Nov. 15, 2015
By Jeff White (email@example.com)
LOUISVILLE, Ky. — In the small room underneath the east stands at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium, quarterback Matt Johns sat on a folding chair Saturday afternoon and tried to make sense of another frustrating game for the University of Virginia football team.
A win over the Louisville Cardinals would have kept alive UVA’s hopes of becoming bowl-eligible for the first time since 2011. But the Cavaliers lost 38-31, and so their season will end this month after games against Duke (Saturday, 3:30 p.m.) and Virginia Tech (Nov. 28) at Scott Stadium.
“It was definitely really hard,” Johns, a redshirt junior, said of the postgame scene in the Virginia locker room.
“I just feel bad for the guys that won’t be back next year. We’re still focused on this season, and the leadership on this team, from those fifth-year [seniors] and fourth-year guys that didn’t redshirt, it’s been unbelievable all year, and I’m just going to miss those guys.”
Those guys include Johns’ roommate and best friend Canaan Severin, a senior wide receiver who’s one of the Wahoos’ captains. Severin has shined all season, and he was at his best Saturday against Louisville (6-4 overall, 5-3 ACC).
The 6-2, 205-pound Severin caught eight passes for 116 yards and a career-high three touchdowns. His third TD reception, a 16-yarder, came with 76 seconds left, on a fourth-and-10 pass from Johns that Severin had to extend his arms to bring in.
“He’s just such a great competitor,” said Johns, who completed 25 of 41 throws for 260 yards and a career-high four touchdowns Saturday.
“When the ball’s in the air, I know he’s going to go after it. The guy was still on him, and I had to get the ball out of my hands, and I knew if I just put it high, then [Severin] would come out and make the play. That’s just what he does. He was doing it all game.”
For the season, Severin has 50 receptions for 699 yards and a team-high seven TDs. He reached the midpoint of his college career with exceedingly modest numbers — six catches for 46 yards and no touchdowns — but he’ll be remembered at UVA as one of the better wideouts in program history.
With 1,323 career yards receiving, virtually all of which have come in the past two seasons, Severin ranks 17th all-time at Virginia, and he’s likely to finish higher. He has 98 catches and 12 touchdown receptions as a Cavalier. But personal accomplishments mattered little to him Saturday.
“I can’t think about that right now, due to the situation we’re in,” said Severin, who’s from Marlborough, Mass.
The Cavaliers, in their sixth season under head coach Mike London, dropped to 3-7, 2-4. Of Virginia’s losses this season, four have become by seven points or fewer.
“All these close games [have] boiled down to just a few plays that go the other team’s way,” London said.
With 10 minutes remaining, after Severin’s second touchdown reception, Virginia and Louisville could not have been closer. The score was 24-24, and after the Cavaliers’ defense forced a three-and-out, their offense was eager to add more points. But a pivotal play — a muffed punt by UVA true freshman Olamide Zaccheaus — swung the game the Cardinals’ way.
On a booming kick by Louisville’s Josh Appleby, Zaccheaus chose not to call for a fair catch. An instant after Zaccheaus touched the ball, the Cardinals’ James Quick drilled him around the Virginia 20-yard line, forcing a fumble.
Louisville head coach Bobby Petrino said Quick did “a great job of hustling down the field. It was probably really close to whether that is a penalty or not a penalty.”
The Cardinals recovered at the 5, and an unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty on Virginia’s T.J. Thorpe moved the ball to the 2. Two plays later, tailback L.J. Scott’s 1-yard touchdown run put Louisville ahead to stay.
“I should have made a fair catch, so that was my fault,” Zaccheaus said, but London was furious that the officials did not penalize Quick.
“You have to allow a guy the opportunity to catch a punt,” London said. “He’s considered a defenseless player … But again, it wasn’t called. They got the ball, and they scored and changed the game. We had opportunities, but we didn’t capitalize on our opportunities.
“I’m disappointed for the players in the locker room. We gotta finish up now. We got two home games. The seniors are finishing up their careers here at Scott Stadium. We just want to give them the opportunity to go out and be successful.”
Virginia, which has lost 15 consecutive road games since winning at NC State on Nov. 3, 2012, is 3-2 at home this season. Even without a bowl bid to pursue, Severin said, his mentality won’t change.
“Sell out,” Severin said. “In everything you do, just sell out. My dad always tells me, take advantage of this opportunity. It won’t surface ever again. Ever.”
He’s confident will his teammates will take the same approach in the final two games.
“I know these guys,” Severin said. “No matter what, we’re going to play to the end.
“We’re fighters. Not only does it show the kind of football players we are, but what kind of people we are. We fight no matter what. As long as there’s time on the clock, we’re going to battle to the end, and that’s what we did. I just wish it would have bounced in our favor.”
When junior tailback Taquan Mizzell recovered Ian Frye’s onside kick with about 70 seconds remaining, it appeared the Cavaliers would take possession near midfield with an opportunity to drive for a game-tying touchdown. It was not to be. The `Hoos were penalized for an illegal formation on the play, because Mizzell lined up more than 5 yards away from the 35, from which Frye kicked off.
The Cardinals recovered Frye’s next onside attempt and then ran out the clock.
“It stinks that the call didn’t go our way,” Johns said. “Seems like that’s happened a couple times here in the past couple weeks, but it was just one of those things.
“I’m proud of those guys in the locker room. We fought all game. They went up two scores, and it didn’t faze us. We went down and scored [quickly]. Canaan got in the end zone again. We gave ourselves a shot, but were just short once again.”
More challenges await the Cavaliers. Virginia has dropped three straight games to Duke (6-4, 3-3) and 11 in a row to Virginia Tech (5-5, 3-3).
The message from the team’s leaders heading into the closing stretch?
“Just stay focused and don’t stop fighting,” Johns said, “because that’s what we’ve been doing all year. Unfortunately it hasn’t been going the way we wanted, but maybe it will these last two games.”
Severin said: “I hope that when the seniors are all gone, they can look back and say that we fought to the end.”
London knows that will be the case for No. 9.
“He’s an outstanding young man,” London said of Severin. “That’s one of the reasons why he was voted captain, because he’s a selfless individual. He doesn’t pout. He doesn’t concern himself about the stats or how many times the ball’s thrown to him.
“He’s a guy that had some physical challenges. [Severin] overcame those challenges and became a model of how to take care of your body and just how to train. He’s been such a big influence [in the program]. And to see some of the catches that he made today, those were some phenomenal catches. He’s going to have a great career, when it’s all said and done, but he’s a great young man more than he is a football player.”