Mikell Simpson ended with 100 yards rushing on 20 carries, both season highs.
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – As two teams left Kenan Stadium on Saturday, a home team stung by its own futility was booed into the locker room, while the victorious away team was received by a small but loyal fan base and a rousing ovation.
For once this season, Virginia was the team getting the cheers. On the strength of a front seven that had North Carolina’s offense dialed in, and a turnover-less offense that saw flashes of the Mikell Simpson of 2007, the Cavaliers emerged with a 16-3 victory in a typically defense-oriented contest against North Carolina. The contest marked Virginia’s first win since Oct. 25, 2008, a span of losses lasting seven games.
On Carolina’s opening drive, the Virginia defense stymied the Heels’ offense en route to a three-and-out. Inside linebacker Steve Greer blew up two runs in the backfield on first and second downs, and outside linebacker Denzel Burrell ‘s pass rush forced an incompletion from UNC quarterback T.J. Yates on third.
That drive set the tone for a long day for a helpless Heels’ offense. Carolina totaled just 174 yards, including a mere 39 rushing yards. The Virginia defense combined for two sacks, six tackles for a loss, and eight QB hurries, defensive end Matt Conrath batted down three balls at the line by himself, and, as Virginia augmented its lead in the second half, both Chase Minnifield and Chris Cook came down with interceptions. Minnifield’s may as well have been credited to defensive end Nate Collins , whose hit on Yates sent the ball floating high above the line of scrimmage, landing into the arms of the diving Minnifield.
North Carolina’s offense could hardly get anything going throughout the contest, as Virginia dominated the time of possession battle by more than seven minutes. And so, as the Cavalier offense came into halftime with just a 6-0 lead, an impervious Virginia defense ensured the other units that they wouldn’t need too many more points.
“The defense, we came in at halftime, and we told the offense that [six] was gonna be enough,” defensive end Nate Collins said. “We had confidence in our defense that we were gonna come out, and we were gonna stop them every single drive. If special teams gave us position with the ball, they weren’t gonna score again. If anything, they were gonna put up another field goal, but that didn’t even happen.”
But, even as quarterback Jameel Sewell was sacked four times – on three occasions by defensive end Robert Quinn , who finished with four tackles for a loss – Virginia continued to add to its lead, as it finally found success with Mikell Simpson and the running game. Off Minnifield’s interception with 9:22 remaining in the fourth quarter, the Cavaliers put together a game-clinching 58-yard touchdown drive that featured 21 yards on the ground from Simpson, including an eight-yard TD.
Simpson ended with 20 carries for 100 yards; both the numbers were highs for a Virginia running back in 2009, and it was Simpson’s first 100-plus yard rushing game since the Gator Bowl two seasons ago. His previous highs for carries and rushing yards this season were eight carries for 35 yards against TCU; a week ago against Southern Mississippi, Simpson had neither a carry nor a reception.
“It surprised me a lot just to know that I still can do the things that I know I can do,” Simpson said. “I think the offensive line played a great game today, and the receivers got in on the safeties and corners.”
“Juice is back,” Sewell said.
Groh said that the increased touches for Simpson were not a part of the game plan, but rather that they were a function of both his improved performance and the way the game played out.
“He was running the ball pretty well and had a good sense for where the openings were,” Groh said. “And, it was that kind of game. We’ve had a lot of those kind of games that we’ve been successful in over here the last few years, and it was one of those kind of games.”
In addition to the performance from Simpson, Virginia also benefited from a day with no turnovers for the first time this season. The Cavaliers put themselves in jeopardy for a turnover just once, when Sewell recovered his own fumble on the tail end of a seven-yard rush in Carolina territory.
“We had a couple of sacks because I was still holding on to the ball a little bit too long, but we did not turn the ball over,” Sewell said. “As long as we did that, we knew were gonna be able to move down the field, and get some yards, and convert some third downs.”
Robert Randolph kicked three field goals against the Heels.
Also playing his most positive role of the season Saturday, and in fact his career, was placekicker Robert Randolph. The sophomore nailed all three of his attempts from 36, 38, and 43 yards away; his 43-yarder with 1:36 remaining in the third quarter was his career long, and gave Virginia in a 9-3 lead.
“Even at the end of last year when [Randolph] was the full-time kicker, he really hadn’t had to make too many pressure kicks that determined games,” Groh said. “Since Robert is pretty new to being on the field, we learn more and more about him, and clearly we learned some very positive things today.”
True freshman Drew Jarrett converted Virginia’s only extra point – Groh said he intended to use Jarrett on extra points to “try and get him broken in,” a strategy he also used with former UVa kicker Connor Hughes in his freshman season.
And for Virginia, there were still more positives to this game. A healthy Vic Hall lined up at slot receiver, safety in the sub defense packages, quarterback, and holder. After one of many monstrous hits on Sewell sent him to the sideline for a series in the second half, Groh said he was told that “it could be a while” until Sewell returned – the quarterback, however, returned to make several clutch passes under fire from the Carolina front seven. Safety Brandon Woods and defensive lineman Zane Parr both saw the most snaps all season, and were among the players Groh named who had outstanding performances.
But, for Virginia, after suffering a loss to an FCS team, a blowout at home, and a squandered 17-point lead on the road, a win is enough reason for Cavalier fans to celebrate.
“Everything that we all do for months, and weeks, and whatnot, is to experience the five or six minutes when a team comes in the locker room and has that sense of satisfaction,” Groh said. “We’re very pleased for them that they can do that. They earned every part of it.”