By Jeff White (

CHARLOTTESVILLE — Late in the first quarter Saturday, sophomore cornerback Juan Thornhill forced a fumble that University of Virginia teammate Bryce Hall, a true freshman, recovered.

Early in the second quarter, Hall blitzed from his cornerback position into the North Carolina backfield. Quarterback Mitch Trubisky slipped away from Hall, only to be sacked for a 5-yard loss by another Virginia true freshman, inside linebacker Landan Word.

Yet another UVA true freshman, Joe Reed, returned two kickoffs for 79 yards Saturday. Late in the second quarter, Reed had a 50-yard return that might have gone for a 91-yard touchdown had he not stumbled and fallen after avoiding a diving defender.

On a sunny, cool afternoon at Scott Stadium, glimpses of the future provided a measure of hope for the Cavaliers’ program. But the present continues to test Virginia, which is trying to avoid its ninth losing season in 11 years.

Saturday brought another setback, the Wahoos’ second straight since an Oct. 1 win at Duke. No. 22 North Carolina broke open a close game in the second half and left Scott Stadium with a 35-14 victory.

“Everybody wants to win,” said UVA junior Daniel Hamm, a mainstay on special teams. “That’s what we come out here to do. We prepare to win, and if it doesn’t happen, of course it’s frustrating.”

The Tar Heels piled up 488 yards and limited the `Hoos to 253.

“UNC executed longer and more effectively than us,” said Bronco Mendenhall, who’s in his first season as Virginia’s head coach.

“The game was really tight at halftime, and then they were able to sustain drives, execute when needed, and recover from turnovers at a higher level than we were. And so really their program is currently more mature and farther along than ours is, and that was reflected as the game continued to go on. We need to continue to mature, continue to grow, and continue to stay together and support one another.”

The victory was the Heels’ seventh straight over Virginia.

“I’m not sure where they’ll finish in the polls, but I think it’s a good football team,” Mendenhall said.

UNC (6-2 overall, 4-1 ACC) entered the game ranked last in the conference in rushing defense. Senior Taquan Mizzell ran for 106 yards and one touchdown on 19 carries against the Heels, but overall the Cavaliers’ ground game struggled. Virginia averaged 2.8 yards per carry Saturday.

The `Hoos weren’t much more productive through the air, averaging 6.5 yards per reception.

In each of its previous three games, UVA (2-5 overall, 1-2 ACC) had scored at least 31 points. But since quarterback Kurt Benkert threw an interception that Pitt returned for a touchdown late in the first half on Oct. 17, neither he nor the rest of the Cavaliers’ offense has looked in sync.

“I just think we hit a little bit of a lull,” Benkert said. “We haven’t been as good on first and third down, and it starts with me. I have to distribute the ball better. I had a lot of time [against UNC]. The offensive line gave me a lot of time, and it’s up to me to find the open guy.”

On a day when Virginia was a miserable 3 for 19 on third-down conversions, Benkert completed 19 of 32 passes for 126 yards, with no touchdowns. Early in the fourth quarter, with UNC leading 28-7, Mendenhall and offensive coordinator Robert Anae inserted backup Connor Brewer for Benkert, a junior who’s in his first season as a starter.

Mendenhall said the coaches thought it “was wise just to have [Benkert] step back and see it from a little bit different perspective and take a breath and regroup.”

Benkert said he was frustrated when he was pulled, “just because I’m a competitor, and I wanted to finish the game, try to win the game, but I understand why the coaches did it.”

UVA hosts No. 7 Louisville next weekend, and Benkert is likely to start again. “I’m not interested in making a quarterback change,” Anae said.

“I do believe that Kurt Benkert gives us the best opportunity for big plays to push the ball down the field,” Anae said. “We just have to find way more consistency in what we’re doing with it.”

Brewer led the Cavaliers on their only scoring drive of the second half, but he was ineffective passing, completing 2 of 12 attempts for 6 yards. Virginia’s No. 3 quarterback Saturday was fifth-year senior Matt Johns, who started every game last season. On a trick play, Johns tossed an 11-yard touchdown pass to sophomore tight end Evan Butts with 5:27 left in the second quarter.

Butts snapped the ball to Johns, who was lined up to the far left behind a wall of blockers, and then ran a route that left him wide open in the end zone.

“I was happy with that play,” Mendenhall said, “and quite frankly with where we currently are, that doesn’t mean we rely on only those plays, but we need a couple per game right now to generate momentum and/or points or just help us win.”

Benkert was 7-for-21 passing in the second half against Pitt, and his uneven play continued against UNC.

“I can’t speak for him,” Mendenhall said, “but it looks like he’s not quite as confident and poised. But that [doesn’t mean Benkert is] rejected or dejected, it just simply means it’s time to regroup.”

After UNC took a 14-7 lead on a 40-yard touchdown pass from Trubisky to wide receiver Bug Howard, Reed gathered in Nick Weiler’s kickoff and burst up the field along the UVA sideline. The 50-yard return was the longest of Reed’s college career and, had he not stumbled, could have been a momentum-changing play.

“No. 1, you have to be a great athlete to get as far as he did get,” Mendenhall said. “I think he was straining to do everything within his power to help our team win. That’s the way that I saw it: He was straining and just trying as hard as he could try, and sometimes those things happen.”

Reed’s return moved the ball to the UNC 41-yard line, and Virginia’s next two plays gained 19 yards. From there, however, the Cavaliers self-destructed. What began as a promising drive ended with a missed field-goal attempt by junior Sam Hayward, and UVA went into the break trailing 14-7.

Early in the third quarter, after inside linebacker Micah Kiser forced a fumble that he then recovered, Virginia’s offense sputtered again. After an 11-yard completion from Benkert to true freshman Hasise Dubois moved the Cavaliers to the UNC 44, they lost 5 yards on their next two plays and ended up punting.

“It’s a big letdown,” Benkert said. “We were moving the ball … When we get a turnover, we need to score. It starts with me. I have to move us down the field, and we just weren’t able to do that.”

Mendenhall said: “We’re learning to be resilient, we’re learning to be mature, we’re learning to be more consistent, but yet there are some things that right now are just simply above our threshold, and that was one of them, when we weren’t able to capture that. We’re not a strong enough team yet that we [can fail to] capitalize on those opportunities and expect to have the kind of success we want. We need to capitalize on every one of those opportunities.”

More obstacles await the Cavaliers, who have five regular-season games remaining. The combined overall record of those five opponents is 24-11.

“We’re at a point in the season where I’ve been through this almost every single year,” Johns said. “The only year I didn’t was when we were 4-2 going into the bye week and then we hit that lull at the end of the season. It’s about keeping the guys together and really keeping the guys close.”

Johns, one of the team’s leaders, holds on extra points and field goals. To not be playing quarterback regularly is difficult for him, Johns said, “but it was harder in the beginning of the year. It was harder when you first find out you’re not going to play. But as the year goes on you have to embrace what the coaches are building here, and it’s something very special. It’s hard to see right now because we’re not winning, but we know what’s going on, and it’s a very special place to be.”

WORD GAMES: The son of former UVA great Barry Word, the 6-5, 245-pound Landan Word is a graduate of Bishop O’Connell High in Arlington.

Until Saturday, Word had been used only on special teams. Against UNC, he played extensively from scrimmage and finished with four tackles, including his second-quarter sack.

“He plays really hard, and he’s really strong,” Kiser said. “When [inside linebackers coach Shane Hunter] puts him in the game, he says, `Landan, go blow stuff up,’ and that’s what he does. So he’ll be a really good player.”

Word is one of eight true freshmen to play for Virginia this season. Two of his classmates started on defense against UNC: Jordan Mack at outside linebacker and Bryce Hall at cornerback. Mack had seven tackles. Hall finished with a career-best nine stops, eight of them unassisted.

UP NEXT: Virginia’s three-game homestand ends Saturday with a visit from No. 7 Louisville (6-1, 4-1). The Cavaliers (2-5, 1-2) meet the Cardinals (6-1, 4-1) at noon in a game to be shown regionally on ABC on ESPN2 to the rest of the country.

Led by quarterback Lamar Jackson, a Heisman Trophy candidate, Louisville crushed visiting NC State 54-13 yesterday. The Cards led 44-0 at the half.

The UVA-Louisville series is tied 2-2. Each team has beaten the other once since the Cardinals joined the ACC. Last season in Louisville, the `Hoos fell 38-31.

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