Oct. 14, 2017

By Jeff White (jwhite@virginia.edu)

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — For the second straight week, the University of Virginia football team found itself locked in a tense battle in the final minutes of an ACC game.

For the second straight Saturday, the Cavaliers refused to yield. A week after rallying to defeat Duke 28-21 at Scott Stadium, Virginia ended a seven-game losing streak against North Carolina with another comeback victory.

After falling behind 14-10 early in the second half, the Wahoos rallied to beat UNC 20-14 at Kenan Stadium. The victory was the fourth straight for UVA (5-1 overall, 2-0 ACC).

“I know in past years, we didn’t pull these games out,” said UVA junior wide receiver Olamide Zaccheaus, who caught five passes for 100 yards and one TD. “We’re just confident in what we’re capable of doing. There’s never a worry or a fret or anything. We’re confident, and we just keep playing.”

Late in the game, the Cavaliers had a first down at the UNC 22 and an opportunity to stretch their lead to 13 points with a touchdown (and PAT) or nine with a field goal.

“That would have been great,” sophomore defensive back Chris Moore said. “Less stress.”

A personal foul on second down, for a block below the waist, moved the Cavaliers back to the 35, however, and then Benkert lost a fumble after being sacked on third-and-17 from the 29. That gave the Tar Heels (1-6, 0-4) one last chance to extend their winning streak in this series.

“I was just thinking that was the last thing we needed and I was hoping our defense could pull it off,” Benkert said of UVA’s lone turnover Saturday. “It was tough.”

As it had against Duke, however, the Cavaliers’ defense delivered again. A fourth-down sack by outside linebacker Chris Peace ended UNC’s drive with 1:07 to play, allowing UVA’s offense to run off the final seconds in victory formation.

“Our defense is the heart and soul of our team,” Benkert said, “and I think that’s playing to a really good strength of ours right now.”

The Cavaliers, who led 10-0 at halftime, allowed two touchdowns early in the third quarter, both by freshman running back Michael Carter. But the `Hoos didn’t panic.

“To [the Heels’] credit, they came back, but to our credit we came back again,” Virginia head coach Bronco Mendenhall said. “And that’s really what football is: You just keep bouncing back and getting up and making corrections and adjust and match up and adjust again, match up and motivate and match up and improvise, and then hopefully you make one or two more plays than the opponent.

“The last two weeks, that’s what our team has done.”

Late in the third quarter, Zaccheaus, in the right flat, caught a pass from Benkert and took off down the right sideline. Aided by a block by fellow wideout Doni Dowling, Zaccheaus raced 81 yards for a touchdown that put UVA back on top.

“If you’re off at all against Olamide, he’s going to go for a long ways,” Mendenhall said, “and it’s nice to have that caliber of player on our team.”

The Cavaliers are equally delighted to have junior running back Jordan Ellis, who rushed 27 times for a career-high 137 yards Saturday.

“He’s a gritty guy, as you saw today,” Zaccheaus said. “This is just what he’s been working for his whole life. This offseason I literally watched him every day just grind extra, just do extra things, and it’s paying off for him.”

True freshman A.J. Mejia, who opened the scoring Saturday with a 20-yard field goal, booted a 27-yarder with 14:14 left to push Virginia’s lead to 20-14.

WHAT IT MEANS: At the midpoint of the regular season, the Cavaliers are one win from becoming bowl-eligible for the first time since 2011. They finished 2-10 in 2016, their first season under Mendenhall.

The `Hoos are off to their best start since 2007, when they won seven of their first eight games.

“We’ll celebrate on our [bus] ride home,” Zaccheaus said, “but we’ve just got to get back to work.”

The victory was the Cavaliers’ first over Carolina since 2009, when they won 16-3 in Chapel Hill. In Charlottesville last season, the Tar Heels romped 35-14.

“Last year they kind of embarrassed us at our own stadium, so we wanted to come back and return the favor,” Ellis said. “We knew it was going to be a hard-fought game. It’s a rivalry for a reason, and so we knew they weren’t going to just lay down. It was definitely a well-deserved win.”

TURNING POINT: A 47-yard touchdown run by Carter put UNC ahead 14-10 with 9:52 left in the third quarter, and the score hadn’t changed when the Cavaliers took over on their 19 with 3:38 to play in the third.

One play later, after Zaccheaus’ 81-yard TD reception, the `Hoos were back on top for good.

Benkert finished 19-of-31 passing for 249 yards and two touchdowns Saturday. Asked about seeing a short pass to Zaccheaus turn into a long TD, Benkert smiled.

“It seems like that’s what everyone does in college football, and it’s about time I got one,” he said. “That was awesome.”

THE GAME WAS OVER WHEN: Peace, a junior who had teamed with sophomore lineman Juwan Moye to sack UNC quarterback Brandon Harris in the third quarter, brought down Harris for a 12-yard loss on fourth-and-9 from the UVA 37 with 1:07 remaining.

“It’s fourth down, and I’m thinking about all those sleds we pushed in the summer,” Peace said. “That’s what we do it for. I just try to go all out. I didn’t have a move in mind. I just tried to get to the QB and get him down.”

The Tar Heels and their fans screamed for a facemask call against Peace, whose hand made contact with Harris’ helmet, but no penalty was forthcoming, and the Cavaliers took over.

“At the end I kind of dove,” Peace said. “I felt something. I might have hit [Harris’ facemask], but I got him down.”

Asked about the play, Mendenhall said, “I think the officials do the best they can. We send in [questionable] plays [to the head of ACC officials] every week and our opponents send in plays every week. It doesn’t change the outcome, but what it does is hold [officials] accountable for being able to stay in the league at a high level.”

GAME BALLS: The `Hoos had many heroes Saturday. They included:

* Ellis, who topped the 100 yards rushing for the first time as a Cavalier. He rushed for 50 yards in the fourth quarter.

“That’s what you do all the running [for in the offseason],” Ellis said. “That’s where it pays off. In the third and fourth quarter, you want to be the person that can put the game away, and I felt pretty fresh in the fourth quarter, and [UNC defenders] were pretty tired, and they had hands on their hips and stuff like that.”

Mendenhall said Ellis “had probably the most impact on the game of anyone on our team. He just kept falling forward and falling forward, running hard, falling forward, and the clock was ticking down and we were just moving the football.”

Benkert said: “What should be 3-yard runs are turning into 6-yard runs, and that’s kind of who he is.”

* Zaccheaus, who now has 115 career receptions, good for 12th all-time at UVA. He passed Herman Moore and Wali Lundy, each of whom had 114 career catches, on Saturday. Zaccheaus has caught at least one pass in 22 consecutive games.

“He can do a lot when he has the ball in his hands with momentum,” Benkert said.

* Mejia, who was 2 for 2 on field goals and 2 for 2 on extra points Saturday. For the season, he’s 4 for 5 on field goals.

“Huge,” Mendenhall said of Mejia’s contribution.

Benkert said: “Last year I felt like we had to score touchdowns at all times, and this year it’s different. We don’t have to be as aggressive down in the red zone. We don’t have to force anything and we have a reliable kicker, so it changes everything down there.”

* Defensive backs Chris Moore, Bryce Hall and Brenton Nelson, each of whom had an interception Saturday.

Hall, who was a standout receiver in high school, returned his pick 36 yards. For Moore, who also made six tackles, the interception was the first of his college career.

* Peace, who finished with tackles, was in on two sacks, and forced a fumble.

THEY SAID IT: The Cavaliers, not surprisingly, were in high spirits after their fourth straight victory. Among the highlights of their postgame interviews:

* Mendenhall on seeing his team’s success: “When kids try really hard, which is what I’m passionate about, and then start to link the result to their efforts, they start to blossom. It’s fun. My role becomes more advisor, rather than the one leading the charge. I like to pass it off. So when the team came in the locker room, Jordan Ellis came in with me, and I just put him in the middle and I went on the outside and they mobbed him.”

* More Mendenhall: “It’s [the players’] team, it’s their program, and it’ll be them writing the chapter of UVA football for this year. I love to see that. I let them claim the pen. I don’t want to be the writer. I want them to write it.”

* Benkert on the team’s ability to deal with adversity: “We were up, then we were down, then we were up, and then we turned the ball over, just to be able to fight through that, it means even more when we’re walking in the locker room with a win.”

* Junior tight end Evan Butts on the players’ fitness: “You also gotta give credit to [director of football performance] Frank Wintrich and the training staff. From a strength and stamina standpoint, pretty much all of us feel like we could play another game, I feel like, after playing four quarters.”

WHAT’S NEXT? Three home games remain for the Cavaliers. The first comes next Saturday at 12:30 p.m., when UVA (5-1, 2-0) takes on Boston College (3-4, 1-3) at Scott Stadium.

“There’s no easy ones,” Mendenhall said. “It’ll take everything we have against them.”

BC pulled off a stunning upset this afternoon, winning 45-42 at Lousville. Freshman running back A.J. Dillon rushed 39 times for 272 yards and four touchdowns to lead the Eagles.

The `Hoos have never beaten BC in football. In their most recent meeting, on Nov. 20, 2010, BC won 17-13 in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, to run its record in the series to 5-0.

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