By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
LOUISVILLE, Ky. –– An ACC football game that already carried major postseason implications increased in importance Saturday.
Virginia (5-3, 3-2) and North Carolina (4-4, 3-2) meet next weekend at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C, and they find themselves tied for first place in the Coastal Division after another wild day in the ACC.
UNC celebrated a dramatic victory after coming up with a last-second turnover against arch-rival Duke in Chapel Hill. UVA, playing on a wet day at Cardinal Stadium, experienced no such joy in a 28-21 loss to Louisville.
The Cavaliers, who led 14-7 at halftime, gave up 21 unanswered points before rallying for a touchdown in the final minute. Wide receiver Hasise Dubois then recovered A.J.’s Mejia perfectly executed onside kick, giving Virginia a first down at the Louisville 41-yard line with 21 seconds to play.
The Wahoos gained one yard on the next two plays. On the game’s final play, senior quarterback Bryce Perkins’ pass into the end zone was batted down, sealing Virginia’s third straight road defeat.
“Difficult loss,” UVA head coach Bronco Mendenhall said.
A week after coming up with five takeaways in a one-sided win over Duke, Virginia collected none against Louisville (5-3, 3-2) and had two turnovers. Each proved costly.
On the first, with UVA leading 14-7 and in field-goal range, Perkins overthrew his wide-open target, receiver Terrell Jana. Perkins’ pass was intercepted at the Louisville 8 with 50 seconds left in the second quarter.
“We left points out there on that play,” Mendenhall said.
Late in the third quarter, Perkins passed to senior wideout Joe Reed, who fumbled at the end of a 6-yard reception. The Cardinals recovered at the UVA 34 and needed only three plays, the last a 25-yard touchdown run by redshirt sophomore quarterback Micale Cunningham, to break a 14-14 tie and take the lead for good.
“In a game that’s close and contested,” Mendenhall said, “if you lose the turnover battle and you have assignment mistakes defensively, then that really determines outcome.”
The biggest storyline at Cardinal Stadium was the offensive futility of the Hoos, who finished with only 311 yards against a team that had been allowing an average of 455 per game. But the momentum swung in Louisville’s favor for good on a series in which UVA’s defense, stout for most of the game, broke down repeatedly.
Trailing 14-7 early in the third quarter, the Cardinals took over at their 11-yard line. On third-and-11 from the 10, Cunningham gained 15 yards on a quarterback draw.
Three plays later, on third-and-9 from the Louisville 26, Cunningham completed a 10-yard pass for another first down.
“Third down is huge,” said Eli Hanback, a four-year starter on UVA’s defensive line. “When it’s third-and-long, you gotta get off the field, and that’s for any defense if they want to be successful.”
Three plays after Cunningham’s 10-yard completion, on third-and-3 from the Louisville 43, he threw an incompletion, and it appeared the Cavaliers’ defense had held. But senior linebacker Jordan Mack made contact with Cunningham’s helmet and was called for targeting. The penalty stood after a video review. Mack was ejected from the game and will have to sit out the first half next weekend against UNC.
The 15-yard penalty moved the ball to the Cavaliers’ 42, from which Louisville needed only four plays to reach the end zone and tie the game.
“It certainly influenced the game,” Mendenhall said of that possession. “It’s uncharacteristic for us to give up the third-down conversions that we did on the same drive, and then when Jordan went out on that same drive, and it’s a 15-yard penalty, it hurt. That was a tough stretch for us.”
Virginia held the Cards to 360 yards, about 100 fewer than their average coming in, but struggled to contain Cunningham and tailback Javian Hawkins, a redshirt freshman. Hawkins finished with 136 yards and two touchdowns on 28 carries, and Cunningham rushed 11 times for 97 yards and another score.
“We had to be spot-on in our gaps and our assignment every play,” Hanback said, “or the quarterback or the running back could break it, because they’re both very, very fast guys, very quick, shifty. So if we were off a gap at all or slow on the backside cutoff at all or anything like that, they could hit a crease and go. It was a tough challenge, and they executed on that when they needed to.”
For UVA, sophomore running back Wayne Taulapapa rushed 11 times for 54 yards and two touchdowns, but only three of his carries came after halftime. Against a defense that had been allowing an average of 191.9 yards per game on the ground, Virginia rushed for 78.
“Give credit where credit is due,” said Taulapapa, who praised the Cardinals’ defensive adjustments, “but a lot of it as well was on us, coming with the mindset and being able to make the right runs that we were supposed to.”
Perkins, who suffered an injury to his right knee during a practice in early August, wore a brace on that knee for the first five games this season. He shed the brace for the next two and ran well last weekend against Duke, but he re-injured the knee early in the first quarter Saturday.
Redshirt freshman Brennan Armstrong replaced him for two plays, but Perkins returned on UVA’s next series. His knee clearly bothered him, however, and that changed the Cavaliers’ playcalling. The designed runs on which Perkins had been effective against Duke were scrapped.
He finished 24-of-41 passing for 233 yards and one TD, a four-yarder to sophomore wideout Tavares Kelly with 21 seconds left. Louisville sacked Perkins four times.
“It didn’t ever seem like we found our rhythm offensively and could add the consistency needed just to move the ball and kind of take over the game,” Mendenhall said. “Every play goes through the quarterback. That’s part of the position, but certainly the ability to score points and move the ball consistently [is critical], especially against a team that had struggled a little bit defensively. I think we all expected to have more success.”
Perkins’ “injury early on had some impact,” Mendenhall said, “but I was surprised we weren’t able to control the ball more, move the ball more, and maintain momentum.”
BATTLEFIELD PROMOTION: Virginia, which runs a 3-4 defense, lost one of its top inside linebackers, junior Rob Snyder, to a season-ending injury late last month. When Mack was ejected Saturday, Nick Jackson came in to play alongside junior Zane Zandier.
“He’s a really smart kid, and he’s a great tackler,” Zandier said. “I think he moves really well, and he can be a great player, and I think he stepped in and did a really nice job.”
Jackson, a 6-1, 225-pound true freshman from Atlanta, finished with a season-high four tackles.
Zandier’s advice to Jackson? “Basically, just relax and have fun,” Zandier said. “It’s just playing football. Don’t make it anything bigger than it [is].”
THEY SAID IT: With the loss, the Cavaliers fell to 0-4 all-time in this city. Among the comments afterward:
• Mendenhall on the targeting call on Mack: “It’s tough. I was standing right with the officials, and as the replay’s happening, they’re saying, ‘We don’t see it,’ and then it was confirmed … And so I’ll have to do a better job coaching it to where he’s not close. I want aggressive play and I want the quarterback sacked. I didn’t think there was anything malicious or intentional, and his goal or objective wasn’t to target. I thought he hit him in the shoulder. I thought his head was up enough. That’s what I coach him to do.”
• Mendenhall on Jackson: “I think he’s ready. He certainly won’t be Jordan Mack, but he’ll be ready and we trust him and we really like what his future looks like with us. So we’re confident.”
• Hanback on losing Mack: “It hurt. Jordan is one of our captains, and he’s our middle linebacker, but I think we’re a resilient team. I think we put that in the back of our minds as soon as we got out there, and we supported Nick Jackson. He came in and I thought did a good job for getting thrown in the fire like that. We have to have the mentality [that it’s about] the next man up … We gotta move on and keep playing.”
• Offensive guard Ryan Nelson on the Cavaliers’ mood at halftime: “We were confident when we came in [the locker room]. We knew we wanted to score more points. We expected to score more points, and we just didn’t execute.”
• Taulapapa on Perkins’ injury: “It’s always a big thing when Bryce gets hurt. Obviously he’s our biggest threat, and just so kind of working around that and trying our best to keep the offense moving is important, but at the same time it happens.”
• Mendenhall on what made Cunningham so effective: “Just his speed and his ability to run … It reduces your margin for error, and he made one guy miss frequently.”
• Louisville’s first-year head coach, Scott Satterfield, on his team’s second-half performance: “We made some adjustments in the running game, particularly in just the formations. We ran some of our same plays, but the way we lined up in certain formations was a little bit different. And we hit a few of those plays in the second half and got in a rhythm. If we can get in a rhythm and keep them on their toes a little bit, we feel like we’re in a great spot.”
GAME BALLS: Since winning its season opener at Pitt, UVA has lost on the road at Notre Dame, Miami and, now, Louisville. As in those other defeats, however, several Cavaliers had strong games Saturday. They included:
• Taulapapa, who leads Virginia with nine rushing touchdowns in his first season as a starter.
• Hanback, a fifth-year senior who had a career-high two sacks. He recorded a season-high six tackles, three of which were for loss.
• Zandier, who led the Hoos with seven tackles. Three of them were for loss, including a 7-yard sack.
• Mejia, a junior who joined classmate Brian Delaney, Virginia’s No. 1 kicker, on the field for the final kickoff. Mejia played his part to perfection, delivering an onside kick that Dubois recovered along the UVA sideline.
• Nash Griffin, a redshirt junior who, with the wind at his back, had a 78-yard punt that rolled dead at the Louisville 7 early in the second quarter.
“That was amazing,” Mendenhall said of Griffin’s punt. It was the longest in FBS this season and tied for the third-longest in UVA history.
• Dubois, a senior who, in addition to recovering Mejia’s onside kick, caught seven passes for 93 yards.
• Reed, who returned three kickoffs for 94 yards and caught a game-high eight passes for 48 yards.
• Jana, a junior who caught six passes for 75 yards.
ONE MORE STOP: Virginia closes the regular season with three straight games at Scott Stadium. First, however, UVA must visit Chapel Hill for a clash with its oldest rival.
At 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Virginia meets UNC at Kenan Stadium. ACC Network will broadcast the latest installment of a series that started in 1892.
The Cavaliers have won two straight over the Tar Heels, who lead the series 63-56-4.