By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE –– The calendar flips to November on Friday, marking the start of the final month of college football’s regular season. A day later comes an opportunity for UVA to separate itself, if only for one week, from the rest of the ACC’s Coastal Division.
Virginia (5-3 overall, 3-2 conference) and North Carolina (4-4, 3-2) are tied for the first in the Coastal, whose winner will meet the Atlantic Division champion for the ACC title Dec. 7 in Charlotte, N.C.
“It’s a race to the finish,” UVA head coach Bronco Mendenhall said, “one game at a time.”
The Cavaliers’ next game is Saturday night in Chapel Hill, N.C., where they take on the Tar Heels at Kenan Stadium. ACC Network will air the 7:30 p.m. game, the 124th meeting between these ancient rivals.
“What can you want more in week nine than playing these kind of games that are meaningful and what you’ve worked the entire year to do?” Mendenhall said Monday at John Paul Jones Arena.
His players know what’s at stake.
“I would say the urgency’s pretty high at this point in the season,” junior cornerback Nick Grant said. “The last third of the [regular season] is pretty much do or die at this point.”
Virginia closes the regular season with three straight games at Scott Stadium: Nov. 9 (12:30 p.m.) against Georgia Tech; Nov. 23 against Liberty; and Nov. 29 against Virginia Tech. To return home on a high note, the Wahoos will have to do something they haven’t done since their Aug. 31 season opener against Pitt: win on the road.
UVA lost Sept. 28 at Notre Dame, Oct. 11 at Miami, and Saturday at Louisville. The Cavaliers led two of those games at halftime. In the other one, they trailed the Hurricanes 7-3 at the break. In each loss, the Hoos finished with more turnovers than takeaways.
Other factors have contributed to Virginia’s road struggles, Mendenhall acknowledged Monday, but “really it’s coming down to missed possessions by giving the ball away or not taking it away.”
A win over Louisville would have put UVA a game ahead of North Carolina in the Coastal Division standings. Even with the loss, though, the Cavaliers remain in an enviable position.
“It’s not like it’s the end-all, be-all,” sophomore linebacker Noah Taylor said. “We still have a chance at winning the Coastal. We still have a chance at completing all our goals.”
Senior quarterback Bryce Perkins said: “We’re one of the few teams that really have control of their own destiny as far as if we win out, we’re the [Coastal champion]. A lot of teams have to be relying on other teams to lose if they win out. But we’re one of the few teams that if we win out, we win.”
The Cavaliers entered the season, their fourth under Mendenhall, with four main goals: finish first in the Coastal Division, defeat Virginia Tech, capture the ACC championship, and win a bowl game.Grant noted that two of those goals – Coastal and ACC titles –– would be much harder to achieve with a loss to UNC.
“So the heightened urgency of this game in particular is right in front of us,” Grant said.
Virginia, which lost All-America cornerback Bryce Hall to a season-ending injury in the Miami game, will be without another one of its captains for the first half Saturday. Senior linebacker Jordan Mack, who leads the Cavaliers with seven sacks, was ejected for targeting in the second half against Louisville.
“We just have to keep going,” Taylor said. “Things happen in football. There’s a lot of adversity, a lot of things that happen. We just have to keep on moving forward. The standard is just to move on to the next play and keep on playing UVA football.”
Nick Jackson, a true freshman from Atlanta, replaced Mack in the third quarter at Cardinal Stadium and is expected to start at inside linebacker, alongside junior Zane Zandier, in UVA’s 3-4 defense.
“We invest all confidence in every player, regardless of year, regardless of experience,” Grant said when asked about Jackson’s progress. “Our standard is not going to changed based off who’s in there. He’s been exceptional. He’s been able to obviously work his way into the two-deep, so there is the same expectation, whether it’s him or Jordan Mack. Obviously, Jordan has more experience than him, but regardless of the fact, we’re going to still play the same defense we have, whether it’s Jordan or Nick.”
At North Carolina, Mack Brown is in the first year of his second stint as head coach. In the media’s preseason ACC poll, the Heels were picked to finish sixth in the Coastal, but they’ve been much better than expected.
UNC’s four losses have been by a total of 12 points. On Sept. 28, Carolina fell 21-20 to defending national champion Clemson at Kenan Stadium when a late two-point conversation attempt failed.
Mendenhall said North Carolina “looks like about every other team in the Coastal, and that’s a compliment. There is quality coaching, quality players, and they’re competing hard. Most games are going right down to the final possession. Coaches and players are exhausted at the end, and hopefully you make one play than the opponent to win.
“Their season looks a lot like ours, and vice versa. Ours looks like about anyone else’s at this stage. Luckily, we’re still at the top of the division. We know within four weeks that this thing could flip upside down, sideways, in about 20 different variations.”
UNC has one of the ACC’s most productive quarterbacks in Sam Howell, and he’s only a true freshman. The 6-2, 225-pound Howell has completed 159 of 270 passes (58.9 percent) for 2,119 yards and 22 touchdowns, with five interceptions.
“He’s a freshman quarterback that doesn’t play like a freshman,” UVA sophomore linebacker Noah Taylor said. “He’s just kind of a natural out there. If I didn’t tell you he was a freshman quarterback, you wouldn’t think he’s a freshman quarterback.”
Grant said Howell is “going to do what he does. We’ve just got to stop him.”
The Cavaliers’ No. 1 quarterback is considerably more seasoned, but physically he’s less than 100 percent. Perkins suffered a knee injury in August that slowed him early in the season, and he re-injured that knee Saturday in the second quarter against Louisville.
Perkins returned on UVA’s next series and played the rest of the game, though he wasn’t featured in the running game. He said Monday that he’s OK.
“I feel all right,” Perkins said. “I definitely thought I was going to feel worse the day after, just with how everything happened on Saturday, but specifically about the knee, there was no swelling, so I feel all right.”
As a junior in 2018, Perkins set a UVA single-season record for total offense with 3,603 yards. He threw 25 touchdown passes, with nine interceptions, and rushed for nine TDs.
This season, he’s rushed for five touchdowns but has thrown nearly as many interceptions (eight) as TD passes (nine).
“There’s room for improvement,” Perkins said. “The year’s not done yet. There’s good things and bad things. I’m definitely not satisfied at all. I know I can play way better. I’m sure everybody knows it. As a collective group we can play better.”
The Cavaliers’ next chance to do so comes Saturday night. “It’s an intriguing matchup,” Mendenhall said.