By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Of the players who passed the football Saturday for Virginia, wide receiver Olamide Zaccheaus had the highest completion percentage.
Zaccheaus, a true freshman from New Jersey, was perfect (1 for 1). Midway through the first quarter, he caught a long lateral from quarterback Matt Johns near the left sideline, pulled up and surprised Duke’s defense with a pass that tight end Evan Butts grabbed in the end zone for a 15-yard touchdown.
“He stole that touchdown pass from me,” Johns said, smiling, “but, hey, I’ll give it to him any day.”
Johns could afford to be magnanimous. His comments came after one of his finest performances as a Cavalier. The 6-5, 210-pound redshirt junior completed 24 of 33 passes for a career-high 344 yards and two touchdowns to help Virginia defeat ACC foe Duke 42-34 in a Coastal Division game at Scott Stadium.
The victory ended a three-game losing streak in the series for UVA (4-7, 3-4), and Johns’ contribution was immense. By the end of the third quarter, he had a new career high in passing yards. (His previous best: 325 yards in Virginia’s loss at Duke last year.)
“Matt had a great day,” senior guard Ross Burbank said, and so did the rest of the offense.
The 42 points, which all came in the first three quarters, are the most the Wahoos have scored in regulation this season. Virginia finished with 502 yards.
“Obviously the receiving corps and the running backs were all getting after it,” Burbank said. “We got things going a little bit against Louisville [last weekend], and the coaches put us in a great position this week with the schemes. We were hitting the sweeps, hitting a little bit of everything, trying to keep them on their toes, and I was very pleased with how we performed.”
Eleven Cavaliers caught at least one pass, led by senior wideout T.J. Thorpe, who had five receptions for 58 yards. Four UVA players rushed for at least 20 yards, led by junior tailback Taquan Mizzell, who ran for 61 yards and two touchdowns. Thorpe also contributed a 26-yard TD run.
“We’ve just got a lot of guys out there that can make a lot of plays,” Mizzell said, “and Matt Johns is just doing a great job of leading the team.”
Johns said: “It was just all flowing today, and that’s just credit to our offensive line.”
Mizzell finished with five catches for 43 yards, and Zaccheaus added three receptions for 89 yards. Johns teamed with Mizzell on a 36-yard touchdown pass late in the second quarter and with Zaccheaus on a 50-yard touchdown pass late in the third.
Johns wasn’t flawless — he threw an interception in the first half — “but for a guy that touches the ball 100 percent of the time, I thought Matt did a good job again,” head coach Mike London said.
That marked the third straight game in which Johns has passed for at least 260 yards. In Virginia’s 38-31 loss at Louisville on Nov. 14, he threw a career-high four touchdown passes.
“I’m seeing things more and just getting more comfortable,” Johns said. “Every game presents new experiences. The past four games, I feel like the offense has really flowed well. I put a lot on myself in preparation and know that when I step my game up, the team follows that lead, and I just need to keep doing that.”
For the season, Johns has completed 229 of 365 passes (62.7 percent) for 2,639 yards and 19 touchdowns. He’s been picked off 15 times, but he’s taken better care of the ball over the past four games.
“I think for him it was an experience thing, maybe,” said Thorpe, who transferred to UVA from North Carolina in January. “Matt’s one of the guys that learns from all his mistakes. You see him in the film room, always trying to get better, so for him to be hitting his stride now is going to do wonders for the team next year.”
Johns will worry about 2016 later. His, and his team’s, immediate concern is the regular-season finale against Virginia Tech at Scott Stadium next weekend.
“He has to continue to keep playing better,” London said. “He’s a guy that our players follow. He’s a leader. He’s gotten better the last few games here, and we’re going to need him to play his best football next week, for sure.”
The Blue Devils (6-5, 3-4), who trailed by 22 points late in the third quarter, rallied in the fourth behind backup quarterback Parker Boehme. Virginia’s offense, so productive for 45 minutes, stalled in the fourth quarter, and Duke, trailing 42-34, got the ball back at its 37-yard line with 46 seconds left.
One 49-yard completion later, the Devils were at the Virginia 14. Boehme’s first-down pass was incomplete, but he hit tailback Jela Duncan for an 8-yard gain on second down and then spiked the ball to stop the clock with 8 seconds left.
That brought up fourth-and-2 from the 6, and UVA fans feared the worst. But Boehme’s fourth-down pass to wideout Anthony Nash, who was covered by safety Wilfred Wahee, fell incomplete, and the `Hoos survived.
The Cavaliers recorded five sacks and also had three takeaways Saturday: an interception by redshirt freshman cornerback Darious Latimore and fumble recoveries by senior linemen Kwontie Moore and Mike Moore (no relation).
On the sideline, Johns watched helplessly as the Blue Devils drove into the red zone on their final drive, but he never lost faith.
“It’s one of those things where I feel like I’ve had a lot of situations like that this year, just sitting on the sidelines,” Johns said. “You can’t control that, and you have to trust the guys that are on the field, and I knew they would get a stop at the end, and that’s what they did.”
Offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild’s playcalling kept the Blue Devils off balance for much of the game. The Cavaliers are a team with nothing to lose, and they took risks Saturday they might not have earlier in the season.
Not only did the `Hoos score on the trick play in the first quarter, Zaccheaus’ TD pass to Butts, they converted on fourth-and-3 from near midfield early in the second quarter. Johns also threw more deep passes Saturday than in previous games.
“I told Steve just call it and let’s go,” London said. “There’s no holds barred on this. We’ve had those plays in the arsenal for a while, and then sometimes you just gotta call them.
“[The players] did a good job in practice, and we said, `Let’s go. Let’s do it …. Let’s play to try to win a football game.’ ”
Johns said: “It was a lot of fun. It was fun throwing to different guys and seeing different guys get touches and make plays.”
GRAND FINALE: In its last game of the season, Virginia will try to regain possession of the Commonwealth Cup. At noon or 3:30 p.m. Saturday — the kickoff time will be announced this weekend — UVA (4-7, 3-4) will host Virginia Tech (5-6, 3-4) at Scott Stadium.
The Hokies have won 11 straight games in a series they lead 53-37-5.
In head coach Frank Beamer’s final game at Lane Stadium, Tech erased a two-touchdown deficit in the fourth quarter Saturday against North Carolina. In overtime, though, the Tar Heels prevailed 30-27 to clinch a berth in the ACC championship game as the Coastal Division champion.