By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — A long bus ride home through the dark followed a loss as disappointing as it was frustrating for the University of Virginia football team Saturday.
After rallying for 14 straight points in the third quarter, a comeback that gave the Cavaliers a 20-17 lead heading into the fourth, they self-destructed on a sparkling fall day at Wake Forest’s BB&T Field.
Junior quarterback Kurt Benkert threw two interceptions in the final nine minutes, and Wake punished Virginia for those mistakes.
A 41-yard interception return by free safety Cameron Glenn set up the field goal that made it 20-20 with 7:51 remaining. Then, on UVA’s next series, after Benkert unwisely threw into coverage, strong safety Jessie Bates III ran the interception back 39 yards for what proved to be the decisive touchdown in the Demon Deacons’ 27-20 victory.
“It hurts,” Benkert said. “It starts with me, obviously. I put us in that position, and I just can’t let that happen. I’ve got to bounce back next week and help this team win a game.”
Wake (6-3, 3-2) became bowl-eligible with the win. For the Wahoos (2-7, 1-4), three games remain, starting with their home finale next Saturday against the Miami Hurricanes.
Whatever happens down the stretch, Virginia is assured of a fifth straight losing season.
“What it’s going to take to get over the hump is to keep cracking at it,” senior center Jackson Matteo said. “Every day you’ve got to come to work, you’ve got to be positive, you’ve got to believe in what the coaching staff is preaching, and you have to have full buy-in. And we do.”
Virginia’s offense could not have been more impressive on its first possession, a 75-yard drive capped by sophomore Jordan Ellis’ 6-yard touchdown run. After that, however, it “kind of seemed like we were struggling to find our exact rhythm and identity,” Mendenhall said. “I will say that I think Wake Forest has a good defense, and I enjoyed watching the film on them. So they did a nice job.”
By halftime, the `Hoos had only 134 yards of offense and trailed 17-6. Still, they fought back after the break and put themselves in position to win.
“I really liked the way that our team responded after being challenged at halftime, and the urgency and the mindset was improved,” Mendenhall said. “The difference in the game today was Wake Forest took the ball away three times, and we didn’t take it away any.”
For Mendenhall, who came to Virginia from BYU in December, this will be the first time in his 12 years as a head coach that he’ll finish a season with a losing record.
For Benkert, who transferred to Virginia after graduating from ECU in the spring, his first year as a starter has been marked by extreme highs and lows. He threw two touchdown passes against Wake to raise his season’s total to 19, but he’s also had 11 passes picked off. Two of those interceptions have been returned for touchdowns.
“Sometimes you’re going to get sacked,” Mendenhall said, “and even though we need yards and even though the situation calls for a first down, sometimes it’s better to take that than deliver the ball in traffic.”
Mendenhall wants Benkert to be aggressive with the ball, within reason. “He’s trying to extend plays so long and so hard, and I applaud him for that,” Mendenhall said. “But he doesn’t have to do it all by himself.”
The lessons Benkert is learning “are hard,” Mendenhall said, “and especially at a position like that where it’s so visible.”
Wake’s quarterback, John Wolford, fared better Saturday. Wolford can’t match Benkert’s arm strength, but he played a clean game and repeatedly hurt the `Hoos with his feet.
A 6-1, 200-pound junior, Wolford came in having thrown nearly twice as many interceptions (seven) as touchdown passes (four) this season. But he wasn’t intercepted Saturday and completed 9 of 10 attempts for 83 yards and one TD.
Wolford also rushed 16 times for 94 yards, 64 of which came on a first-quarter touchdown run that put the Deacons ahead. The Cavaliers didn’t regain the lead until the final minute of the third quarter.
“I give him credit,” Mendenhall, also Virginia’s defensive coordinator, said of Wolford, “because there was a D-line twist to take away the inside and a linebacker blitzing. I haven’t seen the film, but how he got through those guys, I don’t know.”
Inside linebacker Micah Kiser, the ACC’s leading tackler, led Virginia with 11 stops Saturday. Terrell had a career-high 10 tackles.
“Other than [Wolford’s long run], we had a great chance to win the game by how we played defensively, and last week as well [against No. 5 Louisville],” Mendenhall said. “I would say there’s momentum being generated there.”
Virginia’s offense remains much less consistent. Its three turnovers Saturday led to 17 points for the Deacons. The first turnover came on a botched handoff on fourth-and-1 from the Wake 38-yard line late in the first half.
The Deacons, starting at their 48, then efficiently drove for the touchdown that gave them a 17-6 lead at the break.
The Cavaliers have turned the ball over at least once in every game this season. Virginia’s fourth consecutive loss was not the result “of a lack of effort or intent,” Mendenhall said. “This was an execution-driven, ball-security game, and when you play close games, which Wake Forest plays, those kind of things make the difference.”
To call Wake’s offensive game plan conservative would be an understatement. The Deacons did not attempt a pass until the second quarter.
“It was obvious they just wanted to run the ball, get the lead, play defense and lean on their defense,” said Kiser, a redshirt junior. “We got them out of that a little bit in the third and beginning of the fourth quarter when we took that lead, but they wanted to run the ball and they were a pretty physical team.”
Senior running back Taquan Mizzell led Virginia with 80 yards on 16 carries, and he had six receptions for 79 yards and a touchdown. But the Cavaliers totaled only 295 yards Saturday — about 80 fewer than their average coming in — against a Wake defense that overwhelmed UVA’s offensive line at times in the second half.
The Deacons sacked Benkert five times.
“I just gotta stand in there play after play, just treat each play as its own and not let the pressure get to me as the game goes on,” Benkert said. “And when things are going well, I can’t try to do too much, which is what I tried doing, and it cost us.”
HIGHLIGHT-REEL MATERIAL UVA’s second touchdown was anything but ordinary. On second-and-goal from the Wake 2, Benkert threw across the field to junior wide receiver Doni Dowling, who stuck out his right hand, pulled down the ball and got his feet down before tumbling out of bounds.
“It was a run-pass option,” Dowling said. “The defender got his hands on me, I felt him grab me inside. Kurt put a perfect ball in my area. There is no defense against a perfect ball. I put my hand out there and kept my eye on it. It surprised me just as much as it surprised other people. It is a play I can make, but a one-hand catch always opens up people’s eyes, because it adds a bit of juice to the play.”
Dowling finished with a career-best eight receptions for 76 yards.
Moments after Dowling’s TD catch, Virginia surprised Wake with a perfectly executed onside kick. Sam Hayward popped the ball to his right, and cornerback Juan Hornhill caught it in the air at the UVA 47.
That marked the first time since the 1998 Peach Bowl against Georgia that the Cavaliers recovered an onside kick.
ROLLER-COASTER RIDE: Benkert’s first interception came on a third-and-8 pass intended for Dowling. The ball bounced off Dowling’s outstretched hands, and Glenn took off running after coming down with the pick.
The second interception came with Virginia facing third-and-22 from its 13-yard line. Benkert scrambled to avoid Wake’s pass rush, then let loose with an off-balance pass that had no chance of reaching its target.
“I was just trying to make too much happen, obviously,” Benkert said. “That was really bad. And the first one was a little bit off line.”
Earlier in the half, though, Benkert had scrambled out of pressure and tossed a pass that Mizzell, alone behind the Wake secondary, hauled in for a 45-yard touchdown.
“There were a lot of [defenders] trying to crowd me,” Mizzell said, “so when I came out of my route, there were two guys already there. So I just did a scramble drill and went upfield and they let me go, and Kurt did a great job of finding me upfield.”
Benkert said: “Obviously, there’s a fine line with [throwing after leaving the pocket]. You throw touchdowns on it sometimes … I just can’t throw those picks. It cost us.”
UP NEXT: Virginia’s final home game of the season is next Saturday against Coastal Division foe Miami.
At 2 p.m., the Cavaliers host the Hurricanes (5-4, 2-3) at Scott Stadium. UVA takes on Georgia Tech in Atlanta on Nov. 19 and then closes the regular season against No. 23 Virginia Tech in Blacksburg on Nov. 26.
Miami, in its first season under former Georgia head coach Mark Richt, defeated visiting Pitt 51-28 this afternoon. That ended a four-game losing streak for the `Canes.
UVA has won four of its past six meetings with Miami, but trails 7-6 in the series.