By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTE, N.C. –– Eight days earlier, at Scott Stadium, there was unbridled joy as the University of Virginia football team celebrated a stirring comeback win over Virginia Tech and the program’s first Coastal Division title.
For the Cavaliers, the scene was decidedly different late Saturday night at Bank of America Stadium. Players and coaches wore somber expressions as they left the field and made their way to the locker room at the conclusion of the ACC championship game.
A one-sided loss will have that effect on a team. But the Cavaliers have another game to play this season, and they believe they’ll be better for having faced third-ranked Clemson, which romped 62-17 to capture its fifth consecutive ACC title.
“The learnings from the game will propel us forward in a manner that wouldn’t happen if we weren’t in the game,” UVA head coach Bronco Mendenhall said, “and to play against the consistent winner of our league, the national champion two of the last three years, now we know what that looks like.”
Senior quarterback Bryce Perkins said: “This game showed us exactly where this program has to go to be able to compete with [College Football Playoff-caliber opponents].”
This is the Wahoos’ fourth season under Mendenhall, and they’re headed to a bowl game for the third straight year. Nothing will be official until Sunday afternoon, but No. 22 UVA’s probable destination is the Orange Bowl, Dec. 30 at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla.
“We’ve got to redeem ourselves from this game, because today that wasn’t us,” senior wide receiver Hasise Dubois said Saturday night. “That was us playing, but we’re a better team than we showed today.”
On a night when defending national champion Clemson (13-0) won its 28th straight game and clinched a spot in the four-team College Football Playoff, Virginia fell to 9-4. But the Hoos still have an opportunity to secure the second 10-win season in program history.
“We have a lot of work to do, from what we saw tonight, so we don’t expect it to come easy,” Mendenhall said, “but there’s a lot to play for and still a lot to learn, and that’s what I’d like to help our team do.”
Junior safety Joey Blount said: “We still have another chance to put another W in the column and get a 10-win season. So that’s what’s important right now.”
Injuries have depleted the Cavaliers’ defense, especially in the secondary, where starters Bryce Hall, Darrius Bratton and Brenton Nelson are all sidelined. The front seven in Virginia’s 3-4 scheme is healthier, but senior linebacker Jordan Mack has been playing with an ankle injury that has dramatically limited his practice time in recent weeks.
Mack, one of UVA’s captains, started Saturday night but struggled to run, and the coaching staff pulled him in the first half, opting not to risk further injury. Mack’s replacement was a true freshman, Nick Jackson, who finished with six tackles.
Even with a full complement of players, the Cavaliers would have had trouble slowing the Tigers, whose eight All-ACC first-team performers include quarterback Trevor Lawrence, tailback Travis Etienne and wide receiver Tee Higgins.
Each of those three put up huge numbers against UVA, which allowed a season-high 619 yards. Lawrence, a sophomore, completed 16 of 22 passes for 302 yards and four touchdowns. Etienne ran 14 times for 114 yards and one TD, and Higgins caught nine passes for 182 yards and three TDs.
Lawrence’s four TD passes were an ACC championship game record, as were Higgins’ three TD receptions.
“They’re very, very skilled at quarterback at an elite level, very skilled at running back at an elite level, very skilled at at least three of the receiver positions, with a very strong offensive front,” Mendenhall said.
Missed tackles and breakdowns in coverage compounded UVA’s problems in the first game between these teams since 2013. The Tigers punted only once Saturday night.
“One of my messages to the team [after the game] was, I was impressed with Clemson and thought they were a very good football team, but I certainly don’t think we played our best football defensively,” Mendenhall said. “I don’t think we tackled consistently or well, nor did we play the ball downfield consistently or well.”
Blount led the Cavaliers with 10 tackles.
“I’m proud of the team, but some things we did I wish we could get back,” Blount said. “It’s very disappointing, myself included, the way we tackled on the edges and in between gaps. I wish we could get some of those plays back.”
The biggest positive for UVA in its first ACC championship game was its offensive production. During the regular season, Clemson allowed only 10.1 points per game and held every opponent to fewer than 295 yards of total offense.
The Hoos finished with 387 yards and converted 10 of 18 third-down opportunities. “That’s as good as anybody has done on us in, I don’t know, probably two years on third down,” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said.
As usual, No. 3 led the way for Virginia.
“We’re not in the ACC championship [game] without Bryce Perkins,” Mendenhall said.
A second-team All-ACC selection, Perkins completed 27 of 43 passes for 266 yards and two touchdowns Saturday night: a 20-yarder to Dubois and an 8-yarder to junior wideout Terrell Jana. Perkins also rushed 17 times for 58 yards.
“He’s just that good,” Swinney of Perkins, whose 3,215 yards passing this season are a UVA record.
Perkins said the game showed “the possibility and the capability of this offense. We had 387 [yards], but we feel like we could have had more. We feel like we left a few yards out there. But it shows the growth from October to now and how far we’ve come as an offense and how far we have to keep going to improve to be elite and to be considered as one of the best offenses in the nation.”
The Cavaliers were short-handed on that side of the ball too. Senior wideout Joe Reed, who had 70 catches and six TD receptions during the regular season, both team highs, suffered an injury in the Virginia Tech game and wasn’t available against Clemson. Reed was Virginia’s lone selection on the All-ACC first team, which he made at two positions: all-purpose and return specialist.
In Reed’s absence, Dubois had a career-high 10 receptions for 130 yards and a touchdown. Another wideout, sophomore Billy Kemp IV, also had a career night, catching nine passes for 66 yards, and Jana finished with 62 yards on six receptions.
The 266 yards passing are the most allowed by the Tigers this season.
Mendenhall singled out offensive coordinator Robert Anae, whose group has improved dramatically since the midpoint of the season.
“There’s been a significant amount of work and improvement that’s gone into our offense that has really helped kind of cover up some of the deficiencies that have shown up defensively through injury,” Mendenhall said. “It just wasn’t quite enough tonight on either side to make the game competitive from beginning to end. But I liked our offensive plan a lot.”
Perkins praised his receivers and said the offensive line “played incredibly [well]. I’m super proud of those guys.”
Dubois agreed. “I feel as though our O-line played their best game of the year.”
SOUND BITES: On a cool, clear night, the game attracted a crowd of 66,810. Among the postgame comments:
• Perkins on where Virginia needs to improve: “Our physicality has to be greater. Mental errors also, we have to eliminate those. In games like these against teams like that, we can’t afford to have that many mental errors, and we can’t afford to not execute on plays, because as we’ve seen the game can get out of hand, and the great teams will capitalize off the mistakes.”
• Perkins on Dubois’ performance: “He’s a competitor no matter where we are. When we’re in practice, he competes. I have all the faith in him, and I know that he’s going to compete for the ball, and he’s going to make the play. He probably has the best hands in America, and when the ball touches his hand, he’s not going to drop it. I think he definitely put a lot of people on notice.”
• Perkins on the gap between the Tigers and the rest of the ACC: “It’s big. Coming out here tonight and just seeing it first-hand, they’re a great team … but I feel like we’re closer than people think, and we played extremely well at times, and we executed, and there was glimpses of this Virginia team that can be one of the teams that battles with them from year to year, from here on out.”
• Mendenhall on Perkins, who enrolled at UVA in January 2018 after spending the 2017 season at a junior college in Arizona: “It’s been a great fit for both of us. He’s meant the world to our program and our growth.”
• Swinney: “What Bronco has done with his team and his program [is impressive], and man, they’re just going to continue to get better.”
• UVA junior cornerback Nick Grant on Clemson’s wideouts: “Certainly they’re the best receivers we’ve ever seen. That doesn’t change the fact that we didn’t come out and play our best game.”
• Swinney on his biggest takeaway from the game: “[Clemson’s players] were ready. They were focused, and they were passionate about winning the game. We knew [the Cavaliers] were going to have some unusual things, and we knew this quarterback was not going to be an easy out. He’s moved the ball on everybody. We bent a little bit, they had us on our heels a little bit, but we settled in, we created three turnovers, and we played complementary football. Our offense really took it over.”
• Dubois on the experience in Charlotte: “It just shows what we’ve got to work on offensively and defensively, and it’s allowing us to know we made it to this game, we were supposed to be here, and we’ve just got to get back to work.”