Nov. 18, 2017

By Jeff White (

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — On the road against the second-ranked and heavily favored Miami Hurricanes, Virginia led 14-0 in the first quarter, 21-14 at the half, and 28-14 early in the third quarter Saturday afternoon.

“We can compete with anybody,” said Quin Blanding, the Cavaliers’ All-America safety.

In the end, however, an upset that would have shaken up the national championship race never materialized. The Hurricanes owned the fourth quarter at Hard Rock Stadium and pulled away for a 44-28 victory in the penultimate regular-season game for each of these ACC teams.

“We came close,” Blanding said, “but we came [up] short.”

This was a three-point game (31-28) with seven minutes remaining, but Virginia (6-5 overall, 3-4 ACC) turned the ball over on downs near midfield, after which the `Canes (10-0, 7-0) seized control. In total offense, the `Hoos outgained Miami 439 yards to 358, but they also had three turnovers, including an interception that was returned for a third-quarter touchdown.

“There were three to five plays, mostly there toward the end of the game, we couldn’t capitalize or didn’t capitalize on,” UVA head coach Bronco Mendenhall said, “so the finish didn’t look as we all would have hoped. But we had plenty of chances, and we were [in position] to pull a great upset for most of the game and just couldn’t quite finish.”

Over the first 30 minutes, graduate student Kurt Benkert put together one of the finest halves ever by a UVA quarterback. At the break, he was 17-for-18 passing for 262 yards and three touchdowns: one each to wide receivers Olamide Zaccheaus, Joe Reed and Andre Levrone.

In the first two quarters, Benkert said, “I feel like we were able to do what we wanted, really the whole time. And then in the second half they adjusted to us a little bit more, and we just couldn’t get things going as much as we’d like to go.

“The first half was good, but it wasn’t enough to win the game.”

Miami’s defense applied more pressure to Benkert in the second half, and his accuracy dropped. He threw only one interception, but it was a momentum-changing play. Seven seconds after the `Canes had cut UVA’s lead to 28-21, safety Jaquan Johnson picked off a Benkert pass and returned it 30 yards for another TD, to the delight of the home fans in the crowd of 63,415.

Still, Benkert said, “I wasn’t devastated. I knew at that point it was just 28-28. Still anybody’s ball game. We were still going to have to move the ball regardless if I threw that pick or not, if we wanted to win the game. So that doesn’t affect me.”

For the game, Benkert completed 28 of 37 passes for 384 yards and four TDs, the final one coming on a 26-yard pass to running back Daniel Hamm early in the third quarter on a short drive set up by true freshman Charles Snowden‘s blocked punt.

“He extended some plays,” Mendenhall said of Benkert. “We had scramble drill going where there were touchdowns happening. We scored from quite a long ways out multiple times, and really he played as effectively as the protection would allow him to play. When Miami had success, it was when they could get to us. When we protected well, we had a lot of good things happen in the pass game.

“I thought Kurt was poised and composed and, outside of the interception, did a nice job.”

The `Canes recorded five sacks Saturday, with four coming in the second half.

“They just brought more pressure,” Zaccheaus said. “That’s really the biggest difference … Kurt didn’t have as much time as he had in the first half.”

Offensive line coach Garett Tujague has used several combinations up front this season, with mixed results. Against Miami, true freshman Chris Glaser started at right tackle.

The O-line, Mendenhall said, is “still a work in progress and a moving target.” When the Cavaliers are running the ball effectively, they can keep defenses off balance. But once “it becomes pass-only” — as it did in the second half against a stout Miami front seven — “that’s not in our favor.”

The line is better than it was in 2016, Mendenhall’s first season at UVA, offensive coordinator Robert Anae said after the game Saturday, but it’s still prone to inconsistency.

“At some point when our program has jumped [to the next level],” Anae said, “it will have happened up front with the offensive line.”

PIVOTAL SEQUENCES: As disappointed as the Cavaliers were to give up their fourth pick-six of the season, the mistake didn’t break their spirit.

On the ensuing possession, a 26-yard completion from Benkert to junior running back Jordan Ellis moved Virginia into Miami territory. But on third-and-6 from the 34, senior wideout Doni Dowling dropped a pass from Benkert that would have given the `Hoos a first down. On fourth down, Benkert couldn’t connect with Zaccheaus, who was clearly pushed by his defender near the goal line, and the `Canes took over.

Midway through the final quarter came another missed opportunity for the Cavaliers. With 6:55 remaining, UVA called a timeout to set up a third-and-3 play from the Miami 40. The Hurricanes broke up Benkert’s pass to Zaccheaus. Then, on a fourth-down play on which the primary target was Zaccheaus, Benkert was sacked for a 13-yard loss.

“We were trying to get the ball to our best player, with man-to-man coverage, with a double-move opportunity,” Anae said, “and he didn’t get open and the protection collapsed.”

The `Canes took over at the UVA 47 and drove for a touchdown that made it 37-28 with 4:03 left.

“We definitely had a shot in this game,” sophomore defensive lineman Eli Hanback said. “We played a very, very good football team, the No. 2, No. 3 team in the country. So it hurts, but we gotta move on and learn from our mistakes.”

ROLL OF THE DICE: With Virginia leading 14-0, Mendenhall had true freshman Brian Delaney attempt an onside kick. The `Canes recovered and then drove for their first touchdown.

When the Cavaliers’ coaches saw Miami come out for the kickoff, they felt confident “we could get the ball,” said Mendenhall, also the team’s defensive coordinator.

“In hindsight, it wasn’t a risk worth it. Prior to the play, we thought it was.”

Virginia’s All-America linebacker, Micah Kiser, noted that the gamble reflected Mendenhall’s confidence in his defense.

“He plays to win the game,” Kiser said. “and we were playing to win that one. We went for it on fourth down a lot. We did the surprise onside kick early on. That’s the kind of coach we have, and I love him.”

STEP FORWARD: The Cavaliers were coming off a 38-21 loss at Louisville in which they totaled only 277 yards.

“I’m really proud of our guys to come here with the mindset that we did play the first two quarters with,” Anae said Saturday. “It was a fearless mindset, and there was less hesitation. Just last week we were just smothered with hesitation, and that was really good to see our players respond.”

NAME TO REMEMBER: Defensive lineman Mandy Alonso, a true freshman from Miami, played well in his second career start. (The first came Nov. 4 in UVA’s 40-36 win over Georgia Tech at Scott Stadium.)

Alonso, a graduate of Gulliver Prep, was credited with three tackles against Miami and teamed with senior lineman Andrew Brown on a sack.

During training camp, Mendenhall acknowledged Saturday, he might not have predicted that Alonso would have a prominent role late in the season, but “he played really well [against Georgia Tech], so he earned the chance to continue to help us down the stretch, and he’s doing a really nice job for a first-year.”

Hanback said: “A lot of freshmen come in like deer in the headlights. I think for Mandy, he’s definitely started to understand the defense better and know the plays, which is giving him more confidence and composure when he’s in the game.”

GAME BALLS: The list of the Cavaliers’ standouts in this loss was a substantial one. It included:

* Benkert, who exceeded 300 passing yards in a game for the third time this season. With 25 touchdown passes, he ranks second on UVA’s single-season list. Matt Schaub threw 28 touchdown passes in 2002.

“I’m really proud of Kurt,” Anae said, “and the progress he’s made with this team, the progress and the quarterback that he’s become at the University of Virginia … I’ve put an unbelievable amount on his plate, knowing what we’re working with up front, and he’s carried that tremendously. Week in and week out, he’s managed to stay healthy, and so on every play we ask him to make multiple checks to give our offensive line the best opportunity possible in runs and in passes.

“You’ll see him in there, and it looks like he’s taking a long time to call the play. That’s because we are asking him to put us in the best arrangement to give our guys a chance up front. And I’ve never done this with any other quarterback that I’ve worked with, to put that much on his plate to make guys around him successful.”

* Zaccheaus, a junior who caught six passes for 67 yards, including a 33-yard touchdown. He has 76 receptions this season. Only Billy McMullen, who caught 83 passes in 2001, has had more receptions in a season for Virginia.

* Blanding, a senior who finished with eight tackles and an interception.

* Juan Thornhill, a junior cornerback whom Miami tested repeatedly, with some success. But Thornhil deflected the pass that Blanding intercepted and later had a pick himself. He also broke up two passes.

* Reed, a sophomore who caught two passes for 81 yards, including a 75-yard touchdown. The coaching staff made a concerted effort to get the ball to Reed, who also carried five times for 27 yards.

THEY SAID IT: During his postgame press conference, Mendenhall said his players were as disappointed in the locker room as he’d seen them. In their interviews, however, they vowed to learn from their mistakes and put the loss behind them.

* Kiser: “We fought hard. We just didn’t execute in the last six minutes. We gave it our best shot. We’re disappointed, but at the same time, you can’t dwell on it for too long. You gotta move on.”

* More Kiser: “We put a lot of effort into that one. It was hot out there. We played a lot of plays. We fought hard, and to come up short feels terrible, but we gotta respond back and get after it.”

* Benkert: “We played a really good football team. They do a lot of really good things. They’re athletic, they’re big, they’re aggressive. We can take that into next week and play with more confidence. We know we can stack up against anybody.”

GRUDGE MATCH: In the annual battle for the Commonwealth Cup, Virginia (6-4, 3-4) closes the regular season against Virginia Tech (8-3, 4-3) in Charlottesville. In a Coastal Division game to be televised by ESPN, the longtime rivals will meet Friday at 8 p.m. at Scott Stadium.

In a series that dates to 1895, the Cavaliers haven’t defeated the Hokies since 2003. Tech rallied this afternoon to defeat Pittsburgh 20-14 at Lane Stadium in Blacksburg, thanks to a goal-line stand on the final four plays of the game.

Win or lose against the Hokies, the season won’t end next weekend for UVA, which is bowl-eligible for the first time since 2011.

“We missed an opportunity [against Miami], plain and simple,” Benkert said, “but we’ve got two more good games ahead of us, so there’s a lot more football to be played.”

Last year’s meeting between UVA and Tech, in Blacksburg, was one-sided, but the previous four games in this series were much closer.

The Hokies won 17-14 in 2012, 16-6 in 2013, 24-20 in 2014, and 23-20 in 2015.

To purchase tickets for Friday’s game, click here.

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