A memorable 40-36 win over Georgia Tech gives the Virginia football program its sixth win of the 2017 season, meaning the Cavaliers are bowl eligible for the first time since 2011.
How Virginia went about getting the coveted sixth victory was something special. Fitting of the “earned, not given” mindset Bronco Mendenhall has tried to instill since taking over as head coach in December of 2015, the Cavaliers played relentlessly and with determination, overcoming a 15-point third quarter deficit and a 3-point deficit with 3:10 left in the fourth quarter to defeat the Yellow Jackets in thrilling fashion.
Senior quarterback Kurt Benkert’s 27-yard touchdown pass to senior wide receiver Andre Levrone with 1:22 remaining in the game pushed UVA ahead for good, 40-36. The game was clinched when Georgia Tech junior quarterback TaQuon Marshall’s pass on 4th-and-16 from the Virginia flailed out of bounds.
“Really, really, really happy for my team and really proud of them,” Mendenhall said. “They fought hard and they played hard today from the very beginning to the end. They supported each other, they played complementary football, and they decided that they wanted to be different and play different than they had in the last two weeks. There was plenty of chance for it to go any direction, this game, and they just kept coming back. I’m so happy for them. Really appreciative of the work they put in and the trust they’ve placed in me to believe that we could be a postseason team and beyond. It’s gratifying to see them happy, it’s really gratifying.”
Unlike its previous two outings, which included a 41-10 loss at home to Boston College and a 31-14 loss at Pittsburgh, Virginia played with passion from the start. The passion didn’t equate to the fast start Benkert had hoped for from the Cavalier offense. Just the opposite, as Benkert completed only 7-of-19 passes for 78 yards in the first half. In his defense he didn’t receive much help, as Virginia players had seven drops while playing in a steady rain the first half.
While the offense sputtered, the special teams — specifically, sophomore Joe Reed and the kick return unit — shined. Reed took the opening kickoff 57 yards, helping Virginia get on the scoreboard first with a 36-yard field goal from true freshman AJ Mejia, one of three field goals he would make on the day. With 2:31 remaining in the half and Georgia Tech coming off a score that gave them a 14-6 lead, Reed struck again, this time taking a kickoff 92 yards to the end zone. The score and subsequent extra point close the Cavalier deficit to one point at 14-13 heading into halftime.
Virginia struggled in third quarters the previous two weeks, and Georgia Tech entered Scott Stadium having outscored its opponents 79-20 in the third quarter. Sure enough, Paul Johnson’s group hit Virginia with a quick one-two punch to start this second half, with Marshall taking the first offensive play 78 yards for a touchdown. Linebacker Bruce Jordan-Swilling followed up with a pick-6 of Benkert, and suddenly the Hoos trailed, 28-13.
The 15-point deficit didn’t deter this Cavalier team. In fact, it seemed to spur on an even greater sense of urgency. Benkert connected with senior receiver Andre Levrone on a 34-yard touchdown pass the following drive, senior free safety Quin Blanding picked off Marshall on Georgia Tech’s ensuing drive, and then Benkert hit senior receiver Doni Dowling on a 28-yard touchdown toss. Olamide Zaccheaus corralled a 2-point conversion try and the Hoos had evened the score in just over four minutes time.
Virginia grabbed 5-point lead in the fourth quarter thanks to a Mejia field goal and a safety. The latter was set up by Lester Coleman’s 58-yard punt down to the Georgia Tech 3. Marshall mishandled the snap and recovered in his own end zone with 8:49 left in the game. Coleman overcame a blocked punt in the first half to become a huge factor in the second-half, helping pin the Yellow Jackets deep with the 58-yard punt as well as a 63-yarder on his previous try.
“He had some big punts,” Paul Johnson said of Coleman.
Georgia Tech wasn’t done, however, and Marshall found a streaking Ricky Jeune for a 33-yard score with 3:10 remaining. A successful 2-point conversion run from Marshall gave Tech a 36-33 advantage. Its resilience still intact, the Hoos responded with a 5-play, 64-yard drive that ended with Benkert’s touchdown to Levrone.
“It was beautiful,” Benkert said of the game-winning touchdown drive. He finished with 260 yards passing, three touchdowns and the one interception. “It was a lot of fun to be a part of. Just a lot of guys looking you in the eyes and knowing that you’re ready to go, and vice versa. Just truly believing that we could pull it off, because we’ve been on the opposite end of that way too many times since I’ve been here. Just to have that opportunity to come over the hump of six wins, I don’t think you could have put together a better storybook ending for that game.”
Another classic in the Virginia/Georgia Tech series. This time a jubilant group of Wahoos left David A. Harrison III Field to celebrate win no. 6.
“It means a lot for us,” said senior linebacker Micah Kiser, who led Virginia with 18 tackles. “The guys in the class of 2013, we came here expecting to win early, we didn’t get it done. It was five long, hard years to finally get to a bowl game. We can control our destiny now. If we win out, our goal is to win the Coastal, but at the end of the day we’re finally going bowling.”
Virginia moves to 6-3 on the season, 3-2 in the ACC. While Coach Mendenhall wants his team to celebrate their accomplishment this weekend, players were already looking ahead to the remaining schedule. Up next is a trip to Louisville on Saturday, November 11. Kickoff is 3:30 p.m. EST and the game will be televised by ESPNU.
“Coach Mendenhall came in and said he was proud of us and there is nothing more that we could have done,” recalled Blanding. “I think that there’s more, just for the simple fact that that’s what he trained in us and that’s how we work, that’s how we drive, that’s how our mindset is. That’s the bottom line, each week is like our last game no matter what. This is just another milestone for us. The only thing we can do is keep moving forward.”