By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE –– During his postgame press conference Saturday afternoon, Bronco Mendenhall was reminded that his football team is heading into a bye week.
“Thank goodness,” said Mendenhall, who’s in his fourth year as Virginia’s head coach.
The Cavaliers are bruised and battered, especially in the secondary. They’re also one victory from the program’s first Coastal Division title and a trip to the ACC championship game.
UVA put itself in that position with a hard-earned 33-28 victory over Coastal rival Georgia Tech on Homecomings at Scott Stadium. The Wahoos surrendered 372 yards –– a season high for Georgia Tech (2-7 overall, 1-5 ACC), which has the conference’s least productive offense –– but made enough plays to secure this win.
“We’re doing what we need to do to win games, and that’s gratifying,” Mendenhall said, “and I’m happy for our staff, I’m happy for our players, and our fans, and basically everyone associated with UVA football. The program is becoming healthier. That’s [two straight] Novembers now going late where we have a great chance to win the Coastal, and that’s really what I and we all expect internally.”
The Cavaliers have two regular-season games remaining, both at Scott Stadium, where they’re 5-0 this fall.
Virginia hosts Liberty in a non-conference game on Nov. 23. Then, in the annual battle for the Commonwealth Cup, UVA (7-3, 5-2) takes on Virginia Tech (6-3, 3-2) on Nov. 29. A win over Tech would clinch the Coastal title for the Cavaliers.
Their immediate concern is getting healthier. UVA came into the game Saturday missing three seasoned defensive backs –– Bryce Hall, Darrius Bratton and Brenton Nelson –– and lost a fourth, junior safety Chris Moore, to a leg injury midway through the second quarter.
In came Heskin Smith, a seldom-used sophomore who’d missed the previous four games while recovering from knee surgery. Smith played cornerback and junior De’Vante Cross moved back to safety.
“He was just literally made available this week and got one day of practice in,” Mendenhall said of Smith.
The 28 points were a season high for the Yellow Jackets, who are transitioning from the triple option to a more conventional offense. Fortunately for the Cavaliers, their offense hummed for the second straight week.
Led by Perkins, Virginia totaled 413 yards against the Jackets. He rushed for a game-high 106 yards (and one touchdown) and completed 24 of 35 passes for 258 yards and another score.
That marked the fourth time in his two UVA seasons that Perkins has topped 100 yards rushing and 200 yards passing in a game. The only other quarterback in program history to do so was Bob Davis in 1965.
Slowed for much of the season by a knee injury, Perkins is healthier now. But that’s not the principal reason, Mendenhall said, for the Cavaliers’ increased productivity.
The offensive line’s improvement, Mendenhall said, has “allowed Bryce to run more effectively, to have protection, to throw more effectively. Our offensive front has trended upward for about the last six weeks. It’s been incremental, it’s been slow, It’s been sometimes less visible to the outside world, but I’ve seen it, and that’s the biggest difference, which then has allowed Bryce to do and be who he really is, as he also has become healthier.”
It also helps that the Cavaliers have a wealth of talented wide receivers. In his past three games, junior Terrell Jana has 28 catches, and seniors Hasise Dubois and Joe Reed have been exceptional all season.
Also an elite return specialist, Reed suffered an injury last weekend in UVA’s 38-31 victory at North Carolina and was questionable for the Georgia Tech game.
Reed played Saturday and caught five passes for 27 yards, including a first-quarter touchdown, but the coaching staff “had to manage his load,” Mendenhall said, which gave Tavares Kelly Jr. an opportunity on which he capitalized.
A swift sophomore from Florida, Kelly totaled 129 yards on five kickoff returns and also caught two passes for 46 yards. Those contributions made him Mendenhall’s choice to break the rock in the locker room after the game, signifying a UVA victory.
“I just feel like everything I’ve worked for came to fruition,” Kelly said. “It was a great feeling.”
— Virginia Football (@UVAFootball) November 9, 2019
His roommate, sophomore Billy Kemp IV, also shined. Like the 5-8 Kelly, the 5-9 Kemp is an undersized wideout who’s also an explosive return specialist. He caught four passes for 51 yards, both career highs, and also returned three punts, with a long gain of nine yards.
“They’ve been working hard throughout the week,” wide receivers coach Marques Hagans said of Kelly and Kemp. “As the season goes on, some guys just keep working, and opportunities present themselves. You need everybody going down the stretch, and this was the opportunity where we needed some guys to step up, and those guys stepped up in different areas and helped us win today.”
That Kelly and Kemp are gifted players has long been clear, Mendenhall said, but there are only so many passes to go around.
“Terrell Jana has just been so effective, and Hasise has been so effective, and Joe Reed has been so effective,” Mendenhall said. “As we’ve been going, we’ve just been pushing to keep [those three] on the field longer, but we knew that Tavares and Billy are capable when given an opportunity.
“Billy had a great week of practice this week and made just a ton of catches, fighting and scrapping and getting extra yards, and he played exactly like that [against Georgia Tech]. So I was happy for both of them, to have been laboring kind of in the shadows.”
Late in the first half, Virginia went for it on fourth-and-4 from the Jackets’ 34-yard line, and Perkins’ pass to tight end Tanner Cowley was incomplete. Three plays later, Georgia Tech had its third touchdown, and it appeared UVA would need a second-half comeback to pull this one out.
But with Reed lined up behind him, Kelly fielded a low bouncing kickoff and returned it 40 yards to midfield. On first down, Perkins ran 43 yards to the Jackets’ 7, and three plays later Virginia regained the lead on his 3-yard touchdown run.
Kelly’s kickoff return “was a huge play,” Mendenhall said, “and I kind of felt like Bryce bailed me out, because I was questioning my call after it didn’t work, which I do a lot.”
If that return proved crucial for the Cavaliers, so did Kemp’s final reception. After the Jackets scored with 5:30 remaining to make it 33-28, Virginia started a drive on its 21. With the Cavaliers facing third-and-4 from their 39, the Jackets called their final timeout with 2:45 left.
When play resumed, Perkins looked left and hit Kemp on a slant route. Kemp gained 16 yards, and Virginia was able to run out the clock.
“Billy is a great route-runner in general, with strong hands,” Perkins said. “So when I went to that side, I saw he had a good release, a good break, and he ran a good route and caught the ball.”
Kemp said: “I didn’t really feel any pressure. It’s really a routine catch for me. Great ball from Perk. So I just caught it up and got upfield.”
GAME BALLS: The contributions of Perkins, Kelly and Kemp have been noted. Other standouts for UVA included:
• Jana, who caught nine passes for a game-high 108 yards, the second straight week he’s had more than 100 yards receiving.
“He’s reliable, and he’s always in the right spot,” Perkins said. “I just have a connection with him, knowing where he’s going to be at most of the time.”
• Sophomore running back Wayne Taulapapa, who rushed for two touchdowns. For the season, he leads the team with 11 TDs.
• Junior kicker Brian Delaney, who was 2 for 2 on field goals (24 and 34 yards) and 3 for 3 on extra points in a game in which UVA went 6 for 6 in the red zone. For the season, Delaney is 15 for 19 on field goals.
• Linebackers Jordan Mack and Zane Zandier, who led the Hoos with nine tackles each. Mack, a senior whose father played at Georgia Tech, was questionable because of an ankle injury but played the whole game. Zandier is a junior.
• Junior safety Joey Blount, whose career-long 37-yard interception return set up Virginia’s second touchdown. The pick was the fifth of his career.
“That’s an example of stealing a possession,” Mendenhall said. “So we not only stole a possession, we created field position, which led to a score, which was the difference in the game.”
THEY SAID IT: The UVA victory cut Georgia Tech’s series lead to 21-20-1. Among the postgame comments:
• Mendenhall: “Each bye week is different. Based on the current standing of our team, the number one goal for this week is recovery and healing. That doesn’t mean that we’re going to the spa, but we need to recover, and we need to get as healthy as possible.”
• Kelly on his performance: “I didn’t see it as a breakout. I see it as me just getting started.”
• Senior defensive lineman Eli Hanback on how UVA’s front seven can help the depleted secondary: “We gotta go sack the quarterback. That’s the bottom line. We just gotta get after the quarterback and put him under pressure so he can either make bad throws or we sack him.”
• Zandier on the defense’s second-half improvement: “We just decided at halftime that we had to step up. Our offense was playing really well, and we were not giving them much help. As a defense we came together and said we have to get a stop and get our offense back on the field as fast as we can.”
• Perkins on the drive on which Virginia ran out the clock: “We knew that it came down to being more physical than them, and we knew that they were going to bring the pressure. We knew we had to win our blocks to keep the drive going and keep [getting] first downs. So it was really significant. Instead of putting the ball in their hands, we controlled it ourselves and put it on our shoulders to finish out the game.”
• Jana on Kelly’s status as the heir apparent to Reed on kickoff returns: “Joe’s kind of been at the helm for the last four years here, so we’re definitely looking for the next person up, and T.K. is an explosive player. So I’m glad he’s starting to get his footing in the game, because we’ve seen him do things in the practice I haven’t seen anybody do.”
• Hagans on Kelly: “He has big-play ability. It’s just staying consistent and doing the little things. When he’s consistent and working hard and doing everything he needs to do, the sky’s the limit for him. So hopefully he’ll continue to grow and this will give him confidence going down the stretch, because he can really help this team.”
• Hagans to Reed outside the locker room: “Get healthy, man.”
• Kelly on Kemp’s big game: “It’s always special when my man makes plays. That’s my roommate, so we sit and talk all the time about the things we want to do and what we’re going to do.”