It was a dreary day before kickoff at Scott Stadium, but even that didn’t provide an accurate forecast for the gloomy performance that followed. The Virginia football team struggled with turnovers, penalties, and other miscues from the early going and mustered little fight when NC State brought a physical effort to both sides of the ball. That resulted in a 38-21 loss that felt like a slog throughout.
The loss snapped a nine-game home winning streak for the Cavaliers, the third longest in the modern era for the program.
“I talked more than I normally talk in that setting because after the game there’s so many emotions and I can be wrong, a lot,” UVA coach Bronco Mendenhall said of his locker room talk afterward. “But I didn’t think that we approached the game as we normally do in our own stadium and we’ve been so successful over the past couple of years. I’m not going to say or not going to jump to the conclusion they took it for granted, but we just didn’t prepare, compete or execute at a level well enough to maintain the outcome that we wanted. And that really was the answer. I do think the second half our team played more competitively, with a better mindset and more urgency. But a half isn’t enough, or parts of a half isn’t enough. We are certainly learning to sustain – start to end – clean football, competitive football and effective football to have the outcome that we want.”
A laundry list of issues plagued the Hoos throughout the game. They coughed up 4 turnovers with 3 interceptions and a lost fumble, which included a pick-6 interception early in the fourth quarter that erased any hopes of stealing a win despite the poor showing. The Wolfpack also dropped several other interception chances during the game. UVA committed 7 penalties for 81 yards, called two timeouts when it didn’t have enough men on the field, shanked a punt for 19 yards, had a punt blocked, and gave up 2 touchdowns of 30+ yards too. It could have been worse, but NC State kicker Christopher Dunn missed a pair of field goals after coming into the game with 14 straight made kicks.
Those are just the measurable moments. The Hoos also seemed to spend much of the day getting pushed around physically as they failed to establish a running game on offense and couldn’t consistently stop State’s run game on defense. NCSU ended up winning the rushing category 179 to 82. The visitors also stuffed Virginia at the goal line on four runs inside the 5-yard line early in the second quarter, including back-to-back QB keepers at the 1. The Wolfpack also logged 3 sacks, while the Cavaliers had none.
In other words, Virginia was swimming upstream all day long and never recovered.
“I think that’s a really good assessment. It was as if everyone was waiting and just knowing that it’s going to happen, but it didn’t. And, and so that was the reality,” Mendenhall said. “We needed it to happen and it didn’t happen. And so, you know, we needed a few key stops on defense and it didn’t happen. We needed a touchdown from the one and it didn’t happen. We just weren’t consistent enough and didn’t execute well enough and didn’t earn the victory. Bottom line [we] didn’t make the plays we needed to. And it never felt like the game would get away from us. It just seemed like one or two plays and we’d be right back in it and have a chance to win at the end. But there were enough miscues, either through not getting a great punt at the right time or kicking a ball out of bounds or a turnover for a touchdown or driving the ball and we turn it over. There’s just way too many miscues to change the outcome of the game today.”
To make matters worse, the Cavaliers also lost starting quarterback Brennan Armstrong midway through the second quarter shortly after falling behind 17-0. On the first play of the ensuing drive, Armstrong scrambled to his right for 3 yards and took a hard hit on the visiting sidelines at the end of the play. NC State safety Tanner Ingle was ejected for targeting on the play. Armstrong slowly walked to the medical tent and did not return. He finished with 57 yards on 6-of-9 passing, but had 2 interceptions among those incompletions.
That shifted the quarterback duties to long-time backup Lindell Stone, who entered the game 4-of-12 passing for 31 yards with 3 interceptions in his career. He didn’t have much time to think about the stakes when called into duty Saturday.
“I mean, there wasn’t a whole lot of time to think,” Stone said. “You’ve just got to grab your helmet. I think I gave my script to Coach [Jason] Beck and ran onto the field. Not a whole lot to think about. You just got to go out and do your best.”
Stone helped his team – with the help of a fake punt conversion on one drive – mount a minor rally once he took the reins. Late in the second quarter with his team now trailing 24-0, he engineered a 75-yard touchdown drive in just 1:48. That drive featured a 16-yard completion to Billy Kemp IV on third down and a 32-yard post pass to Lavel Davis Jr. in the final minute. That set up Stone’s first career touchdown pass when he hit Kemp from 2 yards out for the score.
UVA got the ball first after halftime, but couldn’t build any momentum. In fact, State slammed that door right away with a blocked punt that threatened to break the game open for good. The defense responded, however, with an interception in the end zone when De’Vante Cross fought off Emeka Emezie on a back-shoulder throw that resembled NCSU’s game-winner last week at Pittsburgh.
Another promising third quarter chance ended when Shane Simpson fumbled after a 10-yard gain, but Virginia finally cut the lead to 10 points thanks to a 97-yard scoring march. UVA executed a fake punt on that drive when Nash Griffin ran forward several steps and jumped to pass to Nick Jackson for a 26-yard gain up the middle. Otherwise, Stone completed 5 of 8 passes on that possession and drew a pass interference flag on a target to Davis as well. After the fake punt, Stone found Terrell Jana for 8 yards, Kemp for 20, and Tony Poljan for the 1-yard touchdown.
Virginia survived another special teams miscue when Griffin punted for just 19 yards, but the defense forced a field goal attempt that Dunn missed from 37 yards. Still within 10 points with new life, the bubbling comeback hopes popped on the next play. Stone tried a short pass in the middle of the field, but defensive lineman Alim McNeill got his hands up to deflect the ball into the air and then made the interception. He rumbled home from 18 yards out to essentially put the game away, though Stone did get UVA into the end zone one more time on a 17-play drive that Davis capped with a 5-yard touchdown catch.
Stone finished with 240 passing yards, 3 touchdowns, and 1 interception on 30-of-54 passing. Kemp led the receivers with 10 catches for 82 yards and a touchdown, while Jana snared 9 catches for 111 yards. Poljan had 7 catches for 31 yards and a touchdown, while Davis added 3 catches for 51 yards and a touchdown.
“I think I left a lot out there, put our defense in bad positions,” Stone said. “I thought we moved the ball effectively at some points. But there was a lot more that could have been done and left on the field from my part and execution standpoint. So, coming into this next week I’m excited to kind of take ownership of that and improve.”
While Virginia’s offense dealt with the turnover struggles and the quarterback change, the defense faced challenging field position all day and couldn’t consistently create pressure or havoc plays that it thrive on. Of State’s 15 possessions for the offense, only four started inside its own 30. The visitors started five possessions already in UVA territory and another at midfield, with two of those courtesy of interceptions by Armstrong.
Still, other than the interception by Cross in the end zone, the defense didn’t come up with any game-altering plays or a consistent counterpunch to save the day. Noah Taylor and D’Angelo Amos both had their hands on potential interceptions, but couldn’t come up with the ball. The Hoos had 0 sacks and only 6 tackles for loss. Amos led the defense with 10 tackles, while Zane Zandier and Nick Jackson added 7 tackles each.
The defense also gave up two long touchdowns. NCSU’s Devin Leary passed to Cary Angeline for 32-yard score that came from a reverse flea flicker in the first quarter. State’s Zonovan Knight broke through a wall on a stretch run play for a 35-yard touchdown in the second quarter as well. Those two plays helped create the 24-0 hole and while the Cavaliers outscored the Wolfpack the rest of the way, it didn’t really impact the outcome.
“Yeah, I mean as a defense, I felt like we were trying our best to be able to make that big play,” UVA senior defensive end Richard Burney said. “Just better execution and, you know, without the first half miscues I feel like we had a chance.”