By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — On an afternoon when little went well in the second half for the University of Virginia football team, Taquan Mizzell etched his name in the ACC record book.
Mizzell, a senior running back from Virginia Beach, became the first player in ACC history to total 1,500 yards rushing and 1,500 receiving for his career.
In his final game at Scott Stadium, where UVA lost 34-14 to Coastal Division rival Miami on Saturday, Mizzell carried 22 times for 89 yards and one touchdown, and caught three passes for 27 yards. That raised his career totals to 1,831 yards rushing and 1,517 receiving.
“The record thing was all good, but it felt even more special to share that moment with Matt Johns,” Mizzell told reporters.
Johns was Virginia’s starting quarterback in 2015, when Mizzell made the All-ACC third team. Before Saturday, Johns been used this season only as the holder on extra points and field goals. But after starter Kurt Benkert turned the ball over for the second time against the Hurricanes (6-4 overall, 3-3 ACC), Johns led the offense on UVA’s final two drives.
Of the seven passes Johns attempted, three were dropped by Virginia receivers. But his final throw, a 23-yard completion, was the reception that made ACC history for Mizzell.
“It was nice to finish playing quarterback my last game at Scott,” Johns said. ” I’m going to miss it. I’m going to miss it.”
Two games remain for Virginia, both on the road. UVA (2-8, 1-15) visits Georgia Tech (6-4, 3-4) next Saturday and No. 14 Virginia Tech (7-3, 5-2) on Nov. 26.
Benkert, a 6-4, 230-pound junior, will be back next season, unlike Johns. But the Wahoos’ offensive coordinator, Robert Anae, said 2017 won’t factor into the coaching staff’s decision about which quarterback starts in Atlanta.
“Not at all,” Anae said. “In all fairness to our guys that are laying it out on the line, it’s our job to do the best and to play the players in the right positions to give ourselves the best chance to move forward, and we’re talking about moving forward for this week. We’re not worried about next year right now.”
Benkert, who transferred to UVA from East Carolina at the end of the 2015-16 academic year, has completed 219 of 380 passes (57.6 percent) for 2,430 yards and 20 touchdowns this season, with 11 interceptions.
For only the second time this fall, Benkert did not throw an interception Saturday. But he lost two fumbles — the first on a third-quarter sack — and after the second turnover head coach Bronco Mendenhall instructed Anae to insert Johns.
“I didn’t feel like we were gaining momentum, it felt like we were losing momentum,” said Mendenhall, who’s in his first season at UVA, “and I thought at that point having a change would give us a better chance to finish. So it wasn’t necessarily Senior Day-oriented. I love Matt and wanted to give him a chance, and so I asked Coach Anae to put him in and I think he did well. He gave us a spark and put a few balls on the money and his teammates were cheering hard for him, as were his coaches.”
On his first series, Johns hit junior wideout Doni Dowling on a deep route for a 44-yard completion. He wasn’t nervous coming in cold, said Johns, who likened it to the 2014 season opener in which he threw two TD passes after replacing starter Grayson Lambert.
“I kind of just approached it how I did against UCLA, when people aren’t expecting much,” Johns said, “and you just have to go in there and focus on yourself and control the controllables.”
In 2015, when Virginia finished 4-8, Johns completed 247 of 403 passes (61.3) percent for 2,810 yards and 20 touchdowns, with 17 interceptions. He looked comfortable running the Cavaliers’ two-minute offense Saturday.
“To have a quarterback come right off the [bench] and hit guys in the hands, at least give them opportunities to catch the football, I thought was a huge plus,” Anae said. “I was really excited to see Matt given an opportunity and step in and do a good job.”
That Johns appeared poised in his brief stint Saturday did not surprise his teammates.
“I’ve always said this about Matt Johns: You just know he’s a gamer, and you know when he gets in, he’s going to make something happen,” said redshirt junior Micah Kiser, who recorded his first career interception Saturday, setting up Virginia’s first touchdown, and finished with a game-high 12 tackles.
Kiser smiled. “He runs around slow as whatever, but he still makes plays happen, and so he came in and he provided energy and a spark, and he does what he does in games. He’s a baller.”
Benkert was 16-of-27 passing for 143 yards and one touchdown Saturday. The TD pass — a 13-yarder to sophomore wideout David Eldridge — came on a third-quarter play on which a Miami defender flattened Benkert.
At other times, though, Benkert looked rattled in the pocket, and he acknowledged that he’s not always making good decisions.
“It’s one of those struggles that I’m trying to work through right now,” Benkert said. “I’m just trying to hang in there, not get out too soon when I do have time, and just try to progress in terms of that.”
His second fumble, about five minutes into the fourth quarter, was one of four second-half turnovers for Virginia. Benkert started to scramble and lost the ball when he was hit.
“I didn’t tuck as soon as I normally do and [the defender] got a hand on it,” Benkert said. “I just gotta do a better job of keeping two hands on the ball when I’m moving around in the pocket.”
The `Hoos, who trailed 17-14 at halftime, squandered several opportunities in the second half. Miami’s lead was only six points late in the third quarter when senior wideout Keeon Johnson dropped a third-and-1 pass from Benkert that would have given the Cavaliers a first down near midfield.
UVA ended up punting, and moments later Miami quarterback Brad Kaaya teamed with David Njoku on a 77-yard touchdown pass that broke the game open.
Its defense played well enough for Virginia to win Saturday, Anae said. But the offense totaled only 289 yards, and that puzzled and troubled Anae, “because this is not going to be characteristic of a Virginia offense,” he said.
For now, though, “this is exactly who we are,” Anae said. “I [won’t] sugar-coat who we are right now and where we are. We’ve got two games left, and it’s going to be my responsibility to see that I’ve got players in the right position throughout the game to do things they’re capable of doing. We were capable of driving the ball and scoring points today. We did it in the first half. We did not do it in the second.”
Asked about Benkert’s confidence level, Anae said dealing with both success and failure is “all part of being a quarterback. So to manage that, you’ve got to be a really tough guy. To be a quarterback on a team that’s not doing well, going in the wrong direction, the quarterback has to be the one that stands up and either leads and improves that thing, or you just see that you don’t get better.
“Right now we have not been getting better. Part of it’s the quarterback. Part of it’s [receivers not] making plays, because when the quarterback was on point, we dropped the ball in critical situations. It’s all of the above.”
Johns appreciates better than most what Benkert is facing.
“It’s tough,” Johns said, “because he’s the one in there when the bullets are flying and he’s the one taking the hits. Every quarterback kind of responds differently, and it’s just a matter of trying to create that next play as a brand-new play. You can’t remember when you took a hit five plays before, and as a quarterback that’s hard to do. I did that last year and the year before that. There’s times where the pressure’s coming and you just get a little antsy. But he’s really a tough kid, and his mindset and composure are the same every day. He’s a very poised individual, and I really love working with Kurt.”