By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. –– Even before wide receiver Terrell Jana punctuated the victory with an emphatic swing of the sledgehammer, shattering the ceremonial rock, the celebration threatened to shake the walls of the visiting locker room at Kenan Stadium.
Players danced, jumped, screamed and embraced, and not because UVA, with a 38-31 victory over ACC rival North Carolina, had become bowl-eligible for the third straight season.
The Cavaliers (6-3 overall, 4-2 ACC) expect postseason play to be an annual occurrence for them. Their goals are loftier. The Wahoos want to win the Coastal Division and advance to the ACC championship game, and they moved another step closer Saturday night.
The Hoos came to Chapel Hill tied with UNC for first place in the division. They left alone atop the Coastal standings after winning on the road for the first time since the season opener.
“We knew where we were at, and we knew that we controlled our destiny [in the Coastal],” defensive lineman Eli Hanback said. “It was us and them. So this was a huge game for us in that regard.”
And now, with two ACC games remaining –– both at Scott Stadium –– the Hoos are in an enviable position. “We’ve got as good a chance as anybody,” head coach Bronco Mendenhall told his players.
The Cavaliers’ third straight victory over the Tar Heels did not come easily. Twice in the second half UVA built a 14-point lead, only to see the Heels answer with a touchdown on their next drive.
“Really, we didn’t stop anything,” Mendenhall said. “The run game worked for them, the throw game, the [run-pass options].”
UNC (4-5, 3-3) finished with 539 yards of offense –– 353 passing and 186 rushing –– on a night when quarterback Sam Howell, running backs Javonte Williams and Michael Carter, and wideouts Dyami Brown, Antoine Green and Dazz Newsome all dazzled. But on each of the Heels’ final two drives, they turned the ball over on downs against an inspired Virginia defense.
“We knew we had to get a stop,” Hanback said. “There was no other option. North Carolina is very talented … It was a big challenge for us, and in the huddle, we told ourselves to bow up. We just had to get a stop. Do your job. Bend but don’t break, and we did that.”
Mendenhall said: “It was just a one-possession game. We made one more play on fourth down than they did.”
For most of the season, Virginia’s offense has lagged well behind its defense, but not Saturday night. Led by senior quarterback Bryce Perkins, who set a school record with 490 yards of total offense, UVA finished with a season-high 517 yards.
“We talked about putting four quarters together and just taking over the game,” senior tight end Tanner Cowley said. “Putting up 38 felt good.”
Mendenhall said: “It was just the right time to have our offense emerge, not only for the rest of this season, but certainly for this game. If they don’t play that well, we don’t win this game. We worked really hard [in practice], and we knew that we needed to produce at a higher level on that side of the ball to have our best chance down the stretch, and to [the offense’s] credit we did, and I’m certainly glad we did.”
Injuries to Perkins and his backup, redshirt freshman Brennan Armstrong, have forced offensive coordinator Robert Anae to modify his playcalling. Perkins hasn’t been as effective running the ball this fall as he was in 2018, when he set a program record for single-season total offense, but he had a magical moment against UNC.
Less than a minute into the third quarter, Perkins turned a broken play into a 65-yard touchdown run on which he tight-roped down the UVA sideline on his way to the end zone. When junior Brian Delaney added the extra point, the Cavaliers led 24-17, and they never trailed thereafter.
Perkins’ run was the longest of his UVA career and the team’s longest this season.
“Wow, did we need it,” Mendenhall said, “not only in this game, but it’s something we were really counting on and expecting and hopeful for more throughout the year [before Perkins and Armstrong were injured]. But we knew tonight we’d commit to that. That wasn’t a designed run, that was obviously a scramble, but he knew and we knew that without his legs we’re not going to have the success we want down the stretch.”
Perkins finished with 112 yards and two touchdowns on 24 carries. He completed 30 of 39 passes for 378 yards and three TDs and wasn’t intercepted.
“That’s Bryce Perkins,” Jana said. “He did it with his arms, his legs, everything.”
A junior from British Columbia, Jana turned in a spectacular performance, too. By halftime, he had a career high in receptions, and he finished with 13 catches for 146 yards. Equally important were his quick reflexes midway through the third quarter.
With UVA leading 24-17, sophomore running back Wayne Taulapapa fumbled at the end of a 6-yard gain. Jana recovered at the Tar Heels’ 18, and then a penalty moved the ball to the 9. Virginia scored on the next play, a 9-yard pop pass from Perkins to Cowley.
“I was in the right place at the right time,” Jana said, smiling. “It seemed like that kind of night for me.”
Mendenhall said Jana’s fumble recovery was “huge. And when you go in for a fumble, it’s not like it’s all fun and games down there. What happens at the bottom of the fumble pile stays at the bottom of the fumble pile. It’s not an accident that Jana was the one in there. He’s tough. Fitting that he was there.”
PIVOTAL: UVA, which took a 10-3 lead on Delaney’s 21-yard field goal with 9:18 left in the first half, gave up TD passes of 47 and 34 yards on Carolina’s next two drives. The Heels’ fans were in full voice, but Perkins and Co. silenced them with a methodical 78-yard touchdown drive. It started with a 7-yard completion to Jana and ended with a 6-yard pass to Dubois with 13 seconds left in the second quarter.
“The energy that that gave us at halftime and the momentum to charge into the second half, and just the methodical way that we drove the field [were critical],” Mendenhall said. “On our sideline, with every offensive possession that was successful there was an optimism that I don’t think our team has felt because we haven’t played that well offensively on the road. Now we’re not only scoring but we’re not turning it over and we’re converting, and it just led to a different energy, a different optimism, a different confidence and a different belief, which was really fun.”
STRETCHED THIN: Since the start of training camp in early August, UVA has lost three of its top five defensive backs to season-ending injuries: cornerback Darrius Bratton, All-America cornerback Bryce Hall and, now, safety Brenton Nelson.
Nelson, a junior who’d been playing in pain all season, reinjured himself during practice Wednesday. Also unavailable because of injuries in Chapel Hill were cornerback Heskin Smith and safety Antonio Clary.
“It’s Week 10 now in the season, and we’re running out of players,” Mendenhall said.
Against UNC, seldom-used cornerback Jaylon Baker, a redshirt freshman, made his first career start, and true freshman safety Tenyeh Dixon also played. Defensive coordinator Nick Howell bounced junior De’Vante Cross from cornerback to safety and back, depending on the situation.
“It was just a moving target of trying to match the right players at the right time,” Mendenhall said.
In a game in which Sam Howell passed for 353 yards and four TDs, with no interceptions, and Brown had six receptions for 202 yards and three TDs, Baker was victimized several times, as were UVA’s other defensive backs. But on Carolina’s penultimate drive, Baker’s coverage in the end zone helped force a fourth-down incompletion.
“Everybody gets beat deep,” co-defensive coordinator Kelly Poppinga said. “Bryce Hall got beat deep when he was a freshman. I think those reps for Jaylon are invaluable for us going down the stretch, and it’s only going to help us, and we have confidence that we’re going to finish this thing strong.”
GAME BALLS: With the victory, the Cavaliers snapped a three-game road losing streak that started with a Sept. 28 loss at Notre Dame. In addition to Jana, UVA’s standouts against UNC included:
• Perkins, who now has 6,171 yards of total offense, fifth all-time in the program, in his two seasons at UVA.
• Dubois, who caught six passes for 97 yards and a TD and had an excellent block on Perkins’ 65-yard run.
• Cowley, who caught three passes for 53 yards, including his first TD as a Cavalier. One of his receptions came on a pass from Armstrong on a fourth-down play on which Virginia initially lined up as if to kick a field goal.
Late in the third quarter, Cowley caught a Perkins pass on a seam route and gained 39 yards before being dragged down at the UNC 6. On the next play, Perkins passed to Cowley’s understudy, redshirt freshman Grant Misch, for his first reception (and first touchdown) as a Cavalier.
“Guys were joking about the play before, saying I was too slow,” Cowley told reporters with a smile, “and I said I was setting up Misch for his.”
• Joe Reed, a senior who had six receptions for 55 yards. He also returned three kickoffs for 58 yards and now ranks seventh all-time at UVA in career all-purpose yards, with 4,431.
• Jowon Briggs, a true freshman nose tackle who matched his career high with four tackles and recorded his first sack as a Cavalier, dropping Sam Howell for a 12-yard loss on the first play from scrimmage.
THEY SAID IT: In a series that dates back to 1892, this was the first night game between UVA and UNC at Kenan Stadium. Among the postgame comments:
• Jana on being selected to break the rock: “That was an amazing feeling. I’ve been waiting two years for that. Just to see my teammates do it, it makes me so happy seeing them have success, and that moment brings a team together. So I’m so glad that I got to have my moment.”
• Perkins on the offense’s performance: “We’ve shown flashes, especially in the away games, of what we could be, and this time everybody focused on their assignments and doing their job, and when we hit on all cylinders like that and everybody’s executing their single assignment, that’s what the offense is. We gotta build on it.”
• Mendenhall on the production of UVA’s top three wideouts, Dubois, Reed and Jana: “We didn’t practice them nearly as much [last week], trying to save them for the workload they would have tonight. We believed they would come through. We were hopeful they would be fresher and last longer because of that, and I think our plan worked.”
• Dubois on Jana: “He couldn’t drop anything. I was just trying to play up to his standard. He set it up, so we just had to chase it.”
• Perkins on the postgame scene in UVA’s locker room: “This brotherhood’s amazing, and we’re not done yet. We’ve got to keep going to complete our goals.”
• Poppinga on the fourth quarter, in which Virginia held UNC scoreless: “We knew that our offense was playing really well and they were going to move the ball. All we needed was stops. It didn’t matter the yardage that [the Heels] were getting. It didn’t matter where the stop was happening. We just needed to get a stop. There were critical situations down the line. That’s what we talked about all week. We had to win the fourth quarter on the road, and that’s what we did. I’m proud of the kids and their execution on third down and fourth down on that last two [UNC] drives.”
• Poppinga on UNC: “That’s one of the most explosive offenses we’ve seen. I’m glad we don’t have to play those guys for another year.”
HOMESTRETCH: The Cavaliers close the regular season with three straight games at Scott Stadium, where they’re 4-0 this season.
UVA hosts Georgia Tech (2-6, 1-3) next Saturday at 12:30 p.m., Liberty (6-3) on Nov. 23, and Virginia Tech (5-3, 2-2) on Nov. 29.
For ticket information, click here.