By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — At game’s end Saturday night, fireworks exploded above the scoreboard at the north end of Scott Stadium. When the UVa football team gathered in the home locker room a few minutes later, however, the players were quiet, their mood more somber than celebratory.
Head coach Mike London, taking note of the scene, reminded his team that many months had passed since the Cavaliers had last walked off the field victorious. There was no need, he told his players, to apologize for Virginia’s 35-29 victory over William & Mary.
“We just won a football game,” London said. “That’s something to be proud about.”
At his postgame press conference, though, London acknowledged that the Wahoos’ performance had been far from stellar.
“It wasn’t pretty,” London said. “There were some good things about it, and obviously there were things that weren’t so good.”
UVa led 35-20 after senior Maurice Canady returned a punt 74 yards for a touchdown with 10:00 remaining. But the Wahoos were in danger of a stunning defeat when W&M, trailing 35-29, took over at its 46-yard line with 3:01 to play. Only when the Tribe (1-1) turned the ball over on downs with 1:27 left could the Cavaliers (1-2) exhale.
“I don’t think anyone thought [the game would come down to a final drive], but it did,” UVa quarterback Matt Johns said. “It’s football. Crazy things happen, and we’re happy to walk away with a win.”
For the second straight Saturday, Virginia’s defense found itself on the field late in the game in a make-or-break situation at Scott Stadium. Last weekend, against No. 8 Notre Dame, the defense broke, giving up a 39-yard TD pass with 12 seconds left.
Against William & Mary (1-1), the Cavaliers’ defense held. With about two minutes left, the Tribe picked up a first down at the Virginia 33-yard line. But sophomore linebacker Micah Kiser sacked W&M quarterback Steve Cluley for an 8-yard loss on the next play.
Cluley completed an 11-yard pass to DeVonte Dedmon on second down. Cluley’s next two throws, however, were well-defended and fell incomplete, and the `Hoos had their first victory since Nov. 22, 2014, when they defeated ACC rival Miami at Scott Stadium. The Cavaliers came away with mixed emotions Saturday.
“Obviously we wanted to play better, but a win’s a win,” Kiser said. “You can’t get mad at a win.”
The three teams Virginia has faced this season — No. 10 UCLA, Notre Dame and William & Mary — have a combined record of 7-1, and the first two are title contenders in the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision.
Next comes another formidable opponent for UVa. Boise State (2-1), which entered the season ranked No. 23 by The Associated Press, visits Scott Stadium on Friday for an 8 p.m. game that ESPN will televise.
“We’re real excited for that,” senior wide receiver Canaan Severin said. “Everyone needs to be excited. Friday night lights … We can’t wait.”
If the Cavaliers’ performance against Boise State is as uneven as it was against William & Mary, they’re not likely to win, Johns said, “but we’re going to get in the film room and correct the mistakes and come out ready to play.”
Highlights abounded when Virginia had the ball, at least until late in the game. Johns completed 17 of 23 passes for 263 yards and a career-high three TDs. Junior tailback Taquan Mizzell turned a screen pass into an 80-yard touchdown and also had a 36-yard run.
Severin caught three passes for 53 yards, including a one-handed grab in the end zone for a 26-yard TD, and redshirt freshman tailback Jordan Ellis, in his first carry as a Cavalier, broke several tackles en route to a 39-yard TD.
On defense, however, Virginia’s struggles continued. The `Hoos have not forced a turnover this season, and they’ve allowed an average of 32.3 points per game. W&M totaled 371 yards Saturday — only two fewer than UVa — and finished with 21 first downs and a significant edge in time of possession.
“They did a great job executing,” said London, a former W&M assistant coach. “In the first half, we had difficulty trying to stop them.”
The Tribe was coming off a bye week, and “that really helped them,” Canady said. “I know they had a whole lot of new plays that we hadn’t seen on film, and they were able to capitalize on them.”
Overall, William & Mary ran 76 plays, to 52 for Virginia.
“It was pretty tiring [for the defense],” Kiser said, “but if we did what we needed to do on first and second down, it wouldn’t have been that tiring. We’ll just try to get better.”
W&M scored a touchdown on each of its first two drives, on pass plays of 41 and 37 yards, respectively. Virginia did not take the lead until the 1:46 mark of the first half. Poor tackling plagued UVa for much of the game.
“Not our best effort, I guess, especially in the first half,” Kiser said, “but we played hard and played tough and got a win.”
A goal-line stand by the Cavaliers early in the fourth quarter — a jarring hit by junior safety Kelvin Rainey caused a fourth-down incompletion — kept the score at 35-20. But after Virginia went backwards on its ensuing drive, W&M blocked Nicholas Conte’s punt out of the end zone for a safety that made it 35-22 with 8:57 left.
The ball went back to the Tribe, which drove 59 yards for a touchdown, the final four coming on a fourth-and-goal pass from Cluley to Dedmon. Another three-and-out followed for the `Hoos, and suddenly W&M was in position to win.
“It was unfortunate that we put our defense in that situation,” said senior offensive guard Ross Burbank, one of UVa’s captains. “We wanted to go run the clock out and just end the game on our terms. But it was great that they rallied at the end and got the stop for us.”
Against Notre Dame, Canady, Virginia’s top cornerback, was beaten on the game’s final touchdown.
“It was really dreadful, especially for me,” Canady said Saturday night when asked about the 34-27 loss to the Fighting Irish. “You have a really good game, and then one play really destroys you.
“I’m glad it actually came down to the wire this week.”
Inconsistency marked Virginia’s play on special teams. W&M recovered an onside kick to start the second half, Ian Frye missed a 41-yard field-goal attempt that would have pushed UVa’s lead to 18 points late in the third quarter, and Conte’s first punt was blocked when his protection collapsed. There were, however, bright spots for the Cavaliers, most notably the work of Canady and true freshman Olamide Zaccheaus on punt returns.
Canady totaled 94 yards on his two returns, and Zaccheaus went 30 yards on his lone return. Canady, thanks in part to a block from junior Divante Walker, became the first Cavalier since Alvin Pearman in 2004 to return a punt for a TD.
On a day when the `Hoos produced many such big plays with the ball, they were thankful for all of them.
“It had been a long time since Miami last year,” Ellis said. “It feels good to get No. 1 on the board. Now we’re looking for No. 2 next week.”
WELCOME BACK: Wide receiver T.J. Thorpe, who transferred from North Carolina to UVa in January, had surgery Aug. 13 to repair a broken right clavicle and was expected to be sidelined about 10 weeks. Thorpe healed quickly, however, and made his Virginia debut Saturday.
“Obviously that’s a big plus for us,” London said.
One of the Cavaliers’ most explosive players in spring practice and during the first part of training camp last month, Thorpe did not have a ball thrown his way against William & Mary. But he figures to be a focal point of the offense as the season progresses.
“Just getting his feet wet today, getting him out there running around, he felt really good,” Severin said. “He was chirping a little bit, playing physical. So it’s good to know his collarbone is good.
“We’re really excited about that. We’re really excited moving forward for him. He’s going to be a big factor.”
Johns said: “I had a really good connection with him before he got hurt, and I know he’s dying to get back on the field, and he’ll be a huge help to our success this year.”
SLEIGHT OF HAND: The 6-2 Severin is known for his spectacular catches, and he had another one late in the second quarter Saturday, reaching out with his right hand in the back of the end zone to snare a pass from Johns.
Does he practice one-handed grabs?
“Never,” Severin said. “Coach [Marques] Hagans, our wide receivers coach, he would be so mad if he ever even saw me or heard of us practicing one-handed catches. If we attempt one in practice, just start running, because that’s what you’re going to do.”
NOTHING TO IT: The 5-11, 205-pound Ellis, who’s from Suwanee, Ga., did not carry the ball in either of UVa’s first two games.
Before the W&M game, though, his coaches told him “I was going to play,” Ellis said. “They didn’t know when, but they just said to be ready when my number’s called.”
As a senior at Peachtree Ridge High in 2013, Ellis scored 30 touchdowns.
“It feels good to get back in the end zone,” said Ellis, who benefited from a superb downfield block from wideout Keeon Johnson. “The part I loved most about it was [the reaction of] my teammates after the play.”
Johns said: “Jordan Ellis has worked so hard this offseason, and he just wants to be on the field so bad. Our running back position has such great depth, and I was so happy for Jordan Ellis today. He just bounced off, ran outside, cut and scored, and he really deserves that.”
Also noteworthy was the first college reception by wideout David Eldridge, a 6-1, 170-pound true freshman from Kettle Run High in Fauquier County. In the second quarter, Eldridge outleaped a W&M defensive back to come down with a 43-yard completion.
“He just went up and made a play,” Johns said. “He’s a nice tall receiver, and that’s what he’s going to go do. I just gotta put it in the vicinity of his body, and he’ll go make a play.”