Virginia football coach Bronco Mendenhall has said before — and did so again last night — that “three to five plays make up most games.”
In the 99th matchup between the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech, those plays went the way of the Hokies, who managed just two scores but used a suffocating defense to take down the Cavaliers, 10-0. UVA, which has now lost 14 straight games to its in-state foe, finishes the 2017 regular season with a 6-6 record.
“Physical, tough, and heated game,” Mendenhall said following the loss. “Field position and turnovers had a lot to with the outcome today. I give Coach Fuente and Virginia Tech credit. Their defense played exceptionally well and had us behind the chains the majority of the day, which made it difficult to convert on third down. Every opportunity that you have a chance in a game like this, you have to capitalize. So we had a chance for a field goal that would have tied the score, and we had a drive that we were sustaining and I believe that we had a chance to possibly get a touchdown there. Ultimately, in a 10-0 game, three to five plays make up most games, and that was no different today. We fell short, especially offensively executing well enough, long enough, and in critical moments enough to match the score of our opponent.”
Virginia’s defense, a talented-but-thin unit that had surrendered 24 or more points in each of its past five games, battled throughout. Virginia Tech’s offense totaled 345 yards of offense, including 212 in the second half, and had eight possessions in UVA territory. The Hokies mustered only 10 points, though, keeping the Cavaliers within reach until the game’s final minutes.
Linebacker Micah Kiser and safety Quin Blanding played brilliantly in their final game inside Scott Stadium, combining for 36 tackles (10 solo efforts) and two tackles for loss. Sophomore linebacker Jordan Mack had 13 tackles of his own while junior cornerback Juan Thornhill had six stops and an interception.
While Virginia’s defense played well enough to win, Virginia Tech’s defense was easily the most dominant unit on the field. The Hokies controlled the line of scrimmage from start to finish, sacking Virginia senior quarterback Kurt Benkert four times while holding the Hoos to a measly 5 yards rushing. UVA managed only 186 yards of offense in total and just nine first downs.
“I do commend our players for being good enough to be in a bowl game and to slug through the course of the year,” Virginia offensive coordinator Robert Anae said. “We barely made it and I’m very proud that we were able to make it to a bowl game with this group. As you can see when we gauge ourself to our in-state rivalry, when it comes to the trenches we are not in the ballpark, and that’s what’s showing up on the scoreboard. Our D, though, however, is the strength of our team and I thought they played a really good game against a quality opponent.”
Virginia crossed into Virginia Tech territory only two times the entire game but couldn’t take advantage either time. The first opportunity came on the last drive of the first half. Thornhill’s interception gave Virginia good starting field position at its own 41, and the Cavaliers converted a 3rd down and a 4th down to reach the Hokies 31.
A well-thrown pass from Benkert went through the hands of senior wide receiver Andre Levrone. A completion could have resulted in a touchdown … at the very least, UVA would have had possession inside the Tech 5. Virginia would settle for an A.J. Mejia 40-yard field goal attempt, but the true freshman’s kick sailed wide. Tech held a 3-0 lead going into halftime thanks to a 30-yard field goal from Brian Johnson early in the second quarter.
“It was a tough catch,” Levrone said in a postgame interview. “Kurt felt a guy bearing down my back, he let it go and it came off hot. It touched my fingers, so it has got to be a catch for me. It could have changed the course of the game.”
With his team trailing 10-0 and in search of any kind of offensive spark with less than 10 minutes remaining in the game, Levrone rose to the occasion, hauling in an outstanding over-the-shoulder catch against double coverage for a 51-yard gain. The Virginia offense was rolling Benkert completions to Daniel Hamm and Doni Dowling got the Cavaliers inside the red zone for the first time all night. The latter completion, which would have given Virginia a first down on the Tech 14, was overturned upon further review.
Benkert and Dowling couldn’t connect on the following play, a 3rd and 10, setting up a 4th and 10 from the Tech 30. On his way to the sideline, Dowling pushed Virginia Tech defensive end Trevon Hill, who subsequently flopped backwards to the ground. The incident drew a 15-yard personal foul penalty, forcing a punt and costing the Hoos a scoring opportunity.
“Well I think it took wind out of the sails, but as a program you got to overcome those and we still had another down,” Mendenhall said, referring to the sequence with Dowling (the overturned call and then personal foul). “If nothing else, we have to get a field goal there. The frustration and some of the penalties we had down the stretch have to be now shaped and moved into preparation in advance to execute at a higher level.”
Four plays later, Virginia defensive end Andrew Brown was ejected after throwing a punch at Virginia Tech’s Deshawn McClease and pushing a referee.
“I don’t believe in it and I don’t tolerate, obviously, the accountability for it and all it does is hurt the team,” Mendenhall said, referring to the penalties on Dowling and Brown. “My job is to continue to elevate the threshold of our program to where that kind of behavior is gone and all we see is tough, physical play within the whistles and that’s all we see. Any of the other stuff that happens and any of the residue that’s left over from before, my job is to flush it all out. There’s still some that showed up today.”
Virginia would get the ball back with 3:52 remaining. As was the case throughout the night, though, the Hoos couldn’t muster any offense, failing to get even one first down on the drive. Virginia Tech ran out the clock from there, improving its record to 9-3 on the season and 5-3 in the ACC. UVA, which dropped five of its last six games, finishes with a 3-5 ACC mark.
“I couldn’t be more proud of my guys, and I couldn’t be happier for them,” Blanding said of his team’s effort versus Tech. “We came out there and fought. That’s the bottom line. Sometimes things don’t go our way. We fought the whole game.”
In the face of a stifling defense that ranked No. 6 in the nation in scoring defense before the game, Benkert finished with 17 completions in 34 attempts for 186 yards. He now holds the UVA all-time record for passing yards in a single season, surpassing Matt Schaub. Junior Olamide Zaccheaus had a quiet night but led the team with four receptions, while Levrone led the Hoos with 59 receiving yards. Running back Jordan Ellis rushed 10 times for 9 yards. Virginia’s run game has totaled 123 yards in the final three games combined.
Time of possession ultimately tipped heavily in Virginia Tech’s favor, 37:16 to 22:44. UVA edged the Hokies in time of possession in the first half before Tech controlled the ball for 22:49 in the second half. McClease and Steven Peoples combined for 142 of Virginia Tech’s 202 yards rushing, while redshirt freshman quarterback Josh Jackson had 143 yards passing with one touchdown and one interception. His 8-yard touchdown pass to Chris Cunningham came on Tech’s first drive of the second half, a drive that began on the UVA 40 following a lost fumble by Cavalier sophomore running back Chris Sharp.
So, Virginia Tech’s streak continues. Unlike the past five seasons, however, Virginia football has a bowl game to look forward to. Picked by many to finish dead last in the conference and to win few games this season, the Cavaliers rebounded from a 2-10 2016 campaign to become bowl eligible in Coach Mendenhall’s second season at the helm.
“We have come a long way,” Levrone said. “For five years I have been here under a different staff, to see the lack of discipline and all types of off the field issues, to see just the drive in all my teammates. Everyone is just living their best life right now. I can’t stress how much Coach Mendenhall has done for this team. He may not even understand, but just by implementing the plan that he has and the discipline he has given this team and the new confidence he has given this team. He has done it by turning over to us and telling us we can and it is on our time. We have embraced that. This year we have had great senior leadership. I love every one of our teammates, especially my seniors that I have been here with for so long. Love going to war with those guys every day, all day long we are talking about the game. On the field you just look them in the eyes and you just know that they are going to fight with you. We came up short today, but I think that this team can go the distance eventually and it is going to be a lot faster than people think.”