By Jeff White (email@example.com)
RALEIGH, N.C. – In its ACC road opener, Virginia’s football team played catch-up for most of the game Saturday at NC State’s Carter-Finley Stadium.
Even so, the Cavaliers had the ball at the Wolfpack’s 21-yard line early in the fourth quarter with an opportunity to make it a one-touchdown game. But they moved no closer to the end zone on a drive that epitomized their struggles on a beautiful fall afternoon.
On second-and-4, UVA quarterback Bryce Perkins faced heavy pressure and had to throw the ball away. On third-and-4, senior running back Jordan Ellis was stopped for no gain. On fourth-and-4, Perkins’ pass for freshman wide receiver Tavares Kelly in the end zone fell incomplete.
“I thought we had a great chance there to finish this off and possibly pull off a comeback,” head coach Bronco Mendenhall said after Virginia’s 35-21 loss, “but we just were not consistent enough to make that play.”
The Wahoos (3-2 overall, 1-1 ACC) battled to the end. After recovering an onside kick with 3:07 to play, the ‘Hoos, trailing 35-21, drove to State’s 7-yard line. But Perkins’ second-down pass was deflected and intercepted, ending the drama in the first meeting between these teams since 2012.
“We played well enough to make it interesting,” Mendenhall said, “but not well enough to win the game.”
Against a UVA defense that came in missing two starters – inside linebacker Jordan Mack and end Richard Burney – and then lost another one, sophomore safety Brenton Nelson, to a second-quarter concussion, the Wolfpack (4-0, 1-0) amassed 433 yards.
State graduate student Ryan Finley, who’s considered one of the nation’s top quarterbacks, lived up to his billing. He completed 22 of 32 passes for 257 yards and three touchdowns.
Finley wasn’t sacked or intercepted.
“He was cool, calm, collected the whole game,” Virginia outside linebacker Chris Peace said.
Mendenhall said: “We kind of pride ourselves on being able to hit the quarterback, and we didn’t.”
That the Wolfpack, which has an exceptional corps of wide receivers, would move the ball through the air was expected. But State, which came in averaging 107.7 yards per game rushing, had similar success on the ground Saturday.
Led by tailback Ricky Person, who rushed for 108 yards, the Pack finished with 190 yards on 39 carries. Virginia, meanwhile, totaled only 93 yards rushing.
“Our inability to run the ball consistently and their surprising ability to run the ball, those two things were the back story of what led to the outcome,” Mendenhall said.
Ellis had a 7-yard touchdown run late in the game but finished with only 30 yards on 13 carries. Senior wide receiver Olamide Zaccheaus, with 39 yards on two carries – one a lateral from Perkins and the other an end-around – was Virginia’s leading rusher.
The Cavaliers’ offensive line struggled in pass protection, Mendenhall said, but “more importantly, our core run game was ineffective, and that changes everything.”
Virginia’s inability to get NC State’s offense off the field was a huge factor, too. The Wolfpack converted 8 of 13 third downs and was 1 for 1 on fourth down.
“They threw and caught and protected on third down better than we rushed and covered and executed,” Mendenhall said.
Perkins, a junior, completed 20 of 35 passes for 258 yards and two TDs, both to Zaccheaus, who’s a senior. But State sacked Perkins four times, for 30 yards in losses, and intercepted him twice. He came into the game averaging 79.2 yards rushing, but NC State rarely let Perkins break free.
“They had a pretty good front seven,” UVA wide receiver Hasise Dubois said. “They didn’t do anything special. I just think they had a pretty good seven that balled out today.”
In the end, though, this game figures to be remembered for the Cavaliers’ defensive breakdowns. On each of Finley’s touchdown passes, his receiver was well-covered but still made the catch.
“It was really that simple,” junior cornerback Bryce Hall said. “Their guys made plays, and we didn’t, when the ball was in the air.”
Mendenhall said: “That’s just kind of where we are, where there’s one, two, three, a handful of plays we have to make to come on the road and win a game like this. There’s plenty of other stuff [that factored in], but really it still comes down a handful of those plays, and we didn’t make enough of them.”
TEXTBOOK: After the Cavaliers cut NC State’s lead to 35-21 with 3:08 left, Dubois leaped to snare sophomore A.J. Mejia’s onside kick on the bounce at midfield.
“That was executed exactly right in a critical moment,” Mendenhall said, “so that was one instance where our execution matched the situation at a really high level. There just simply weren’t enough of those plays to win the game.”
SHORT-HANDED: Mack, a junior who’s a three-year starter, suffered a shoulder injury last weekend in UVA’s win over Louisville. He’s not expected back until early November.
Redshirt sophomore Robert Snyder started in Mack’s place Saturday and finished with a career-high seven tackles.
Asked what Mack’s absence means for the defense, Mendenhall said, “We lose experience, we lose leadership, we lose consistency, and we lose production.”
GAME BALLS: On a frustrating afternoon for the Cavaliers, several players helped keep State from blowing the game open, including Perkins, whose improvisational skills kept the offense moving. Others included:
* Sophomore outside linebacker Charles Snowden, who had a career-high 11 tackles.
* Senior safety Juan Thornhill, who made seven tackles, including one for a 9-yard loss, and broke up two passes.
* Sophomore safety Joey Blount, who had nine tackles.
* Zaccheaus, who had nine receptions for 109 yards and two TDs, all game highs.
* Dubois, who had six receptions for 67 yards.
* Kelly, who had three catches for 57 yards, both season highs.
THEY SAID IT: The Cavaliers, who traveled home by bus, made a quick exit from the stadium, but not before Mendenhall and several players met with reporters. Among their comments:
* Mendenhall: “I really was impressed with Bryce Perkins’ effort and competitive spirit and ability and effectiveness. He did a really nice job of keeping drives alive and keeping the ball moving.”
* Mendenhall: “The loss of Jordan Mack certainly did affect the outcome. The loss of Brenton Nelson certainly did affect the outcome, but that doesn’t excuse the outcome.”
* Snowden on Finley:”Even when we would get there, he stood in the pocket strong. On all his throws, he gave his guys a chance. He had a lot of confidence in his guys, and he’s a really good player.”
* Zaccheaus on the offense’s problems: “Too many negative plays at critical moments. We just didn’t execute consistently enough as we needed to win the game.”
* Hall: “We’re going to get back in the film room, see exactly what we need to correct, and we’re just going to get to work. This loss isn’t going to define us. I know we’re going to come back stronger. That’s really the bottom line. We’ve got to see our mistakes, fix them, and get back to work.”
* Peace on the Cavaliers’ lack of pass rush: “I’ve got to put that on me. I’ve got to get this defense going a lot better than I did today. It starts with me, the energy.
“We only hit [Finley] one time today. We rarely affected him, and that’s a disaster for any [defensive] game plan.”
LOOKING AHEAD: Virginia has a bye next weekend. The Cavaliers resume ACC play on Oct. 13, when they host No. 16 Miami (4-1, 1-0) at Scott Stadium.
The starting time for the game is expected to be announced Monday.
The Hurricanes forced six turnovers and scored three defensive touchdowns in a 47-10 rout of visiting North Carolina in ESPN’s Thursday night showcase.
The ‘Canes, who host arch-rival Florida State next weekend, have won four straight since losing to LSU in their opener.
UVA has dropped three in a row to Miami. At Hard Rock Stadium last season, the Cavaliers lost 44-28 after leading 28-14 in the early in the third quarter.
“It’s more time to work,” Dubois said of the bye week. “We have a lot of football to play, and we have two weeks to get ready for Miami.”