— Virginia Football (@UVAFootball) October 30, 2022
By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — After a stretch of three games in which they mainly faced opponents’ backup quarterbacks, the Virginia Cavaliers are preparing for a date with one of college football’s brightest young stars at that position: North Carolina’s Drake Maye.
In a Coastal Division game to air on ACC Network, UVA (3-5, 1-4) meets No. 17 UNC (7-1, 4-0) at noon Saturday at Scott Stadium.
A redshirt freshman whose brother Luke helped UNC win an NCAA title in basketball, Maye leads the nation in total offense and ranks third in passing efficiency and passing yards per game. In eight games, he’s completed 196 of 275 passes (71.3 percent) for 2,671 yards and 29 touchdowns, with only three interceptions. He’s also averaging 4.5 yards per rush.
“You can tell watching him on film that the game’s not moving too fast for him,” UVA head coach Tony Elliott said Tuesday. “That’s one of the things with freshman quarterbacks and all young guys in general: the game moves extremely fast. But for him he’s in control of the offense. You can tell that’s very comfortable. He understands what they’re doing. He has his progressions. If his progression’s not there he’s going to find the running back on a check down or he’s going to take off and extend the play with his legs.”
The Tar Heels, who are averaging 41.8 points per game, will be up against a UVA defense that’s gone eight-plus quarters without allowing a touchdown. In each of its past two games—a 16-9 win over Georgia Tech and a 14-12 loss to Miami—Virginia held its opponent to fewer than 275 yards.
Still, no matter how well the defense has been playing coordinator John Rudzinski, who came to UVA from Air Force after last season, shutting down UNC’s offense will be difficult. The Heels have scored at least 27 points in every game this season. The Cavaliers, meanwhile, have scored more than 20 only once: in a 34-17 victory of Richmond, an FCS team.
To win Saturday, “we’ve got to be prepared to score points,” Elliott said. “I think the objective every time you step on the field from an offensive perspective is to go score. So the biggest thing is for us we’re moving the ball. I’ve been kidding with the guys and just challenging them. I said, ‘We can’t be allergic to the end zone.’ Hopefully we’ll shake those allergies and we’ll find ways to put it in the end zone.”
Against Miami, the Wahoos had at least three pass plays that could have produced touchdowns, Elliott said, “and that’s 21 points on the board. So the guys have responded to the challenge. I think the guys are going to be excited to play, [and] they were excited to play last week. Offensively, the objective is to score points every time you touch the ball. So we’re going to challenge these guys to throw and catch and block, give the quarterback some time, and then hopefully we can play complementary football with the defense.”
HOME STRETCH: Four regular-season games remain for Virginia, which is in its first season under Elliott. The next three are at Scott Stadium, where the Hoos have won 23 of their past 30 games.
As disappointing as the loss to Miami was for the Cavaliers, the players “showed up with a great mindset on Monday,” Elliott said. “They probably recovered from the outcome of the game quicker than the coaches. But I think the guys understand where we’re trying to go as a program. I think they’re invested in helping build the foundation of this program. I think we’re also in a stretch of the season where they got some rivalry games coming up, they got some personal vested interest in some of these games coming up.
“So really it’s been spirited practices on Monday and Tuesday, and we really haven’t had to do much in terms of lifting their spirits. But then also too I let them know that we’re moving forward. We’re building a program. And, yes, I want to win every single game. But the objective is to make sure that we get the fundamentals right. I think the guys have turned the corner in terms of believing what we’re trying to build from a program standpoint and they’re excited about the opportunity that they have left … So there’s still a whole lot left to play for this team.”
SPECIAL GUEST: At the end of practice last Thursday, UVA players gathered in front of Elliott, who told them, “I’ve got a treat for you guys.” And with that he introduced Zac Yarbrough, a three-year starter at center for the Cavaliers in the early 2000s.
Elliott’s assistants include two of Yarbrough’s former teammates, Marques Hagans and Clint Sintim, and, like the current Cavaliers, they listened closely as Yarbrough shared his story.
In July 2019, Yarbrough was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer. He had a radical mastectomy later that year and has endured chemotherapy and radiation treatments. Yarbrough, who lives near Jacksonville, Fla., talked to the team about his medical struggles and about his experience at UVA.
Two days later, during the Miami game, Yarbrough was recognized at Scott Stadium and received a warm ovation from the crowd.
“It’s kind of cool to see things come full circle,” Sintim said after practice Tuesday. “A guy who I played with comes back and speaks to these guys about what it means to be here. It kind of just validates what Coach is talking about and how special this place is.
“They hear it from me, they hear it from Marques, they hear it from [assistant coach Chris] Slade, but to hear it from guys they don’t necessarily know kind of re-affirms that. There’s a lot of power in what he said.”
Yarbrough, who grew up in Winter Park, Fla., spent a postgraduate year at Fork Union Military Academy before enrolling at UVA, where he redshirted his first season. He snapped on field goals and extra points in 2001 and took over as the starting center in 2002. In 2004, when Yarbrough made the All-ACC second team, Hagans was the Cavaliers’ starting quarterback.
Sintim arrived at UVA in 2004 and redshirted that season. Yarbrough was one of head coach Al Groh’s graduate assistants in 2005.
“I told Zac that as a young guy I appreciated him, just because of the way he carried himself,” said Sintim, who coaches the Cavaliers’ linebackers. “I wasn’t connected to him like some, because I was on defense and I was young, but as a young guy you look up to these older guys as far as leadership and how he worked and how he practiced and who he was or who he is. It meant a lot for me just seeing him again.”
BUSINESS AS USUAL: UVA quarterback Brennan Armstrong, who hurt his left ankle in the Miami game, has showed no ill effects at practice this week.
“He’s full speed. He’s full go,” Elliott said. “He’s a warrior. We all know that. I love that young man to death. I really do feel for him, to be honest, because he has to take all the responsibility because he’s the quarterback. But he can’t do it by himself, so we’re all in this thing together. There were three to five plays that we probably want back from a coaching standpoint where we could have made better calls to put the players in a better situation to be successful.”
When the team meets on Mondays, Elliott said, “before I talk about the grades for the players I talk about the coaching staff and the areas that we need to get better, the calls that we need to make better. If we’re going to have accountability in this program, we’ve got to have total accountability, starting with myself. If I make a mistake, then I’ve got to be the first one to say that I made a mistake and I’ve got to have people around me that are going to hold me accountable and tell me when I make a mistake. And then my job is to evaluate the coaches.
“So when I’m looking at the film, watching the film, I’m evaluating the play calls, and when I look to evaluate the play calls, one, is it successful? But then two, are the young men in position? And then if there was a breakdown, what was the breakdown?”
Starting tailback Perris Jones has an ankle injury that’s likely to keep him out of the UNC game, Elliott said. That would mean more reps for Xavier Brown, Mike Hollins and Ronnie Walker Jr.
Hollins, who was recovering from a concussion and didn’t play against Georgia Tech, had a 64-yard reception and a 14-yard run against Miami, and Elliott singled him out as the Cavaliers’ offensive player of the game.
“Hopefully the success that Mike had in his previous game will motivate him to continue to push,” Elliott said, “because he’s very capable, we all know that. He’s trying, but we’re trying to get him to push to that fifth gear that we know that he has. Because when he plays in fifth gear he’s as good as anybody in this league. But when he’s not in fifth gear then he doesn’t give you an advantage over playing one of the other guys.”
BACK ON TRACK: True freshman Will Bettridge scored all of the Cavaliers’ points against the Hurricanes. Not since 2015, when Ian Frye did so against Miami, had a UVA kicker connected on four field goals in a game.
Bettridge was coming off a shaky performance at Georgia Tech’s Bobby Dodd Stadium, where he missed two field-goal attempts and an extra point.
“I watched film the next day and I put it behind me,” Bettridge said after practice Tuesday. “I think that’s the next-kick mentality.”
Against Miami, he made a 27-yarder in the third quarter and a 24-yard in the fourth. In each of the first two overtime periods, he connected from 41 yards.
“Very proud of him,” Elliott said. “He was a guy that probably put more responsibility on himself than he needed to from the previous game. But just shows that he’s a competitor, that’s going to come to work every day. He’s a freshman and he learned that the approach, the preparation is key. And he went out there and he did what you want them all to do, just to kick like nobody’s looking. Don’t put more pressure on yourself than you need to. Just go out there and do your job.”
In the second OT, Bettridge’s kick bounced off the left upright before falling over the crossbar for three points.
“My ball usually has a natural hook to it, so I saw it hooking to the upright,” he said. “I felt confident, I knew I hit it clean, so hopefully I would get the right bounce, and I did.”
Bettridge attended Gulliver Prep in Miami, where he played for former UVA linebacker Earl Sims, and he knew several of the Hurricanes’ players. That wasn’t his only tie to the opponent Saturday. His sister, Catherine, is a sophomore at Miami.
“She came up for the game,” Bettridge said. “I think she just wore orange and kind of supported both sides.”
For the season, Bettridge is 7 for 9 on field goals and 7 for 9 on extra points.
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