By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — At the south end of Scott Stadium, an exhausted but happy Bronco Mendenhall leaned against the wall outside the home locker room and greeted his players with hugs and handshakes as they approached the entrance.
In the middle of the rain-soaked field, the celebration continued, as fans mixed with players in a joyful throng.
At the north end of the stadium, the scoreboard told the story: Virginia 40, Georgia Tech 36.
This was not just any victory. The Cavaliers trailed 28-13 early in the third quarter and 36-33 late in the fourth.
“Those kind of comebacks, they don’t happen very often,” said Mendenhall, who’s in his second season at UVA.
And now, for the first time since 2011, the Cavaliers (6-3 overall, 3-2 ACC) are bowl-eligible. This from a team that was picked to finish last in the Coastal Division.
At his postgame press conference, MendenhalI put the win in perspective.
“Let’s be honest,” he said. “This is not business as usual at UVA. Otherwise we’d be a bowl team every year, and I wouldn’t be here. These guys have worked really hard, and they ought to have today and tomorrow, at least, to just enjoy what they’ve done, and then Monday we’ll assess whomever we play next.”
Coming off dispiriting back-to-back losses — to Boston College and Pitt– Virginia found itself trailing 28-13 after Georgia Tech (4-4, 3-3) scored two touchdowns in the first 35 seconds of the third quarter.
The Wahoos didn’t panic. “Everybody just kept saying on the sideline, `It’s far from over,’ ” said outside linebacker Chris Peace, a redshirt junior.
“When we were down 15, we could have easily quit,” said inside linebacker Micah Kiser, a fifth-year senior. “We didn’t. We came back.”
A 34-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Kurt Benkert to another fifth-year senior, wide receiver Andre Levrone, started the Cavaliers’ comeback, and true freshman A.J. Mejia‘s extra point made it 28-20 with 11:39 left in the third quarter.
On the Yellow Jackets’ next possession, UVA safety Quin Blanding intercepted a TaQuon Marshall pass. Two plays later, Benkert threw another long touchdown pass, this one a 28-yarder to senior wideout Doni Dowling. Benkert then passed to junior wideout Olamide Zaccheaus for the 2-point conversion, and suddenly it was 28-28.
A 33-yard field goal by Mejia made it 31-28, and UVA inside linebacker Jordan Mack forced a fumble that Marshall had to fall on in the end zone for a safety. That pushed the Cavaliers’ lead to 33-28 with 8:49 left.
The Jackets, though rattled, never unraveled. After a three-and-out by Virginia, Georgia Tech drove 90 yards for a touchdown, the final 33 coming on a pass from Marshall to receiver Ricky Jeune. Marshall then ran for the 2-point conversion, and the `Hoos trailed 36-33 with 3:10 remaining.
What followed, in a driving rain, was a drive that may be remembered as the most important of this season for Virginia. It started, after a 14-yard kickoff return by fifth-year senior Daniel Hamm, at the UVA 36. It ended with Benkert’s 27-yard touchdown pass to Levrone, who came down with the ball on the left side of the end zone.
In between were completions of 19 yards (to Zaccheaus), 5 yards (to junior running back Jordan Ellis) and 8 yards (to Dowling).
“It was beautiful,” Benkert said of the drive. “It was a lot of fun to be a part of. Just guys looking at you in the eyes and knowing that you’re ready to go, and vice versa, and just truly believing that we could do it and we could pull it off. Because we’ve been on the opposite end of that too many times here since I’ve been here. To have that opportunity to [get] over the hump of six wins and to do it in that fashion, I don’t think you could have put together a better storybook ending for that game.”
The Jackets had one final opportunity to regain the lead, and a fourth-down pass from Marshall to Jeune moved them 35 yards to the UVA 32. But the Cavaliers’ defense stiffened, and after senior end Andrew Brown and junior cornerback Juan Thornhill sacked Marshall for a 5-yard loss on third down, Peace harassed Marshall into a fourth-down incompletion with 15 seconds left, and the celebration began in Charlottesville.
“I’ve been here as long as anybody on this team,” Hamm said, “so going through all the struggles that we’ve been through, all the hard things we’ve been through with Coach Mendenhall and his staff, it’s so rewarding, just to get to that sixth win and be able to reach a milestone that I have yet to reach in my career here.”
The postgame scene in the locker room was wild, Hamm said. “Water flying everywhere, music blaring, people happy. There’s not one sad soul in the locker room.”
OFF AND RUNNING: UVA sophomore Joe Reed returned the opening kickoff 57 yards to the Georgia Tech 34. He was only getting warmed up. After the Jackets took a 14-6 lead with 2:31 left in the second quarter, Reed ran the ensuing kickoff back 92 yards for a touchdown.
The program’s first kickoff return for a TD since 2010 was not an all-out sprint to the end zone.
At about the Virginia 20-yard line, “I ran into my own blocker, [tight end] Evan Butts,” Reed said, “and he just knocked me off-balance a little bit. I had to regain my balance and thought my best option was just to cut the other way. Hopefully it’s me against the kicker, which it was.”
Hamm lines up deep with Reed on kickoffs, and they have a routine as they await the ball.
“Every return, [Hamm] looks me in my eyes and tells me, `This is going to be the one,’ ” Reed said.
Hamm said: “We talk all the time, like, `Joe, today’s the day.’ And it seems like every time we get a little closer, a little closer. And then when I saw him take off running, I just knew. I knew.”
Reed, who usually lines up at wide receiver on offense, also had a 29-yard run and caught two passes for 9 yards. He finished with a career-high 208 all-purpose yards and was “a huge influence on the game,” Mendenhall said.
UNSUNG HERO: On a raw, wet day, Mejia was 3 for 3 on field goals, connecting from 36, 23 and 33 yards, and 3 for 3 on extra points. His final PAT, after Levrone’s second TD catch, was something of an adventure.
The ball hit the left upright, bounced over to the right upright and then finally landed over the crossbar for the extra point that made it 40-36.
ABOUT-FACE: At halftime, Benkert was only 7-of-19 passing for 78 yards — in part because of several drops by his targets. In the third quarter, Benkert’s first pass was intercepted and returned 27 yards for a touchdown. But he continued to battle and saw his perseverance rewarded.
“Kurt Benkert down the stretch was exceptional,” Mendenhall said, “[as were the] throws he was making and the connections we were making on the big plays, which we’ve been struggling with. I might be happiest for him.”
Benkert completed 21 of 43 passes for 260 yards and three TDs, with one interception. A transfer from East Carolina, he’s thrown 41 TD passes in two seasons as a Cavalier.
MORE TO PLAY FOR: With three regular-season games left, Virginia is still in the race for the Coastal Division title.
“Coach Mendenhall came in [the locker room Saturday night] and said he’s proud of us and there’s nothing more that we could have done,” Blanding said. “And I simply told him there’s more, just because of the simple fact that that’s what he’s ingrained in us, and that’s how we work, that’s how we drive, and that’s how our mindset is.
“This is just another milestone and a step forward for us, and the only thing we can do is keep going forward, and that’s how we’ve got to be.”
GAME BALLS: Numerous players delivered strong performances for the Cavaliers, including the aforementioned Reed, Mejia and Benkert. Among the other standouts:
* Zaccheaus, who caught nine passes for 98 yards.
* Levrone, who scored touchdowns on two of his three receptions. “It was one of my favorite games that I’ve played in my life,” he said. “It came down to the wire. I feel blessed to be able to go out there and make some big plays for my team in clutch moments.”
* Junior Lester Coleman, who averaged 46 yards on his eight punts. Four of his punts pinned the Jackets inside their 20-yard line. His longest punt was a 63-yarder.
* Kiser, a returning All-American who tied his career high with 18 tackles. Kiser has battled injuries this season, but he “will not come off the field, and I’m not going to make him,” Mendenhall said.
“Just his presence alone makes everyone else feel like they’re capable. He’s really, really tough, and we rely on him in more ways than he’ll ever know, but he is the voice of our program, and he’s the heart of our program.”
* Thornhill, who missed the Pitt game with an injury, returned to make five tackles and break up three passes.
* Peace, who had seven tackles, including game-high two sacks (for 15 yards in losses).
* Brown, a disruptive force up front with eight stops, including 1.5 tackles for loss.
* Sophomore nose tackle Eli Hanback, who had 10 tackles and helped the Cavaliers record many more good plays than bad against Georgia Tech’s trademark triple-option attack.
THEY SAID IT: The joy of Mendenhall and the players who came into the Scott Stadium press room for postgame interviews was palpable Saturday night. Among the highlights:
* Levrone: “I’m so thankful for the things that Coach Mendenhall and his staff have instilled in our team in these past two years. It’s a true blessing to have them here and to have them be able to reinvigorate Virginia football and help each individual on our football team be a better football player and a better man.”
* Blanding on the team’s reaction to the win: “It was emotional. All the hard work that we’ve been doing each and every day since the offseason. That’s one of the reasons why I came here, to change this program, and to finally see it’s changing it is just an amazing thing.”
* Kiser on whether, when Georgia Tech took the field for its final drive, he flashed back to the heartbreaking losses Virginia suffered to Notre Dame (2015) and Louisville (2016) at Scott Stadium: “No, you’ve just got to live in the moment. That’s what Coach Mendenhall was preaching all week. Don’t be outcome-driven. Don’t think about the outcome, because then you start to play with fear and you’re scared of things.”
* Peace on the sixth victory: “It takes a monkey off our back. It takes some pressure off now. It was a two-game skid. This game I felt we came out with way more energy. The sideline was pumped, and we looked like we did the first half of the season in this game.”
* Hamm: “These past two weeks were not Virginia football, so we had to get back to that.”
* Mack on the reaction of his father, a former Georgia Tech fullback, to the Cavaliers’ victory: “He was out there on that field. He ran out there. He was wearing Virginia gear. He talked to me Thursday night and just said there’s nothing that would make him happier than for us to beat his alma mater.”
So, no pregame trash talk between father and son?
“Surprisingly, there wasn’t,” Mack said, smiling. “Not at all.”
WHAT’S NEXT? The Cavaliers, who are 2-1 away from Scott Stadium this season, have two road games left. The first is next Saturday at Louisville (5-4, 2-4). The game will start at 3:30 p.m. and be televised by ESPNU.
The Cardinals, who lost 42-32 at Wake Forest on Oct. 28, were off this weekend. Their top player is quarterback Lamar Jackson, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner.
At Scott Stadium last year, Jackson threw a 29-yard touchdown pass with 13 seconds left as Louisville rallied for a 32-25 victory. With 1:57 to play, the Cavaliers had taken a 25-24 lead on a touchdown and 2-point conversion.
Virginia’s final home game is Friday, Nov. 24, against Virginia Tech. For ticket information, click here.