By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
BLACKSBURG – Of all the losses in a streak that’s now reached 15 games, the latest qualifies as the most excruciating for the University of Virginia football team.
With 3:24 left in the fourth quarter Friday night at Lane Stadium, UVA led by four points and had the ball at the Virginia Tech 11-yard line after a spectacular interception by sophomore linebacker Charles Snowden.
A touchdown would have all but sealed the victory for Virginia, which had erased a 14-0 halftime deficit in the 100th game of a series that started in 1895. The Cavaliers ended up settling for a Brian Delaney field goal — that made it 31-24 with 2:41 to play — but they still appeared poised to defeat the Hokies for the first time since 2003 and reclaim the Commonwealth Cup.
Instead, breakdowns on both sides of the ball doomed the Wahoos, and their seemingly never-ending nightmare in this series continued. On the second possession of overtime, Virginia Tech recovered a fumble by UVA quarterback Bryce Perkins and escaped with a 34-31 victory.
As Virginia players and coaches tried to console Perkins, who’d played brilliantly in the second half of their regular-season finale, the Hokies (5-6 overall, 4-4 ACC) celebrated a win that extended their season for at least another week. Virginia Tech needs to defeat Marshall next weekend to advance to a bowl game for the 26th straight year.
The Cavaliers, stunned, staggered off the field.
“I’ve never experienced pain like this in my life,” Snowden said. “This hurts.”
“It’s just heartbreaking that it had to end that way,” said junior wide receiver Hasise Dubois, whose 29-yard touchdown catch midway through the fourth quarter gave Virginia its first lead. “I felt like this was the team to go ahead and get that win against Virginia Tech. But you can’t dwell on it too much. We still have another game. You have to get over the pain and get on to the next one.”
For the second straight week, the Cavaliers (7-5 overall, 4-4 ACC) lost on the road after holding their opponent to a field goal on the first possession of overtime. They fell 30-27 to Georgia Tech in Atlanta last Saturday.
“It’s hard,” said Bronco Mendenhall, who’s in his third season as Virginia’s head coach. “It’s part of the growing pains of building an exceptional program. You can’t get closer than we currently are. There’s not much else to say.”
For the second straight year, the Cavaliers will end their season in a bowl game. Which one won’t be known for another week. In the meantime, the ‘Hoos and their fans will rue numerous missed opportunities. To wit:
* Late in the first quarter of a scoreless game, Perkins dropped back on second-and-2 from the UVA 33. The Hokies blew their coverage, and true freshman Tavares Kelly found himself alone behind the secondary.
Kelly dropped Perkins’ pass at the Tech 30, with no defender near him. The pass was underthrown, and Kelly, who’s probably the fastest Cavalier, might not have scored, but it would have a huge gain against a defense that had struggled late in the regular season.
* Virginia battled through that mistake, and later on the same drive had first-and-10 at the Tech 14. But Perkins fumbled after a 2-yard gain, and the Hokies recovered at the 12. Replays seemed to indicate Perkins was down before the ball came loose, but after a video review the officials upheld the call on the field: fumble.
* Late in the second quarter, with Virginia facing fourth-and-11 from its 23, a special-teams breakdown pushed the Hokies’ lead to 14-0. Tech freshman Tre Turner, who’d scored the game’s first touchdown on a 7-yard pass from quarterback Ryan Willis, raced in from the left side, easily avoided Jake Fieler’s attempt to deter him, and blocked Lester Coleman’s punt. Jovonn Quillen recovered in the end zone for the Hokies.
* On the final play of the first half, UVA cornerback Tim Harris jumped a sideline route and intercepted a Willis pass. Harris, a sixth-year senior, took off down the right sideline with no one between him and the end zone. But Willis, with a good angle on Harris, sprinted back and made a touchdown-saving tackle at the Tech 10 after a 62-yard return.
* With UVA leading 31-24 and 2:29 left in the fourth quarter, Tech faced third-and-10 from its 25. Willis eluded pass-rushers in the backfield and then lofted a deep pass for tight end Dalton Keene along the left sideline. Keene and junior Bryce Hall, the Cavaliers’ top cornerback, both got their hands on the ball, but Keene pulled it away from Hall for a 45-yard completion.
“Just a scramble drill,” Mendenhall said. “Their quarterback was running around. We had good coverage with probably our best coverage player, and their player made a really nice play.”
* Two plays later, on first-and-10 from the Virginia 19, Willis handed off to running back Steven Peoples on a draw. Peoples charged up the middle, only to lose the ball at the 6 after sophomore safety Joey Blount tackled him.
The ball bounced into the end zone, where it went through the hands of sophomore safety Brenton Nelson. Tech wideout Hezekiah Grimsley recovered for the TD, and Brian Johnson’s PAT made it 31-31 with 1:51 remaining.
“They just made the plays they needed to make on that drive, and we didn’t,” UVA junior defensive lineman Eli Hanback said. “That’s the bottom line. When we knocked that ball loose in the end zone, they got on top of it. That’s pretty much it. They did their job, and we didn’t execute.”
* Tech had the ball first in OT, and Virginia forced Willis into incompletions on first and second down. On third-and-10 from the 25, Snowden pursued Willis in the backfield and nearly sacked him for a loss that would have moved the Hokies out of field-goal range.
But Willis eluded Snowden long enough to throw the ball away, and then Johnson calmly booted a 42-yard field goal that made it 34-31.
“I had him wrapped up,” Snowden said. “I should have finished the play, and it cost us.”
Virginia’s possession in OT started on a promising note, as Perkins hit Dubois for an 11-yard completion. On the next play, however, Perkins took a shotgun snap and lost the ball in a botched exchange with running back Jordan Ellis. The Hokies’ Emmanuel Belmar recovered at the 15, and despair set in again for the Cavaliers.
They haven’t won in Blacksburg since 1998, and it’ll be 2020 before their next opportunity to do so arrives.
“We had that game in our hands, and we let it slip away,” Dubois said.
TALE OF TWO HALVES: Against a Tech defense that came in allowing an average of 436.5 yards game, Virginia totaled only 106 in the first half Friday. In the second half, though, the Cavaliers scored 31 points and gained 305 yards.
“We were down,” junior wideout Joe Reed said. “The offense had to make something happen.”
Reed ignited UVA’s attack with third-quarter touchdown receptions that covered 29 and 75 yards. On the first, Reed made a one-handed catch in the end zone. On the second, he caught a 5-yard pass from Perkins, broke a tackle, sprinted down the left sideline and didn’t stop until he crossed the goal line.
After a slow start, Reed has become a featured player in the Cavaliers’ offense this fall. He had four receptions for a career-high 119 yards (and two TDs) against the Hokies. For the season, he has 24 catches for 455 yards and seven TDs, the most of any Virginia receiver. He’s also averaging 27.2 yards per kickoff return.
“The last three games, he’s really emerged,” Mendenhall said.
Ellis scored UVA’s third touchdown, on a 12-yard run early in the fourth quarter.
THEY SAID IT: In a somber scene outside the visiting team’s locker room at Lane Stadium, Mendenhall and several UVA players took questions from media members. Among their comments:
* Mendenhall: “I’m proud of my team. I love the kids that I coach. I thought they battled and played very hard … It was a great college football game.”
* Mendenhall on his halftime remarks to his team: “There wasn’t much of a message other than we certainly can play better, and we just focused on assignments and execution. There wasn’t ranting or raving or motivational speeches. It was just assignments and execution.”
* Mendenhall on Perkins, who rushed for 112 yards and finished 14-of-29 passing for 259 yards and three TDs, with no interceptions: “I think he’s really tough and he’s a great leader.”
* Ellis on what he told Perkins, a junior, after the game: “I just said it wasn’t his fault. We had plenty [of other] chances to win the game. That one play doesn’t define the whole game. I just told him to keep his head up. Times like this are only going to make him stronger down the road.”
* Senior wideout Olamide Zacchaeus on the loss: “It’s very difficult, but this is what college football’s all about. A lot at stake, a lot on the line. We just didn’t make enough plays at the end to come out victorious.”
* Hanback on the importance of ending the season with a victory: “Regardless of the outcome of this game, our goal was to win a bowl game, and I think we’ll be focused and ready for this upcoming game, whenever it is and whoever it is against, just as much as any other game. And I think it’s going to be big for our program, to complete that goal of winning that bowl game.”