The University of Virginia football program faced a tougher-than-expected challenge from Georgia Tech Saturday afternoon in Scott Stadium. Fortunately for the Hoos, they have quarterback Bryce Perkins, who seems to be peaking at just the right time.
Led by its senior offensive captain, who passed for 258 yards, rushed for 106 more, and accounted for two touchdowns, a banged-up Cavalier squad withstood a stiff challenge from a brash young Yellow Jackets team to notch a 33-28 home victory. UVA improves to 7-3 overall and maintains its Coastal Division lead with a 5-2 record in Atlantic Coast Conference play.
“We’re doing what we need to do to win games,” Virginia head coach Bronco Mendenhall said following his team’s win over Georgia Tech (2-7, 1-5). “That’s gratifying, and I’m happy for our staff, I’m happy for our players, and our fans, and basically anyone associated with UVA football. The program is becoming healthier, and that’s two Novembers now going late where we have a great chance or had a great chance to win the Coastal, and that’s really what I and we all expect internally. Feel really lucky to be the coach and to see these kids grow and mature and have success. It’s very gratifying.”
Since week five of the regular season the Hoos have lost All-American cornerback Bryce Hall and starting safety Brenton Nelson for the season – Hall was injured in week six versus Miami, while the speedy Nelson was declared out for the year just prior to last week’s win over North Carolina. Cornerback Darrius Bratton, who was a significant rotational player in 2018, and cornerback Germane Crowell have not played – and will not play – at all this season, and true freshman safety Antonio Clary, who recently made the two-deep before going down with an injury at Louisville, is lost for the season as well.
In short, Virginia’s defense is not the formidable force it was earlier in the season in large part due to a rash of injuries in the defensive backfield. UNC exploited the Cavalier secondary with 353 yards passing and four touchdowns (all over 30 yards) last Saturday in Chapel Hill. Georgia Tech, which entered with the nation’s no. 121 total offense (299.5 yards per game) and no. 122 scoring offense (17.1 points per game) but had completed seven passes of 30 yards or more, followed UNC’s formula successfully in the first half against the Hoos.
Freshman quarterback James Graham found freshman wide receiver Ahmarean Brown for a 59-yard touchdown pass on the fourth play of the game’s opening drive to grab an early 7-0 lead. Georgia Tech completed three more passes of 25 yards or more in the first half, and all three were instrumental in the Yellow Jackets’ 21-point first half.
Perkins, who produced a school-best 490 yards of total offense in the win at UNC, accounted for 47 yards passing and 14 yards rushing while guiding the Hoos to a touchdown on their first offensive drive. Running back Wayne Taulapapa’s 2-yard touchdown run, which came after Tech was flagged for defensive holding on 3rd-and-goal, capped a 9-play, 76-yard drive to tie the score at 7-7.
Georgia Tech answered quickly, crossing into Virginia territory with a 37-yard pass from Graham to Tobias Oliver. Graham finished off the 7-play, 75-yard drive with a 5-yard touchdown run to give the visitors a 14-7 lead. The Yellow Jackets defense came up with the first stop of the game on UVA’s ensuing possession, setting the stage for the first of two key first half turning points that went in favor of the homestanding Hoos.
Staying aggressive through the air, Graham launched a deep ball down the sidelines. The freshman overshot his target; meanwhile, Virginia safety Joey Blount was tracking the ball the entire way and came up with the interception, which he returned 37 yards to the Georgia Tech 28. Three plays later, senior receiver Joe Reed, who Coach Mendenhall wasn’t sure would play this week because of an injury suffered against UNC, took a short pass from Perkins and fought through defenders on his way to a 9-yard touchdown reception. The game was tied at 14-14.
After an energized Cavalier defense forced a three-and-out, Virginia grabbed its first lead of the game when junior placekicker Brian Delaney banged through a 24-yard field goal early in the second quarter. The UVA defense yielded some yardage on Georgia Tech’s next drive as the Yellow Jackets marched 63 yards to the Cavalier 12, but Wesley Wells’ 30-yard field goal sailed right, and the score remained 17-14 in favor of Virginia.
Only 4:20 remained in the first half; however, those final minutes produced some drama. Virginia, taking possession following the missed field goal, drove to the Tech 35 and faced a 4th-and-4 situation. Coach Mendenhall made the call for the Cavaliers to go for the first down. Tech linebacker Juanyeh Thomas broke up Perkins’ pass to senior tight end Tanner Cowley, who had possession for a second before the big hit popped the ball into the air.
Georgia Tech completed a 38-yard pass on the very next play, setting up the 25-yard go-ahead touchdown pass from Graham to Malachi Carter, who outfought UVA junior cornerback Nick Grant to make the play. The visitors had turned the tide on Virginia, grabbing a 21-17 lead with 44 seconds remaining in the half.
Tavares Kelly Jr. and Perkins to the rescue. Kelly, a sophomore who was serving as the primary kick returner as Virginia tried to manage All-ACC returner Joe Reed’s injury, returned the kickoff 40 yards to midfield. (This was one the only kick return Reed was in on; however, it was the speedy Kelly who made the play.) UVA offensive coordinator Robert Anae made one of the best calls of the game on the next play, dialing up a delayed run by Perkins. The offense executed the call perfectly, and Perkins had open field as he galloped 43 yards to the Tech 7. Virginia’s quarterback cruised into the end zone on 3rd-and-goal from the 3, the last-minute score boosting UVA to a 24-21 halftime lead.
“I questioned my decision to go for it on fourth because we didn’t get it,” Mendenhall said. “I thought it was just outside of field goal range. I didn’t feel like punting at that point and a score would have been really helpful. All that really happened was they scored and we scored. It was a wash. [Kelly’s return] was a huge play, and I kind of feel like Bryce bailed me out, because I was questioning my call after it didn’t work.”
By halftime Georgia Tech had surpassed its season average for scoring and, with 263 yards of offense, almost reached its total offense per game average. Graham, who was coming off a 3-of-13 performance last week against Pittsburgh, was 10-of-12 for 192 yards with two touchdowns and an interception. The Coastal leading Cavaliers were able to gain control of the game in the second half, though, with ball control and defense.
Tech went scoreless on its first three drives of the second half, reaching Virginia territory once while going 3-and-out on two of the three possessions. The Cavalier offense ultimately took advantage, scoring twice – a Delaney 37-yard field goal and a Taulapapa 3-yard touchdown run – in the first 4:03 of the fourth quarter to surge to a 33-21 lead with 10:57 remaining in the game. Georgia Tech put together a 12-play, 75-yard drive that resulted in Jordan Mason 8-yard touchdown run that cut the Cavalier lead to 33-28. Perkins and company shut the door on any Yellow Jacket comeback hopes with two first downs on the next drive. A 16-yard pass from Perkins to sophomore Billy Kemp IV on 3rd-and-4 sealed the game for the Hoos, who ran out the clock from there.
Virginia held possession for 19 minutes and 41 seconds in the second half, limiting Tech to just four offensive possessions. The Cavalier offense certainly carried the load in the first half, but Virginia managed a complete second-half effort in all three phases to hold off the Yellow Jackets.
“I think the second half we played much more complementary in terms of time of possession, in terms of yardage, and in terms of controlling the game as well as field position,” Mendenhall said.
Perkins had 13 of UVA’s 21 rushing yards and completed both of his pass attempts for 20 yards on the 9-play, 39-yard game-ending drive. The senior certainly spearheaded the victory for his team, which played with a banged-up Joe Reed – Reed still managed five catches for 27 yards and a touchdown – and received zero catches from its other star receiver, senior Hasise Dubois. Junior receiver Terrell Jana had another big game, though, finishing with nine catches for 108 yards. He has tallied 28 catches the past three games after making 23 receptions in his first six contests of 2019. In addition to Jana’s performance, Kemp IV (four receptions for 51 yards) and Kelly Jr. (two catches, 46 yards) combined for six receptions for 97 yards.
An efficient UVA offense totaled 413 yards of offense, including 258 yards passing and 155 yards rushing, and had zero turnovers. Just as important was Virginia’s performance in the red-zone against a Tech defense that entered as one of the best in the nation in terms of allowing red-zone scores. The Yellow Jackets surrendered scores on 70.3% of opponents’ red-zone opportunities coming in, a number that ranked no. 10 in the nation, but UVA was a perfect 6-for-6 on Saturday with four touchdowns and two field goals. The Hoos are 11-for-11 the past two games in the red-zone with eight touchdowns and three field goals. The highlight there being the touchdowns. The Cavaliers were also excellent on third down conversions against Tech, converting 9-of-16 tries including twice on the game’s final drive.
Georgia Tech would surpass its per game total yards average with 372 yards. However, in the second-half the Yellow Jackets had only one play of over 15 yards (a Jordan Mason 16-yard run) and totaled just 109 yards of offense. The Virginia defense secured the only takeaway of the game while adding two tackles for loss. A slippery Graham evaded any sacks.
Linebackers Jordan Mack and Zane Zandier led the Hoos with nine tackles apiece. Defensive lineman Eli Hanback and linebacker Noah Taylor each had a tackle for loss. The already battered UVA secondary suffered another injury as starting safety Chris Moore suffered an apparent leg injury (his status is unknown, though he did stay on the sideline for the remainder of the game). Previously injured cornerback Heskin Smith Jr., who was cleared to play this week after being out six weeks following surgery, entered at cornerback and played the entire second half, allowing De’Vante Cross to move from corner to safety. The Georgia native responded well despite playing in only one practice this week, making one solo tackle while providing solid coverage. Fellow corner Nick Grant led all Cavaliers with five solo tackles.
The Cavalier special teams turned in another quality effort. Delaney drilled both field goals and converted all three extra points tries while also booting six touchbacks on seven kickoffs. Punter Nash Griffin pinned Georgia Tech inside the 15 on two of his three punts. Kelly Jr., who earned the right to break the rock postgame, had 129 yards of kick returns on five attempts on his way to amassing 175 all-purpose yards.
After two straight victories the Cavaliers have a much-needed bye week before hosting Liberty on Saturday, November 23. UVA closes out the 2019 regular season against Virginia Tech on Friday, November 29, in a matchup that could be for the division title and a likely date with Clemson in the ACC Championship. No matter what happens, if Virginia beats the Hokies the Cavaliers win the Coastal title for the first time ever.
– Highlights, Courtesy of Virginia Sports TV