just got me right at the last second,” said Moore, who rotated between end and outside linebacker Saturday. “I was right there, but it was just too late.”

Along the left sideline, Fuller sprinted past Virginia’s best cornerback, senior Maurice Canady, and hauled in a perfect pass from Kizer, triggering jubilation among the many green-clad fans in the near-capacity crowd of 58,200.

“It’s a crazy feeling,” said Fuller, who finished with five catches for 124 yards and two TDs. “Time just freezes when the ball is in the air.”

Notre Dame moves on to face another ACC team, No. 15 Georgia Tech (2-0), next weekend in South Bend, Ind. The Cavaliers will focus on earning their first win of the season.

“I’m proud of this team and I’m proud of the effort that was displayed,” London said. “Obviously we could have done some things to help ourselves, but that’s a gutsy group of guys in there that went toe to toe for a while and had a chance to win the game.”

RAZZLE DAZZLE: Each team scored on a trick play Saturday. Notre Dame’s first drive ended with a fake field goal on which Kizer, the holder, took the snap and then flipped the ball forward to tight end Durham Smythe, who ran through the unsuspecting Virginia defense for a 7-yard touchdown.

UVa scored its first touchdown on a 2-yard pass from Johns to redshirt freshman tight end Evan Butts. Nothing tricky about that. But the Cavaliers’ second TD left the fans buzzing.

On first-and-10 from the Notre Dame 42, Reid lined up in the wildcat formation and took a shotgun snap from center Jackson Matteo. Instead of running, though, Reid handed the ball to tailback Taquan Mizzell, coming around on a jet sweep, who then flipped it to Johns, who had split out to the right.

Johns pulled up and lofted a long pass to junior wideout Keeon Johnson, open behind the Notre Dame secondary. Johnson caught the ball at the 2 and sprinted into the end zone for his first TD since the 2013 season.

“The ball was up there so long,” Johnson said. “I was just thinking in my head, `Wow, any time now. Just come down.’ But I’m glad everything worked out.”

Offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild kept the Irish defense off-balance for much of the game with his play-calling, which had been more conservative against UCLA.

“We wanted to kind of open it up a little bit,” London said.

NEW WEAPON: Olamide Zaccheaus, a 5-8, 190-pound freshman who played sparingly against UCLA, had an impact Saturday that belied his size. Zaccheaus rushed two times for 39 yards, with 35 coming on a jet sweep, and caught two passes for 25 yards.

“Olamide was a guy that we put some plays in for,” London said. “He’s got some of that breakaway speed. We’re going to continue to use him.”

Johns said: “I was so proud of O today. O played unbelievable. It was kind of his coming-out party, a little [glimpse] of what his potential can be.”

A graduate of St. Joseph’s Prep in Philadelphia, Zaccheaus changed positions early in training camp last month when injuries left the Cavaliers short-handed at receiver.

“When they told me I was switching, I was kind of skeptical at first, because I came here as a running back,” Zaccheaus said Saturday. “But [wideouts coach Marques Hagans] and all the older receivers helped me out a lot and made the transition easy for me.”

IMPROBABLE HERO: With sophomore Andre Levrone unavailable because of an injury he suffered against UCLA, the Cavaliers were thin at wideout Saturday, and that meant more playing time for Santoro, a 6-2, 215-pound walk-on who lives with Johns, Severin and Matteo.

Santoro, a graduate of Oakton High, made the most of his opportunity. His 34-yard reception moved the ball to the Notre Dame 1, from which Reid ran over on the next play to put UVa up 27-26.

“The progression was to [Mizzell] and then to Canaan,” Johns said. “I knew [the Irish] were going to be in Cover Two, and I knew Ryan Santoro was going to be open. I said, `Ryan, if they’re in Cover Two, you’re getting the ball.’ ”

Santoro said: “I appreciate [Johns] for giving me that look. We’re roommates, we have a lot of trust in each other, and for him to trust me in that situation, that’s something special.”

In his appearance Thursday on the Wahoo Central Podcast, Severin spoke highly of Santoro, who backed up that praise Saturday.

“I told you,” Severin said. “That’s not a coincidence. My dad always tell me, there’s not many things in life that are coincidences. That was methodical and intentional. That was meant to be. You work hard, and good things happen to you.”

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