In economics, one phrase is opportunity cost. In Virginia football, a popular term is opportunity lost.
After entering its early October bye week on a two-game winning streak and leading Pittsburgh with 28 points until the final minute of the first half in the first game afterward, the Cavaliers stumbled through an extended losing streak. Saturday’s game in Atlanta pushed the slide to six straight games when Georgia Tech prevailed 31-17.
The six-game skid has included a laundry list of missed opportunities. UVA led Louisville and Wake Forest in the fourth quarter, while it remained close into the third quarter or later against UNC, Miami, and Georgia Tech. Throw in a halftime tie with Pitt and a late lead with Connecticut that also evaporated, the 2016 season – like some before it – carries a theme of missed opportunities.
Among the causes: turnovers, offensive droughts, missed kicks, and busted coverage or missed tackles. All bubbled up again as Georgia Tech scored 10 points off of three turnovers and the Cavaliers missed two field goals while going more than 25 minutes without any points. During this six-game slide, UVA has thrown three interceptions that were returned for touchdowns, bringing the season total to four. The Yellow Jackets ended any hopes of a late comeback with their version of the pick-6.
“We had similar issues at times as the game went on with ball security and turnovers, another turnover for a touchdown,” Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall said. “Really, I think, the majority of the points that had the game separate came off turnovers. So we haven’t cracked the code yet on getting our decision-making and execution to match the situation to help us move through those pivotal and pressure-filled moments of the game. We’re playing a lot of those up to a point.”
With Matt Johns starting at quarterback instead of Kurt Benkert this week, the Hoos couldn’t shake their turnover problems. Johns threw 3 interceptions, including the pick-6 and meaningless hail mary at the end of the game. Those picks pushed UVA’s streak to 41 straight games with a turnover. That dates back to Oct. 12, 2013 at Maryland in a game the Terps won 27-26.
In the 41 games of the streak, the Hoos have 82 turnovers with 57 interceptions and 25 fumbles. That’s an astonishing 2 turnovers per game and nearly 1.4 INTs each outing. For this season, the Cavaliers have thrown 14 interceptions and lost 9 fumbles.
The ongoing struggle torpedoed Virginia’s chances Saturday. After leading 10-7 at the half, UVA fell behind 21-10 with an unproductive quarter than ended with a Johns’ interception. GT turned that into a field goal. Johns led a touchdown drive to get back to 24-17 and the defense followed up with a three-and-out before disaster struck again. With the offense pinned against the goal line, Johns hesitated a bit and then threw an interception that Lance Austin turned into a 24-yard touchdown.
The offense also squandered a possession that started at the GT 29-yard line thanks to a 4th-and-1 stop by the defense. The Hoos still led 10-7 at the time, but gained just 5 yards before Sam Hayward logged one of his two missed field goals.
Johns finished 27-of-44 passing for 220 yards with one touchdown pass to Ryan Santoro. Johns became the 10th Hoo to surpass 4,000 passing yards in his career. Doni Dowling led the receivers with 9 catches for 68 yards, while Taquan Mizzell added 6 receptions for 45 yards. Mizzell posted 131 rushing yards as well to close in on 2,000 career rushing yards – he’s now at 1,962. Keeon Johnson also became the 36th Cavalier to reach 1,000 career passing yards with 57 yards on the day.
“The turnovers helped us seal the game in the second half,” Tech coach Paul Johnson said. “They overthrew some balls and turned it over and Harrison [Butker] was able to get a field goal out of it.”
Virginia’s defense kept the team in the lead in the first half and within striking distance in the second half, but three big plays undercut the effort. Marcus Marshall got the Jackets on the board with a 67-yard touchdown run on the option pitch in the second quarter. UVA’s Jordan Mack missed his assignment that allowed Marshall to get free.
The hosts stormed into the lead with a couple of big plays in the third quarter and let the turnovers take care of the rest of the win. With 4:22 to go in the third quarter, quarterback Justin Thomas found Clinton Lynch running free behind Kelvin Rainey for a 54-yard touchdown pass to take the lead. Minutes later, Qua Searcy cut back across the field after an outside toss and sprinted 60 yards for the score.
Those plays proved to be enough to send UVA home with a 2-9 record as it prepares for the season finale at Virginia Tech next week.
“One of my passions is defending the option, and the kids did a really nice job,” Mendenhall said. “There were a few assignment mistakes, but they did a nice job giving us a chance to have the ball longer, get out of third downs and give our offense opportunities to score enough points to win.”