By Jeff White (email@example.com)
ATLANTA — In early August, the University of Virginia football team opened training camp, filled with anticipation for the coming season.
Some three months later, the reality of UVA’s first campaign under head coach Bronco Mendenhall has been sobering. Since winning Oct. 1 at Duke — a victory that ended their streak of 17 consecutive road losses — the Cavaliers have dropped six straight games.
Their latest setback, a 31-17 loss to Georgia Tech at Bobby Dodd Stadium, unfolded in familiar fashion on a blustery Saturday afternoon. The Wahoos, as is almost always the case, played hard, but once again they self-destructed at crucial points against an ACC opponent.
Virginia, which led 10-7 well into the third quarter, turned the ball over three times in the final 16 minutes. Quarterback Matt Johns’ third interception came on the last play of the game, with the outcome decided, but the first two turnovers helped turn the game in the Yellow Jackets’ favor.
“They were the right reads,” Johns said, “those two just got away from me, and that really cost us.”
And now the Cavaliers’ first season under Mendenhall has entered its final week. At noon Saturday, in a game ESPN2 will televise, Virginia (2-9 ACC, 1-6 overall) meets Virginia Tech (8-3, 5-2) at Lane Stadium in Blacksburg.
“Next week is our bowl game,” senior running back Taquan Mizzell said after rushing for a career-high 131 yards against Georgia Tech (7-4, 4-4).
The challenge facing the `Hoos is formidable. Virginia has dropped 12 straight games to the Hokies overall and hasn’t won at Lane Stadium since 1998.
“We’re trying to go out with a win,” Mizzell said. “That’s something that hasn’t been done here in a long time.”
Johns said: “We’re putting all our marbles into the basket for this one, and we will be ready to play.”
The Hokies rallied to beat the Cavaliers 23-20 at Scott Stadium in last year’s regular-season finale. Johns completed 18 of 32 passes for 171 yards and one touchdown, with two interceptions.
He did not start another game until Saturday in Atlanta. With junior Kurt Benkert, who’d started the first 10 games this season, watching from the sideline, Johns led the Cavaliers’ offense.
“It was strong for a long time,” Mendenhall said of Johns’ performance. “We looked composed, we looked experienced, we looked like we were making good decisions, we were moving the ball methodically. We weren’t taking things that weren’t there or trying to force.”
But in the final minute of the third quarter, with the Yellow Jackets leading 21-10, Johns overthrew wide receiver Keeon Johnson, who was open in the middle of the field, and Corey Griffin picked off the pass and returned it 33 yards to the Virginia 18. That turnover led to a field goal that stretched Georgia Tech’s lead to 24-10.
Virginia answered with a 75-play drive capped by Johns’ 1-yard touchdown pass to Ryan Santoro on fourth down. Sam Hayward’s extra point made it 24-17 with 7:18 left, and then the Cavaliers’ defense forced a Georgia Tech punt.
The `Hoos took over on their 2-yard lane, and Johns’ completions to wideout Doni Dowling and Mizzell moved the ball to the 14. But a game-changing turnover followed. Johns overthrew Johnson again, and Lance Austin returned the interception 24 yards for a TD that effectively sealed the Jackets’ victory.
That marked the fourth time this season an opposing defender has returned an interception for a touchdown against Virginia. The Cavaliers have turned the ball over at least once in every game this season.
“When it gets a little heated and we ask a little more [of the offense], that’s been the folly of our season, and it’s been that way throughout the year,” offensive coordinator Robert Anae said. “There’s no way to pinpoint it on one person or one group, but as [an offense], when it counts, we have not been able to be consistent.”
Johns finished 27-of-44 passing for 220 yards and one touchdown, with three interceptions.
“We just gotta be better all around for the quarterback to show better production,” Anae said, “and that’s kind of been the story of the year. The quarterback’s got to manage all of that and at the same time make things happen.
“The second half, it looked like the game got a little too fast for Matt.”
Whether Johns will start against the Hokies was unclear after the game. Benkert remains an option.
“Assessment is something I’ll do with the staff,” Mendenhall said, “and then we’ll look at what we think is best for our team, best for each of those individuals, and best for our program in moving forward.”
Mendenhall also coordinates UVA’s defense, which stuffed the Jackets’ vaunted triple-option attack for most of the game.
Georgia Tech finished with only eight first downs. Of the Jackets’ 321 yards — Virginia totaled 409 — 181 came on three plays: a 67-yard touchdown run by Marcus Marshall, a 54-yard touchdown pass from Justin Thomas to Clinton Lynch, and a 60-yard run by Qua Searcy.
“That’s kind of been our Achilles heel all year, the big plays,” inside linebacker Micah Kiser. “Other than that I thought we executed pretty well, but those three plays hurt us.
“Coach Mendenhall loves playing against the option. I think he showed why. If we could have just executed a little better on those three plays, I don’t think they get anything against us.”
Mendenhall said: “I was impressed with our team’s preparation and their fight and their spirit and composure for a lot of the game today. They put a lot of work in this week, especially on the defensive side, with extra time to give themselves a very good chance to win the game. Which I think they did.”
A pivotal sequence occurred midway through the third quarter. With the Cavaliers leading 10-7, Georgia Tech gambled on fourth-and-1 from its 29-yard line. Senior nose tackle Donte Wilkins sliced through the line and tackled backup quarterback Matthew Jordan for no gain, and the `Hoos took over with palpable momentum and an opportunity to extend their lead.
Instead, after three plays netted five yards, Virginia had to settle down for a 42-yard field-goal attempt, which Sam Hayward missed. Four plays later, the Jackets took the lead for good on Lynch’s 54-yard touchdown catch.
“The momentum swing, it was huge,” UVA center Jackson Matteo said. “It felt like we were going to go right down and march and put it in the end zone, and we didn’t. We gave it back to them, and that kind of changed things a little bit, and you could kind of feel the momentum swing.”
Johns said: “That’s where you have to capitalize. That’s what really good football teams do. We needed to get points there, and unfortunately we didn’t.”
Virginia scored first Saturday, when running back Daniel Hamm took a direct snap from Matteo and ran 4 yards for a touchdown at the 11:55 mark of the first quarter.
Mizzell didn’t score Saturday, but he did about everything else. In addition to his 131 yards rushing — his previous high was 117, against North Carolina last year — he caught six passes for 45 yards.
“That’s why I love playing with him,” Johns said. “You see the passion and how hard he plays every single game, and that’s a guy you want to play for.”
Another senior running back, Albert Reid, gained 63 yards on 12 carries Saturday. In all, the `Hoos totaled 189 yards rushing — their second-highest total of the season.
To defeat the Hokies, Virginia almost certainly will have to run the ball effectively at Lane Stadium.
“I think it’s extremely important to establish a running game, because that opens up so many options,” Matteo said. “If you don’t really get going on the ground, then you’re kind of a one-trick pony, and then you’re getting in predictable positions, and third-and-longs, and now they can bring pressure and now they know we’re passing.”
Through a season marked by disappointing losses, UVA’s players have continued to practice with enthusiasm, showing up at the McCue Center each Monday ready to work. Mendenhall is confident that won’t change this week.
“My message to them in the locker room was, my plan is to go as hard as I can go to help them and help this program have a strong finish in their last game,” Mendenhall said. “I’ll put a plan together that will hopefully allow them to do that, and I’m trusting them to put the preparation in to execute that plan as hard as they can.”
For Virginia’s seniors, their college careers will end Saturday in Blacksburg, which only heightens the significance of the annual battle for the Commonwealth Cup.
“It’s a bowl game,” Mizzell said. “We’ve got one game left, one week of college practice, one college game left, and [the Hokies are] going to get all I’ve got.”