By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The power running game for which the University of Virginia football team has been looking showed up when it mattered most Saturday at Scott Stadium.
UVA’s possession in the first overtime ended with a 36-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Matt Johns to wide receiver Canaan Severin. From there, however, the Cavaliers stayed on the ground, with impressive results.
In the second OT, Virginia needed only three runs — wideout Olamide Zaccheaus and tailbacks Albert Reid and Taquan Mizzell gained 7, 5 and 13 yards, respectively — to score another TD against Syracuse’s tiring defense.
In the third OT, the Wahoos continued to hammer away at the Orange. On first down from the 25, Mizzell ran around right end for 12 yards. Another tailback, Daniel Hamm, followed with an 8-yard gain to the 5. Then it was Jordan Ellis time.
“He’s a workhorse,” Severin said of Ellis, a 5-11, 205-pound redshirt freshman from the Atlanta.
On three straight plays, Johns handed the ball to Ellis, who entered the game as the Cavaliers’ No. 4 taiback. On the third carry, Ellis bulled ahead for 3 yards and the winning touchdown in a remarkable 44-38 victory for Virginia (2-4 overall, 1-1 ACC), which trailed 24-14 heading into the final quarter.
“Mind-blowing,” sophomore safety Quin Blanding said of the win, the Cavaliers’ first over an FBS opponent since last November.
The third overtime began with the score 38-38, and Virginia’s defense pushed the Orange backwards. After Cole Murphy missed a 48-yard field-goal attempt, UVA’s offense took the field. In the huddle, Johns challenged his linemen.
“We had the mentality to just punch it in, rather than playing tentative,” Johns told reporters after the game. “Sometimes in the past maybe our mentality’s been a little tentative … I was just like, `Let’s punch this in. [Forget] the field goal. Let’s win this thing the way we know how to.’ ”
Injuries have ravaged the Cavaliers’ offensive line, which had a first-time starter at left tackle Saturday, redshirt sophomore Jack English. But the group grew stronger as this Homecomings game went on.
“The offensive line did a great job,” said Mizzell, a junior who ran for two touchdowns. “They’ve been taking a lot of criticism lately, just our run game in general. So they did a great job of just playing harder and longer than the defense.”
To the postgame interview session, tight end Charlie Hopkins wore an orange T-shirt on which was emblazoned O-LINE PROUD.
Hopkins, a 6-6, 255-pound graduate student who transferred to UVA from Stanford, caught the first touchdown pass of his college career early in the fourth quarter. He’s best known for his blocking, though, and he applauded the line’s work.
“It wasn’t the first time, but it was just great to see our offense finally just run the ball when we wanted to,” Hopkins said. “Matt was able to sit back, he had time, and he was able to pick apart their defense.”
Johns, a junior, finished 24-of-37 passing for 234 yards and two TDs. He was intercepted once, on a tipped pass in the final minute of the first half. That turnover helped Syracuse (3-3, 1-1), which trailed 14-7 before converting a fake punt with about 2:40 left in the second quarter, to go into the break up 21-14.
“I was not happy at all,” Johns said. “Because it’s not like my decision was bad. It was more of one of those plays where I throw the ball on a swing route and some guy throws his hand in the air and the ball goes flying up. Smoke was open. It was just one of those things.”
A Murphy field goal late in the third quarter pushed the Orange’s lead to 24-14. Then came the Cavaliers’ comeback. Johns’ 2-yard pass to Hopkins, followed by Ian Frye’s PAT, made it 24-21 with 10:31 remaining in the fourth quarter.
Syracuse’s ensuing drive ended with a punt, and Virginia took over at its 4-yard line with 6:52 to play. With about 5:00 left, Johns dumped the ball off to Reid for a short gain on third-and-15 from the UVA 9, but a facemask penalty on the Orange extended the drive.
Slowly, steadily, the `Hoos moved forward. On fourth-and-3 from the Syracuse 47, a screen pass from Johns to Mizzell gained 5 yards, and Johns later teamed with Hamm on another screen, this one for a 12-yard gain to the 12. The drive stalled, but Frye calmly kicked a 25-yard field goal as time expired to send the Cavaliers to OT for the first time since 2011, London’s second season as their head coach.
“It was a great effort by the football team in [the locker room],” London said. “I’m very proud of those guys. They showed some fight, resiliency, some grit … In the end, players made big plays. It was just good to see a positive thing happen for these guys. There are still things to correct, but at the same time this is something we haven’t done in a while, a long while.”
Virginia gave up a touchdown with 12 seconds left on Sept. 12 and lost 34-27 to Notre Dame at Scott Stadium. Last weekend at Pittsburgh, UVA had possession in the final minute but turned the ball over on downs and lost 26-19.
“This is our third very close game, and we were finally able to dig this one out,” Hopkins said. “It was a real gritty win for us.”
Johns said: “It’s huge. A game like Notre Dame, it’s tough. We lost in the last second. Last week at Pitt we had a chance to pull it out. Things didn’t go our way. This week it finally went our way. We fought and fought and fought. That’s the story of this team. I know our record’s 2-4, but I think there’s a lot of fight in this team.”
Severin echoed those comments. “I think it kind of showed our team is battle-tested. We compete to the end, and that’s what we showed today.”
REDEMPTION: About five minutes into the second quarter of a scoreless game, Mizzell lost a fumble that Syracuse’s Antwan Cordy picked up and returned 44 yards for a touchdown.
To say Mizzell was upset with himself would be an understatement.
“Very upset, and I just thanked my coaches for believing in me after I fumbled and gave [the Orange] a touchdown,” Mizzell said. “I told them was I ready to go. I was back into the game mentally, and I was really angry.
“I knew I had to make it up for the team, so I had to make plays when I had the chance.”
Mizzell did so. In what was probably his finest game as a Cavalier, he finished with 58 yards and two touchdowns on 13 carries. He also had 10 receptions for 69 yards.
“You could tell after that fumble he was really angry,” Johns said, “and you could tell by the way he was running. I was just so proud of him, the way he bounced back and scored two touchdowns. Good for him. I’m happy for him.”
HEADS-UP PLAY: For the second straight game, a Norfolk Christian graduate scored a defensive touchdown for Virginia. Against Pitt, it was senior lineman Kwontie Moore. Against Syracuse, it was junior safety Wilfred Wahee.
Late in the second quarter, with Syracuse’s Eric Dungey back to pass, senior defensive end Mike Moore (no relation to Kwontie) broke through the line and knocked the ball out of the true freshman quarterback’s hand.
The Orange players stopped, believing it to be an incomplete pass, but Wahee alertly scooped up the football and raced 32 yards to the end zone for what was ruled a touchdown.
“Great hit,” Wahee said. “Mike Moore did it again. Thanks to him. I was just the lucky man today.”
Moore said: “I knew I had a free shot on the quarterback, so I knew I had to strip the ball, like my coaches are always telling me.”
Virginia’s defense forced two turnovers and made a goal-line stand Saturday. In the third OT, when Syracuse had possession first, Kwontie Moore tackled Dungey for a 4-yard loss on second down. Then, on third-and-10 from the 25, defensive tackle David Dean and middle linebacker Micah Kiser sacked Dungey for a 6-yard loss, forcing the Orange to attempt a long field goal.
“It just shows what happens when we all come together,” said Blanding, who led Virginia with 12 tackles.
INTO THE FIRE: After the fourth quarter ended with the score 24-24, Virginia won the coin toss and chose to play defense first in overtime.
Five plays later, the Cavaliers trailed 31-24 after a 7-yard TD pass from Dungey to Ervin Phillips (and Murphy PAT). Worse for Virginia, Zach Bradshaw was called for targeting Dungey on the play, which meant the junior linebacker was disqualified from the game.
Defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta replaced Bradshaw with 6-2, 215-pound Eric Gallon, a seldom-used true freshman from Lakeland, Fla. Gallon has yet to make a tackle this season, but he played the final two defensive series Saturday and helped the `Hoos prevail.
“Eric had been playing on our special-teams unit, and it’s always about the next-man-up mentality, so he was up,” London said.
Blanding said Gallon “took on the role pretty well. He handled it pretty well, just being thrown right in the fire at the crucial time like that. He went in there and he played his part.”
The penalty on Bradshaw meant Virginia had to start its first possession of overtime 40 yards from the end zone instead of the customary 25.
“We didn’t care, and we knew we had to score,” said Johns, who rolled right on third-and-6 from the 36 and spotted his roommate Severin behind two defenders in the end zone.
Bradshaw will have to sit out the first half of Virginia’s game next weekend in Chapel Hill, N.C.
UP NEXT: Three of Virginia’s next four games are on the road, starting Saturday against Coastal Division rival North Carolina. At 3:30 p.m. UVA (2-4, 1-1) meets UNC (5-1, 2-0) at Kenan Stadium.
The Tar Heels have won five straight games since an opening-night loss to South Carolina in Charlotte, N.C.
Virginia beat North Carolina in Chapel Hill in 2009. Since then, the Heels have won five in a row over the `Hoos. UNC rallied for a 28-27 victory at Scott Stadium last season.
Wideout T.J. Thorpe scored the winning touchdown in that game. Thorpe, of course, has since transferred to UVA, and he had two receptions for 31 yards Saturday against Syracuse.