By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — With every ACC victory comes renewed hope for the University of Virginia football team, which heads into the final month of the regular season with many of its goals still within reach.
“We’re fighters,” senior wide receiver Cananan Severin said Saturday night after Virginia held off Georgia Tech for a 27-21 victory at Scott Stadium. “We know what’s at stake. We know what we have to do.”
Sophomore tailback Daniel Hamm said: “Being 3-5 is not where we want to be, but we are heading in the right direction. It’s coming together.”
Four regular-season games remain for UVA (3-5 overall, 2-2 ACC), starting next weekend with a visit to Miami (5-3, 2-2). The Hurricanes rallied Saturday night to shock Duke on a wild and controversial kickoff return in Durham, N.C.
The Cavaliers have dropped 13 consecutive road games since winning at NC State on Nov. 3, 2012, so history will not favor them at Miami. Still, the victory over Georgia Tech (3-6, 1-5) boosted the Wahoos’ confidence as they head into the home stretch.
“We needed it,” said junior quarterback Matt Johns, who completed 17 of 28 passes for 175 yards and one touchdown. “We needed to get this win.”
That was clear from the celebration in the home locker room, where relief mixed with jubilation. This victory did not come easily for the Wahoos, who had lost three straight in this series.
After Virginia scored the first 17 points of the second half to take a 27-14 lead, Georgia Tech answered with a touchdown drive that covered 99 yards. That made it 27-21 with 1:41 left, and then the Yellow Jackets recovered an onside kick that appeared to freeze UVA’s return team.
“The bottom line is, they executed and we didn’t,” Virginia head coach Mike London said.
With 1:38 remaining, the Jackets took over at their 46-yard line, and completions of 14 and 6 yards moved them to the UVA 34. On third-and-4 from the 34, senior cornerback Maurice Canady broke up a Justin Thomas pass. On fourth down, it was sophomore safety Quin Blanding’s turn. Blanding knocked down a Thomas pass intended for Mikell Lands-Davis, and the `Hoos could finally exhale.
“I just saw him stop,” Blanding said, “and I saw that everyone else was covered and he was uncovered. I just dove because I knew I had to make a play.”
The Cavaliers’ defense made plays throughout this Coastal Division game. Georgia Tech, with its trademark triple-option attack, came in as the ACC leader in rushing offense (283.4 yards per game). UVA held the Jackets to 144 yards on the ground, and 49 of those came on first-quarter touchdown run by Clinton Lynch.
At halftime, Georgia Tech had 153 yards, 79 of which had come on two plays: Lynch’s 49-yard run and a 30-yard touchdown pass from Thomas to Lynch.
For this game, defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta shifted junior Kelvin Rainey from safety to outside linebacker, junior Zach Bradshaw from weakside linebacker to the middle, and sophomore Micah Kiser from middle linebacker to the outside.
On third-down conversations, the Jackets were 5 for 13. On fourth down, they were 0 for 3.
“I’m proud of the guys that stepped in and played this offense for the first time,” said senior David Dean, a three-year starter at defensive tackle. “Guys like Rainey, Kwontie [Moore], Micah. We took care of business, and the guys who needed to step up, they stepped up, and I think that was evident on the field.”
With its running game ineffective, Georgia Tech was forced to throw after falling behind. The Jackets finished with 31 pass attempts, the most in Paul Johnson’s eight seasons as their head coach. Thomas completed only 13 of those throws, though two went for touchdowns.
“We dialed it up,” London said. “They were throwing, and we wanted to make sure we put pressure in his face. For the most part we did a good job of hitting him, making him run, trying to give him different reads and looks. We just executed a large part of the defensive plan that we had today.”
The Cavaliers had two takeaways — fumble recoveries by junior safety Wilfred Wahee and Rainey — and the offense parlayed those turnovers into 10 points.
“I think it’s another boost to our confidence as a defense,” Dean said. “Week by week I think we’ve been playing better and better, and today we showed up. Although we let up some big plays, I think for the most part we had a great game defensively. We forced two turnovers and we shut down their running game. They didn’t get a lot.
Rainey pounced on a fumble forced by senior defensive Trent Corney early in the third quarter, and Virginia took over at the Georgia Tech 30.
Two plays later, Johns spotted his roommate Severin open in the middle of the field, and the result was a 30-yard touchdown pass. Ian Frye, who kicked two field goals Saturday, booted the extra point to make it 20-14 and put UVA ahead to stay.
Virginia’s offense totaled 408 yards Saturday, including 233 on the ground. That marked the third straight game in which the `Hoos posted a season high in rushing. Junior tailback Taquan Mizzell led UVA with 75 yards on 14 carries, and true freshman wideout Olamide Zaccheaus added 68 on four jet sweeps.
Hamm, who made his first start as a Cavalier, ran 11 times for 42 yards, including a 9-yard TD after taking a direct snap late in the first quarter. Yet another tailback, junior Albert Reid, ran 24 yards for UVA’s final touchdown early in the fourth quarter.
“That’s what we’re capable of doing,” Johns said. “That’s our potential. When you reach your potential, it’s a special thing. All three of our running backs played so well today, and I am so proud of those guys. The credit goes to the offensive line. They deserve it. They played their tails off and it was a lot of fun to play with them today.”
Mizzell said: “We just give that credit to our offensive line. We’ve been working so hard as running backs. We knew once we get those chances, we’ll make the plays. But our offensive line is just doing a great job right now, getting us in good situations.”
The offense was not perfect. Virginia was called for several pre-snap penalties, and Johns threw an interception late in the second quarter that helped Georgia Tech take a 14-10 lead into halftime. Moreover, the Cavaliers twice had to settle for Frye field goals after driving to the Jackets’ 1-yard line.
“It’s frustrating,” Johns said. “You want to punch those in, because then that makes it a three- or four-score game, and then we’re not worrying there at the end. But it was one of those things where they stopped us on the goal line, and we gotta execute better and punch it in … But it’s how you bounce back from that, it really tests your character, and I thought we passed the test today.”
Had Virginia recovered the Jackets’ onside kick, there would have been no late drama on this Halloween evening. But the special-teams error sent the defense back out on the field knowing Georgia Tech could win with another touchdown.
“My nerves were shot,” Severin said. “I couldn’t believe it.”
On Sept. 12, at the same end of Scott Stadium, then-No. 9 Notre Dame had scored a touchdown with 12 seconds left to stun Virginia. The Cavaliers were determined not to let another victory slip from their grasps.
“Personally, I think the Notre Dame game did flash through my mind,” Bradshaw said, “which was just more motivation for us to hold them, which we did. So it felt great.”
London said: “We did some good things out there today, and we did some things that weren’t to our best advantage, but again we found a way in a tight game, a close game, to win in the end, and I’m very happy for the locker room, for the players that went through that.
“Things happen. You can overcome those things and not have that here-we-go-again mentality.”
Virginia has won two of its past three games, and a victory at Miami would generate still more momentum. The key for the Cavaliers, Johns said, will be to have another productive week of practice.
“We’ve been talking about it all year: When are we going to put four quarters together?” Johns said. “We’ve had bits and pieces. We can execute. We can play with anyone. We know that. It’s a matter of just putting it all together, and I feel like we had a great week of practice [ahead of the Georgia Tech game].
“Thursday was one of the best practices we’ve had. The ball was not on the ground once, and it was just one of those deals where that translated into Saturday, and we took advantage of that.”