In a game of dueling big plays, the Virginia football team challenged No. 2 Miami but couldn’t pull off a shocking upset on Saturday. The Hurricanes rallied from a two-touchdown deficit to win 44-28 and remain undefeated at 10-0 on the season.
The two teams combined for six scoring plays of 30+ yards with momentum swinging wildly as a result. UVA took charge at 28-14 with four of the first five explosive touchdowns, but Miami answered with 30 unanswered points jumpstarted by a key 30-yard interception return for a touchdown.
“We had plenty of chances,’’ Cavalier coach Bronco Mendenhall said in The Washington Post. “We were staged to pull off a great upset for most of the game. We just couldn’t quite finish.”
The Cavaliers showed little hesitancy in going for the upset win on the road. They mixed up the running game with some reverses and end-arounds, connected on some passes in the middle of the field, and beat the Hurricanes over the top for some scoring plays. The defense blitzed, took away the running game for much of the day, and created some turnovers. The Hoos even went for a surprise onside kick, though that didn’t work out and cost them some points on the scoreboard.
That loose and confident demeanor applied to UVA quarterback Kurt Benkert as much anyone. The senior rifled pass after pass after pass to waiting receivers, connecting on his first 12 attempts and 17 out of 18 in the first half alone. That led to 260 yards and three touchdown passes before halftime.
Among the big throws in that fiery first half was one slant pattern that found Lamont Atkins for 11 yards on third down when Benkert stood in against a delayed rush and took a hit to make the throw. That drive-extender set up a 75-yard touchdown strike to Joe Reed on the next play play when the Hoos moved the pocket and Reed slipped behind a frozen defender.
The other two touchdown throws looked just as good. The first was a simple on-target throw to the sidelines, but Olamide Zaccheaus turned it back inside and sprinted 33 yards for the game’s opening score. Benkert also ended the half with a seeing-eye bomb to Andre Levrone that matched the 33-yard distance with an over-the-shoulder catch in the end zone.
After Virginia’s Charles Snowden blocked a punt in the first two minutes of the second half, Benkert picked up where he left off before intermission. This time he passed over patterns on the left side of the field, rolled back right, and saw Daniel Hamm get behind the Miami defense for a 26-yard score. At that point, the two touchdowns that sandwiched the halves gave the Hoos a 28-14 lead on the No. 2 Hurricanes and Benkert had completed 18 of 19 passes for 286 yards and four touchdowns.
“Without a doubt, they were ready to play,” Miami coach Mark Richt said. “Give credit to their players. They were ready to play. Not that we weren’t. We were ready to play, too. They took it to us early on, especially their offensive side of the ball, both sides of the ball really. Not used to having guys move the ball like that on our defense. They did a great job.”
Unfortunately for UVA, that magic momentum didn’t hold up. The Canes answered with a touchdown drive and on the Hoos’ next play, disaster struck. Benkert, whose only incompletion of the day at that point came on a pass he intentionally threw away, stepped into a comeback timing route on the right side but Miami safety Jaquan Johnson diagnosed what he saw quickly and took off from the middle of the field at the snap.
Benkert never saw the danger and Johnson broke right in front of the receiver for the pick-6 interception from 30 yards out. The two-touchdown lead evaporated in 2:23 with those back-to-back scores.
“It was a great play call by coach [Manny] Diaz,” Johnson said. “He gave me the ability to read the quarterback on that play and I just saw the quarterback look in one direction and just took off that way.”
Benkert finished the day 28-of-37 passing for 384 yards with four touchdowns and that one interception. After completing 18 of his first 19 passes, he connected on 10 of the final 18 attempts for Virginia. Some of the fall-off came from receivers dropping passes, including a big one by Doni Dowling with the Hoos still threatening with an upset bid in the fourth quarter, or due to breakdowns from the offensive line that led to uncomfortable timing.
Dowling did tally seven catches for 70 yards, while Reed had two for 81 yards. Zaccheaus added six grabs for 67 yards, while running back Jordan Ellis chipped in six for 57. Levrone made two catches for 37 yards. A combination of five sacks and little running room anywhere in the middle of the field or on key short-yardage situations left UVA with just 55 yards of rushing yards to balance the attack.
“I felt up until the end we had a chance to win the game,’’ Benkert said in The Washington Post. “We weren’t able to sustain it long enough and it starts with me. I didn’t do enough. I put us in bad situations with the pick. Obviously, they got me on the coverage.”
Indeed, Virginia couldn’t overcome some key mistakes like that pick-6 as Miami showed its resilience. The other big turning points came on special teams as the Hurricanes capitalized with 17 points after gaining great field position after Cavalier miscues.
The aforementioned surprise onside kick was ruled to be a Miami recovery and it quickly scored from the UVA 40-yard line to bounce back from the visitors’ 14-0 start. The Canes tied the score after another turnover. This time, Hamm lost control fielding a punt and that fumble gave Miami the ball at the UVA 36-yard line. Dayall Harris made a 36-yard touchdown catch on the next play for the 14-14 score.
Later Lester Coleman’s 30-yard punt from deep in Virginia territory allowed the hosts to set up shop at the Cavalier 35. That led to a field goal to give the Hurricanes their first lead of the game at 31-28 and that eventually unraveled to the final margin.
Miami quarterback Malik Rosier finished 15-of-28 passing for 210 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions. He added 38 rushing yards and one touchdown too. Running back Travis Homer, who recovered the Hamm fumble on special teams, registered 96 rushing yards with a touchdown. In addition to Harris’ touchdown catch, Ahmmon Richards and and Lawrence Cager also had scoring grabs.
Micah Kiser led the Virginia defense with nine tackles, while Quin Blanding added eight stops and an interception on a pass deflected by Juan Thornhill, who had a pick of his own as well. Thornhill was also the defender when Miami scored two of its touchdowns on the goal line with jumpball passes. Eli Hanback made seven tackles. Corner Bryce Hall nearly answered Johnson’s pick-6 with a great read of his own, but he bobbled the ball after jumping the route.
“We had some special teams issues, some defensive issues, some offensive issues, but the thing we didn’t have was a heart issue,” Richt said. “We didn’t’ have an issue with belief and team unity when things weren’t looking too great. That’s the
thing I appreciate most about this team of coaches and players.”