One step forward and two steps back? The Virginia football team lived that old saying over the past month.
After snapping a 17-game road losing streak as part of back-to-back wins just before a bye week, the Cavaliers crashed back to earth the past two weeks. On Saturday, UVA hung with No. 22 North Carolina for a half but watched things get away after intermission of a 35-14 loss. The Hoos fell to 2-5 on the season and 1-2 in the ACC.
“UNC executed longer and more effectively than us,” Cavalier coach Bronco Mendenhall said. “The game was really tight at halftime and then they were able to sustain drives, execute when needed, and recover from turnovers at a higher level than we were. So their program is currently more mature and farther along than ours is and that was reflected as the game continued to go on. We need to continue to mature, continue to grow, and continue to stay together and support one another.”
The showdown swung fully in North Carolina’s direction after a pair of third quarter turnovers.
First, Virginia linebacker Micah Kiser forced a fumble and recovered it on UNC’s first drive of the second half. Kiser, who finished with 10 tackles and 2 pass breakups as well, tracked down receiver Ryan Switzer and stripped the ball away while making the tackle. Quin Blanding led the Wahoos with 13 tackles.
Trailing just 14-7 at that point, UVA took over at its own 45-yard line. A pass for a first down and a good first down run pushed the ball to the Tar Heel 38, but the Hoos lost yards on a carry and a sack and punted. The visitors then marched 79 yards for a touchdown catch by Thomas Jackson that made it 21-7.
“I thought that was going to be the game changer, a momentum play – a big, forced fumble in the middle of the field and you get it at the 50-yard line,” Kiser said. “But it didn’t work out that way. We could have played a lot better on defense to help our offense, but there’s nothing we can do now.”
On the next possession, the Cavaliers made their own mistake. After pushing the ball into Carolina territory again, a false start penalty, a run play that lost 2 yards, and incompletion, UVA fumbled on a missed exchange in the backfield. On 3rd-and-17, quarterback Kurt Benkert attempted a delayed draw handoff to Taquan Mizell but the ball dropped free and UNC’s Mikey Bart recovered to set his team up at Virginia’s 41-yard line.
The Tar Heels needed just 6 plays and 2:11 to capitalize. Running back T.J. Logan opened and closed the drive, gaining 11 yards on the first carry of the possession before capping it off with a 4-yard touchdown run. Logan rushed for 61 yards and a score, while fellow RB Elijah Hood piled up 107 and a touchdown too.
The two teams traded touchdowns in the fourth quarter, UVA’s coming with backup quarterback Connor Brewer in charge, to reach the final margin. Brewer kept his touchdown drive alive with a 4th-and-2 completion to Keeon Johnson that set up Mizzell’s 1-yard touchdown run. Mizzell finished with 106 rushing yards and 25 receiving yards to lead the Hoos, who only tallied 253 yards of offense overall.
“Just our offensive line did a great job at blocking guys,” Mizzell said. “It is our job as backs once we get to that second level to make a man miss and get positive yards. We felt confident in the run game. Just the way the game started going we had to go away from it for a little while and then we got back to it.”
Prior to that fourth quarter touchdown drive, Virginia’s offense spent most of the day searching for success. Benkert completed 19 of 32 passes for only 126 yards, while Johnson finished as the only player other than Mizzell with more than 2 catches – he had 3 for 18 yards. Albert Reid added 20 yards on 10 carries.
Drive after drive, UVA could only move the ball temporarily before things fizzled on third down. The Cavaliers managed to convert on just 3 of 19 third down opportunities, while the Tar Heels moved the chains on 5 of 12 chances.
In fact, the Hoos only cracked the scoreboard goose egg initially thanks to a great trick play call in the second quarter. UVA set up a for a 28-yard field goal, but then moved personnel around in swinging gate fashion. The alignment sent holder Matt Johns to the left with a wall of six linemen, but left snapper Evan Butts uncovered in front of kicker Sam Heyward. The Hoos fired the ball out to Johns and released Butts up the middle.
Distracted by the formation and a sprint out by Heyward at the snap, no one followed Butts and he easily caught the pass from Johns for the touchdown. The 7-7 tie proved short-lived, however, because UNC immediately answered with a drive capped by its own trick play – a reverse toss-back touchdown pass – to make it 14-7 and the Heels pulled away in the second half.
“We’ve had it in for a couple weeks now,” Johns said. “Coach Mendenhall walked by me on the sidelines and he had a paper over his mouth and he was talking, and I didn’t even know he was talking to me. The play was called ‘Butts’ and he said ‘We’re going Butts and it’s field goal,’ because Butts was the snapper. So I was like, ‘Oh, we’re going Butts!’ And then we walked out and spread out in the formation we were in and No. 23 [Cayson Collins] was pointing at Butts, and I was thinking in my head, ‘Well now, the play isn’t going to work.’ And so Sam ran to the sideline and 23 ran with him and then Butts was wide open.”