By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — If it all seemed painfully familiar to the University of Virginia football team and its fans Saturday — a gritty effort that was not quite enough to produce a victory — there was a reason. Such results have marked Mike London’s six seasons as the Cavaliers’ head coach.
“We’re so close in all these games,” wide receiver Canaan Severin said after Virginia’s season-ending loss to arch-rival Virginia Tech at Scott Stadium. “I’m tired of saying that.”
Severin’s fatigue is understandable. Of UVA’s eight losses this season, three were by seven points, one was by six, and one was by three. Had the Cavaliers (4-8 overall, 3-5 ACC) won two of those games, they would be bowl-eligible for the first time since 2011. They could not break through, however, and so another long offseason began for the program around 3:30 p.m. Saturday.
“I don’t know what it [will take] to get over that hump,” quarterback Matt Johns said, “but we’re going to keep working and fighting until we get over it.”
Johns is a redshirt junior, so he can try to write a different story next season. For his best friend Severin and the Cavaliers’ other seniors, a group that includes Severin’s fellow co-captains David Dean, Vincent Croce and Ross Burbank, Saturday marked the end of their college careers.
“It’s sad,” said Dean, a defensive tackle who had five tackles, including one of Virginia’s three sacks. “It’s tough on me and our other seniors, but we’re on to other chapters in our lives, and we just hope the best for Virginia football and the younger guys here, and we’re going to keep giving advice to the older guys so they can be great leaders in the future.”
When the Wahoos took a 20-13 lead on a spectacular touchdown reception by Severin with 10:04 remaining — he somehow got both feet down in the end zone while falling out of bounds after snaring a 27-yard pass from Johns — their hopes grew. Perhaps, the ‘Hoos thought, more than a decade of frustration against Virginia Tech would end Saturday.
But the Hokies, in their final regular-season game under Frank Beamer, tormented the `Hoos yet again to retain possession of the Commonwealth Cup. They rallied for 10 straight points — the last three coming on Joey Slye’s 41-yard field goal with 1:38 left — to secure a 23-20 victory before a crowd of 53,777 on an unseasonably warm afternoon.
“It was a great game,” said Beamer, who’s retiring after this season, his 29th as his alma mater’s head coach. “It was two good football teams battling back and forth, both of us making plays.”
As usual, though, the Hokies made more plays when it mattered most. The win was their 12th straight in this series. A season ago in Blacksburg, Tech rallied for a touchdown in the final two minutes to defeat the `Hoos 24-20 at Lane Stadium. Saturday’s game followed a similar script.
With the Hokies facing third-and-15, Virginia inexplicably left their best wide receiver, Isaiah Ford, uncovered in the end zone. Ford caught a 32-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Michael Brewer, and Slye’s extra point made it 20-20 with 8:40 to play.
“I think we just had some mental mishaps,” Dean said. “Virginia Tech guys just stepped up and made plays. We didn’t play our responsibilities, and when you do that in games like these, you pay for it, and we ended up paying for it.”
A loss is a loss, as Severin noted, but that the outcome was again so close made it more excruciating for Virginia. Three times the Cavaliers led Saturday — at 6-3, at 13-6 and, finally, at 20-13 — but the Hokies had the required response in each case.
An ill-advised fake punt by Virginia on fourth-and-16 from its 34 — junior punter Nicholas Conte was tackled after a 14-yard gain — helped Virginia Tech head into halftime tied 6-6.
Conte said the call for the fake came from Croce, one of protectors on the punt team.
The second half brought more of the same. After a 57-yard touchdown run by junior tailback Albert Reid put UVA up 13-6 late in the third quarter, Virginia Tech answered immediately. On first-and-10 from the Tech 25, Brewer teamed with tight end Ryan Mallek on a 71-yard pass play.
Two plays later, the Hokies scored to start a fourth quarter in which they would gain 136 of their 304 yards. The Cavaliers totaled 433 yards, their highest output against coordinator Bud Foster’s defense in years, but had nothing to show for that performance.
“That’s a tough way to lose a football game,” said London, whose record at UVA dropped to 27-46.
“I’m very disappointed for our guys, for the seniors that are leaving. I thought we just gave one heck of an effort, an unbelievable effort. We dealt with adversity all season long.
“It’s always tough when you close games like that to your rival, but hats off to them, and congratulations to Coach Beamer. He’s a class act.”
Beamer said that everything the Hokies “talk about — hanging in there, don’t give up, play your best when it counts — that kind of came through today. It just worked out, and the players and coaches made it work out. Got the ball to bounce our way there at the end. Maybe some things were just meant to be.”
After Slye’s third field goal made it 23-20, the Cavaliers still had time to force overtime, if not win the game in regulation. Johns’ 12-yard completion to Severin gave Virginia a first down at its 35 and stopped the clock with about a minute remaining.
Johns’ next pass, however, sailed over the head of sophomore tight end Evan Butts, who had three defenders around him in the middle of the field, and into the arms of safety Chuck Clark, whose interception with 59 seconds left sealed the victory for the Hokies.
Tech’s pass rush affected his throw, Johns said. “I went to step up, and the guy hit my facemask just enough to make my release point a little higher than I wanted it to, and [the ball] went over Butts’ head by I don’t know how much, but it was enough for the deep safety to make a play on it.”
For the game, Johns completed 18 of 38 passes, for 171 yards and one TD, and he was intercepted twice. For the season, he was 247-of-403 passing (61.3 percent) for 2,810 yards and 20 touchdowns. But Johns also threw 17 interceptions, and those mistakes were costly.
“Obviously that is something that sticks out,” Johns said. “That’s the game of football, and it’s just a matter of limiting those mistakes and moving forward.”
The Cavaliers will move forward without a talented senior class whose members include Severin, Dean, Burbank, Croce, Frye, tight end Charlie Hopkins, wideout T.J. Thorpe, Frye, defensive linemen Kwontie Moore, Trent Corney and Mike Moore, and cornerbacks Maurice Canady and Demetrious Nicholson.
It might also have been the final game at Virginia for London, who was asked about his status during his press conference.
“I’m very thankful,” London said. “I’m very humbled to be the head coach of this team, to have this opportunity to influence young men’s lives.”
Whatever happens, London said, “I’m at peace with myself right now.”
He’ll remember this season as one in which the Cavaliers, who played a grueling non-conference schedule, were competitive almost every time they stepped on the field.
“This team always fights,” Dean said. “We’re very resilient, and no matter what’s happened, we always keep our heads down and just keep going. There were a lot of times this season where we just could have given up, when we realized we were not going to a bowl game, we could have given up.”
That never happened.
“I’m just so proud of this team,” Johns said. “No one ever gave up the entire year, and I think everyone saw that on the outside, the resilience that this team had. A bunch of tough dudes that we were going to fight to the end, and that’s what we did.”
Case in point: Severin played Saturday with a separated shoulder, an injury he suffered last weekend in Virginia’s 42-34 win over Duke.
“I knew it wasn’t ideal for me to come back,” Severin said, “but I’m a competitor, and I know my guys are competitors, and they needed me. I’m one of the captains of this team, and I was trying to do what I could for the team.”
Reid, a transfer from Maryland, finished with a career-high 103 yards on nine carries. But that meant little to him after the game Saturday.
“I’m hurting right now because our seniors are hurting,” Reid said.
Johns felt the same way.
“It’s hard. I love those guys,” Johns said of the departing Cavaliers. “They’ve taught me so much about the game, about myself, and just life itself. They’ve paved a blueprint that can be very successful here, and I hope [the younger players] buy into that and move forward with it.”