On the road (where his team had won only five times in the past three-plus seasons), in November (his team had won only twice in the month the past three years), in what likely was a must-win game, University of Virginia quarterback Bryce Perkins delivered one of the best games of his career and led the Cavaliers to a 38-31 victory over the homestanding Tar Heels of North Carolina Saturday evening.
With a banged-up Cavalier defense struggling to contain a potent North Carolina offense led by freshman quarterback Sam Howell, UVA’s senior signal caller and team captain amassed a school record 490 yards of offense – 378 yards passing and 112 yards rushing – while accounting for five touchdowns. The Virginia offense managed to recover both of its fumbles on its way to a turnover-free game, an important result considering the Hoos turned the ball over eight times in its previous three road games, which all resulted in losses.
Saturday night’s win means Virginia (6-3) is now bowl eligible for a third straight season and is once again alone on top of the Atlantic Coast Conference Coastal Division standings with a 4-2 record. The Cavaliers control their own conference destiny heading into the final two conference games against Georgia Tech (November 9) and Virginia Tech (November 29), which both will take place in Scott Stadium.
UNC, which was tied atop the Coastal with Virginia heading into Saturday night’s game, falls to 4-5 overall in Mack Brown’s first season back as head coach.
“They literally were excited to play,” Virginia head coach Bronco Mendenhall said of his team’s mindset coming into such an important game. “I haven’t seen them that kind of optimistic and joyful and anticipatory. It just didn’t seem like the circumstance was too big, and it didn’t seem like the pressure was there. It almost was like they had surrendered the outcome and they were just going to go play as hard as they could, come what may. That was refreshing to see. Not only before the game but at halftime they were just really anxious to take this challenge on. As someone that cares about ’em so much and is responsible for helping ’em and guiding ’em, that they’re now looking forward to hard things like that, that’s going to serve them well.”
Playing without star linebacker Jordan Mack, who sat out the first half because of a targeting call in the second half of last week’s loss at Louisville, the Virginia defense looked sharp on the game’s opening drive. True freshman nose tackle Jowon Briggs notched his first career sack on the game’s opening play, leading to a 3-and-out by the Tar Heel offense. On their second drive, though, Howell connected with wide receiver Dyami Brown for a 57-yard pass play. The big play to Brown, which set up a Noah Ruggles 37-yard field goal that gave the Tar Heels a 3-0 first quarter lead, was a sign of things to come for the Carolina offense.
Howell shredded a Virginia secondary playing without injured starting safety Brenton Nelson – who is out for the season, Coach Mendenhall revealed postgame – to the tune of 353 yards passing and four touchdowns on just 15 completions, an average of 23.5 yards per completion. UNC’s shortest touchdown was a 34-yard pass from Howell to Brown. Brown added touchdown catches of 47 and 42 yards while Antoine Green hauled in a 50-yard strike from Howell in the third quarter.
After punting on its first possession of the game, the much-maligned Virginia offense scored on six of its next seven possessions, beginning with a Perkins 1-yard touchdown run that capped off a 13-play, 70-yard drive – the drive included a 5-yard completion from backup quarterback Brennan Armstrong to tight end Tanner Cowley on a fake field goal/fake punt play on 4th-and-3 from the UNC 33, a sign the coaches were ready to pull out all the stops in this game. All six of UVA’s scoring drives were 70 yards or longer as North Carolina did not turn the ball over and held star kick returner Joe Reed in check – Reed had three returns for 58 yards with a long of 23. Virginia’s offense was in rhythm for much of the game as they attacked UNC’s defensive backs and kept the defense on its heels while totaling 517 yards.
After falling behind 10-3, North Carolina responded with two touchdowns to grab a 17-10 lead with only 2:06 remaining in the second quarter. Perkins engineered a 13-play, 78-yard drive over the next minute and 47 seconds, finishing off the drive with a 6-yard touchdown pass to senior receiver Hasise Dubois that tied the game at 17 at the half.
UVA had the first possession of the second half and needed only two possessions to regain the lead for good. After opening the drive with a 10-yard pass to junior receiver Terrell Jana, who enjoyed a career day, Perkins made a play Cavalier fans were accustomed to seeing last season but had not seen as much in 2019. Perkins escaped a UNC pass rusher, navigated his way to the sideline and did an impressive tightrope act before sprinting to the end zone for a 65-yard touchdown run.
The Virginia defense forced a UNC punt on the ensuing drive, providing the Cavalier offense an opportunity to extend the 24-17 lead. Perkins and company obliged, driving 85 yards on seven plays. Perkins’ 9-yard touchdown pass to senior tight end Tanner Cowley – a nicely designed fake quarterback run as Cowley leaked behind the UNC defense – boosted Virginia’s lead to 31-17.
“Our sideline, with every offensive drive that was successful, I think there was an optimism that I don’t think our team has felt because we haven’t played that well offensively on the road,” Mendenhall said.
“It just led to a different energy, a different optimism, a different confidence, and a different belief, which was really fun,” Mendenhall added.
From there, back and forth the two teams went in a thrilling third quarter. UNC answered Cowley’s score with the touchdown pass from Howell to Green. Virginia answered back with when Perkins found redshirt freshman tight end Grant Misch for a 6-yard score. Misch’s first career reception went for a touchdown that gave Virginia another 14-point cushion; however, the lead was short-lived as Howell hooked up with Brown for a 42-yard touchdown to cut the visitors lead to 38-31 with 43 seconds remaining in the third.
Both teams moved the ball in the fourth quarter, but neither scored as Virginia held on for the victory. UNC had two fourth quarter drives to tie the game but turned the ball over on downs both times. Howell threw incompletions on third and fourth downs at the Virginia 6 on the first drive before watching a potential first down go through the hands of Brown on 4th-and-7 on the Heels’ final drive of the night. With one-minute remaining and UNC with no timeouts, two Perkins kneels ran out the clock and the Virginia sideline celebrated.
Perkins completed 30-of-39 passes on the night. Thirteen of those completions – including the first five of the game – were made by Jana, who was sensational. The 6’1” junior was targeted 16 times and responded with 13 receptions for 146 yards. Jana came up big on at least two other plays as well, recovering Wayne Taulapapa’s fumble on the drive where UVA went up 31-17 and making the key block that enabled Misch cruise into the end zone on the Hoos’ final touchdown of the game.
UNC’s Brown had a game-high 202 yards receiving and three scores, but UVA’s receivers were excellent as well, led by Jana. Jana, Dubois (six catches, 97 yards, 1 TD) and Reed (six catches, 55 yards) amassed 25 receptions for 298 yards and a touchdown. Cowley chipped in three catches for 53 yards and a score.
Perkins was sacked three times. The Virginia offensive line played well, however, giving Perkins time to throw and lanes to run. The Virginia quarterback responded with his best game of the year and showed his appreciation by bringing guard Ryan Nelson to his postgame interview with the ACC Network.
Every bit of offense was needed as the Virginia defense, ranked no. 11 in total defense coming in, surrendered more yards (539, including 353 passing and 186 yards rushing) and points than it has all season long. The defense rewarded the offense’s effort by holding the Tar Heels when it counted most, specifically on UNC’s final two drives. Mack returned to play in the second half but appeared to suffer an ankle injury while being blocked by a North Carolina offensive lineman. He seemed hobbled for about half of the second half.
With Nelson out and De’Vante Cross having to alternate between cornerback and safety, cornerback Jaylon Baker saw the most playing time of his young career. The redshirt freshman had some ups and downs but helped break up Howell’s pass to Beau Corrales on 4th-and-4 from the Virginia 6 on the Tar Heels’ second-to-last drive. Junior linebacker Charles Snowden led the Hoos with eight tackles while defensive end Mandy Alonso made his presence felt with two tackles for loss and two quarterback hurries.
A loss at UNC would have dealt a significant blow to Virginia’s hopes of winning the Coastal Division. As things stand now, the Hoos are alone in first place with a 4-2 record. Pitt, who Virginia beat in the season opener, is a half-game back at 3-2, while Miami and North Carolina are tied at 3-3. Virginia Tech is 2-2, Duke is 2-3, and Georgia Tech is 1-4.
Though the Yellow Jackets are in transition under first year head coach Geoff Collins, they are a scrappy team that beat Miami at Miami on October 19 and fought Pitt until the end in a 20-10 home loss on Saturday. Kickoff for UVA and Georgia Tech is 12:30 p.m.
– Highlights, Courtesy of Virginia Sports TV