In the end, it came down to experience.
Virginia and Connecticut entered the final two minutes Saturday in a 10-10 tie, but the Huskies prevailed in a field goal kicking contest. UConn made a 43-yard kick, while UVA missed from 20 yards as time expired and the hosts held on for the 13-10 win.
“You’re hoping for a push and we got the push,” Connecticut coach Bob Diaco said of the final kick. “It was really dented well and we really strained on every single down. If you rewind the play, I’m sure you’ll see a real significant surge into the backfield from the players. They did a wonderful job.”
When the game came down to those final deciding moments, the Huskies had a significant advantage. They turned to senior Bobby Puyol, who had a game-winning kick in the season opener, and he delivered on the 43-yarder with 1:33 remaining. He kicked throughout high school on a team that won 50 games. UConn’s primary kicker for the third straight season, Puyol has yet to miss a kick this season and now stands at 30-37 in his career. As a junior and senior, he has made 20 of 22 field goal attempts.
That experience won out.
UVA drove inside the 10-yard line in the final seconds, but it had no timeouts remaining. The Cavaliers chose to go with a quarterback draw for Kurt Benkert on third down and when he was stopped at the 3-yard line, it left the visitors down by 3 and time dwindling rapidly.
The Cavaliers rushed their kicking team on to the field to try to tie the game with ex-soccer walkon Alex Furbank, who was playing in the first football game of his career. He transferred into Virginia as a sophomore after spending last season playing Division 3 soccer. Furbank sailed the attempt wide left after he never seemed to get his feet set before the snap.
The coaches said they felt comfortable with the scenario because they saw it as a possibility early in the drive and it had been practiced.
“We were playing for hurry-up field goal from probably just before that fourth down play,” Cavalier coach Bronco Mendenhall said. “Knowing that we might have to go to that strategy. Thought that a good chance that quarterback draw could work, Kurt [Benkert] is tough and threw his body right in there, but we knew exactly how much time we needed to get the kicking team on and other guys off. We played to use that strategy at the end but it just didn’t happen.”
“I can’t tell you how many times we practiced that situation in preseason camp,” UVA special teams coordinator Kelly Poppinga said. “We got in that exact situation, we have no time outs, we have to run the field goal team on and get the offense off. I thought we transitioned really well. I thought we could have gone with two or three seconds left there. Probably could have gone a little faster. We practiced it and we made the field goal every time. Now, obviously, practice and a game are completely different. With Alex, he kicked all our field goals this week and I don’t think he missed one. A guy who didn’t know he would even be on the team at the beginning of the season. To be in that situation – hey it’s not one play that decided the outcome of that game. But it is something to learn from and the next time he is in that situation he is going to make it.”
Virginia had many opportunities before the final sequence to change the outcome. In fact, the team stormed out of the gate to lead 10-0 less than 18 minutes into it. Furbank hit a 23-yarder to open the scoring in the first quarter and Albert Reid followed with a 9-yard touchdown run early in the second. That 10-0 start represented the season’s first lead for the team.
The Hoos posted better stats than the Huskies in a lot of spots too: 140-123 rushing yards, 241-154 passing yards, and sacks 4-1 for example. They also won the turnover battle 2-1. Reid had 73 rushing yards, while Keeon Johnson posted 73 receiving yards. Benkert completed 23 of 42 passes for 241 yards, but had 0 touchdowns and 1 INT. Defensively, Juan Thornhill had an interception in the end zone and Andrew Brown recovered a fumble to stop a UConn drive as well. Micah Kiser and Quin Blanding each had 11 tackles.
Still, the offense sputtered after the first quarter and couldn’t stretch the lead. The Cavaliers put up 176 yards on the two scoring drives, but managed just 137 more before the final drive of 73 yards ended with the missed kick. The giant lull in the middle featured four drives of 6, 2, 6, and 0 yards. The 0 came on a first-play interception immediately after the defense had recovered a fumble. One drive of 51 yards came up short on fourth down at the UConn 24-yard line because the coaches don’t have confidence in kicks beyond the 35-yard line.
The defense could have held on for the win by itself potentially. The Hoos had allowed just 3 points all day and had intercepted a pass in the end zone and recovered a fumble at their own 26-yard line to keep the lead in the second half. The D couldn’t come through with stops on the final two drives from the Huskies, though.
After the Benkert INT, UConn drove 37 yards to tie the score with a touchdown run from QB Bryant Shirreffs. That drive featured three third down conversions, the final two on penalties against the UVA defense – one for pass interference and one for a facemask. After holding on downs, the Connecticut offense used its final drive to go 50 yards in 8 plays and set up the game-winning kick.
“It’s painful, that’s all I can say,” Reid said. “There were plays on the field that we didn’t make. We have to if we are going to win. I always feel like we are the better team, no matter what. There is nothing that hurts more than losing like that. Especially when you are winning the entire game until the end. We have to come out on top. We’re going to go back to work on Monday.”