UVa QB Marc Verica completed 11 of 29 passes for 75 yards with 1 INT in his first start of the season.
In Virginia’s two games prior to Miami, the story has been very similar. A Cavalier offense struggled to pick up yards, but the defense kept the Hoos at least within shouting distance for most of the game. Finally, after losing the time of possession battle and as the opposing offense’s play count climbed into the 70’s, the defense appeared to reach its breaking point, and the Cavs ultimately surrendered by double digits.
At Land Shark Stadium on Saturday, the defense’s breaking point came much earlier, but the result was just as predictable. The Cavaliers’ defense and two blocked punts kept them in the game for a little while, but a punt return for a touchdown, 515 yards of total offense and a run of 28 second-half points helped the Hurricanes trample the Hoos 52-17.
“Clearly we played a team – that we could see last year with all of the young players – on their way back to being a powerful team,” Virginia coach Al Groh said. “Earlier in the year it caught our attention when they beat a team like Oklahoma. When you can match up with athletes like that, that was an indication to us. We certainly saw that with our own eyes today.”
Virginia’s sixth loss of the season was its worst by score – the 35-point margin was the largest this season – and in plenty of other ways too. The Cavaliers gave up 515 yards and 27 first downs on defense, both season highs. They only picked up 149 yards on offense, passing for 75, both season lows as well.
“A big issue in the game was pass protection,” Groh said. “They gave their quarterback all the time that he needed to find their vertical receivers, we did not give our quarterback enough time to get our receivers free.”
Marc Verica started the game at quarterback with Jameel Sewell ailing with a shoulder injury, but it didn’t change the team’s fortunes. The Virginia offense was as anemic as ever from the opening whistle. And yet, with four big plays, Virginia found itself very much in the game in the first half. The first was a 49-yard interception return by corner Ras-I Dowling, which set up a Virginia field goal early in the first quarter. So, even as Virginia picked up just 17 yards and no first downs on its first three possessions, it had the score knotted at 3-3.
The Cavaliers even took the lead and appeared to be in the driver’s seat with their second momentous play. Terence Fells-Danzer tipped a Miami punt – Virginia’s first punt block since 2007 – and the ball traveled just 12 yards to the Miami 45-yard line. Two plays later, the Cavalier offense came up with its best play of the game, a 34-yard Rashawn Jackson touchdown run behind right tackle Will Barker , giving them a 10-3 lead.
It only took 1:46 of game time for Miami to take the lead back, though. A short Chris Hinkebein kickoff gave the ball to the Canes near midfield. On second down, quarterback Jacory Harris completed a pass to wide receiver Leonard Hankerson on a post, and Hankerson bounced off of safety Rodney McLeod and rolled 34 yards to the end zone. That tied the score at 10.
The way Miami retook the lead, however, was perhaps Virginia’s most humbling moment of a humiliating afternoon. After a Cavalier three-and-out, Virginia appeared to catch a break when Nathan Rathjen barely avoided a block on a rugby-style punt. As the ball hit the ground and rolled into the arms of returner Thearon Collier at the Miami 40, six white shirts surrounded Collier near the sideline, and two even got hold of his jersey. Collier, though, spun out of the tackles and began racing across the field. Both Raynard Horne and Patch Duda were blindsided by ferocious blocks as Collier went as far back as the 27-yard line while racing to the opposite sideline. When he got to the other side, he finally made his way forward and went untouched down the sideline for a 60-yard touchdown return as the crow flies, reaching the end zone a full 16 seconds after catching the punt.
“It was a great individual return,” Groh said. “In the special teams meeting [Friday] evening, it was pointedly stated that there’s a player who has more reputation, but [Collier is] the guy. He’s the more dangerous guy and he lived up to that, that’s for sure.”
A second consecutive mishap by the punt team set up another Miami touchdown as Rathjen shanked a punt 12 yards out of bounds to end the first quarter. Harris easily engineered a 25-yard scoring drive to give the Hurricanes a two-score lead.
Near the end of the first half, though, Virginia got its fourth game-changing play of the half from the punt team. Trey Womack stuffed a Miami punt from the 35-yard line, and Bill Schautz scooped the ball up at the 20 and sprinted to the end zone. And so, despite being out-gained 233 yards to 92 yards at halftime, the Cavaliers trailed by just a single score at 24-17.
Bill Schautz scored a touchdown after returning a blocked punt to the end zone.
“I think both sides would say there were a lot of plays that they liked and I think both sides would say that there were a lot of plays they didn’t like,” Groh said. “But we said let’s just dismiss all of that, and whether it’s 38-31, 24-17 or 7-0, the differential is the same. Just forget about that half and go out there as if it’s a 7-0 game, and let’s try and play it that particular way.”
The Virginia offense, though, would receive no more help from its other units the rest of the way, and the floodgates opened. Miami drove with little resistance to three touchdown drives – each at least 79 yards – on its first three possessions of the second half to easily put away the Hoos.
“The second half we just didn’t come out with the same passion that we did in the first half,” Dowling said.
The play that Groh pointed to at game’s end that turned the tide in the second half was a 3rd-and-6 on Miami’s first touchdown drive to open the third quarter. As Harris dropped into the pocket, Virginia linebacker Cameron Johnson got to Harris and appeared to be in position to make a big third-down sack. Harris, though, drifted to his left to step through a tackle attempt by Johnson, and fired a 29-yard completion to Laron Byrd. The Canes would not face another third down as they reached the end zone, giving them a two-score advantage once again.
“That third down play stays really big with me,” Groh said. “We had good initial coverage on the pattern, we had pressure in the pocket and Harris did what he always does – made himself difficult to get on the ground. And then he got out and found the guy on the cross for a big gain, then all of the sudden we have a chance to follow up on what we said with the seven-point differential, and then it’s 14 points, so I thought that really swung things downhill for us.”
Virginia, meanwhile, had just two drives into Miami territory – one was debilitated by a holding penalty, and the other ended as the time expired in the fourth quarter. On that last meaningless drive, UVa converted its only two third downs of the game – the Cavs were 0 for 10 on previous third-down attempts. Verica tossed 2 of his 11 completions on that drive – he ended 11-29 for 75 yards passing with one interception.
“They did a good job of locking down the receivers and we didn’t have many guys open,” Groh said. “They’ve got some very good pass rushers and it was one of those circumstances where pass rushing and pass coverage combined to put a lot of pressure on the quarterback. [Verica] had a lot of plays where he didn’t have very many options.”
Now 3-6, Virginia returns home next week against Boston College, at a stadium that has been increasingly emptier as the losses have mounted. When asked how his team would bounce back from its worst loss of the season, though, Groh’s answer was as expected.
“By being the same guys that we’ve always been,” Groh said. “This is not a team that’s ever stayed on the canvas, and if there’s one talent that we have, it’s that we can take a punch and fight back.”