Halloween doesn’t arrive on the calendar until the final weekend of the month this year, but every October Saturday has turned into a nightmare for the Virginia football team so far. For the third straight week, the Cavaliers suffered a lopsided loss in the ACC, this time falling 40-23 at Wake Forest.
The themes from each loss have crystallized during the three-game slide: inconsistent offense, critical turnovers, explosive scoring plays from the opponent, and special teams gaffes. Regardless of how competitive the rest of the game might be – and the Hoos were tied with the Demon Deacons early in the fourth quarter this week – the combination of those things eventually determine the outcome and the results have not been good for UVA. The Cavaliers are 1-3 with games against top 15 Miami and North Carolina on the horizon.
“Yeah 23-23 against a really explosive offense, and really believed we had a great chance to win,” Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall said. “At that point, we had played the run game very well, up till that point. A run game or a running play goes out the gate for a touchdown immediately following, we muff a kickoff return, and then an interception. And so really those three plays back-to-back-to-back, changed the outcome. Up until then, yeah, it was more what we had hoped, more what we planned for, and more what we had expected in managing the game and expecting whoever basically is driving at the end of the game would win or not win. And so that’s what it looked like at that point. And then our lack of execution. Again, one on defense, one in the special teams, and then an interception was the difference I thought.”
That sequence of plays not only short-circuited the hopes of a win Saturday, they also perfectly encapsulate what this month’s garish issues have been.
Against the Demon Deacons, the unraveling began shortly after Brian Delaney tied the game 23-23 on a 42-yard field goal. On the first play of the next drive, Kenneth Walker III patiently searched for an opening, then burst through a gap and a Nick Grant tackle attempt, and ran away from the pursuit for a 75-yard touchdown run to instantly break the tie. Wake also scored the game’s first touchdown on a 40-yard play when A.T. Perry hauled in a pass from Sam Hartman.
The long scoring plays resembled breakdowns in the Clemson and NC State losses. The Tigers’ Amari Rodgers scored from 27 yards out on a reception, while the Wolfpack’s Cary Angeline had a 32-yard scoring catch and Zonovan Knight broke through with a 32-yard touchdown run.
On the ensuing kickoff, Wake Forest elected to sky a pooch kick short of the deep return man and Perris Jones misjudged the ball for the Cavaliers. He failed to secure the catch and the ball hit the turf where Kenneth Dicks III eventually ended up with a fumble recovery at the UVA 28-yard line. (That’s the second fumbled kickoff of the season for the Hoos and Delaney’s school-record made field goals streak ended at 16 in this game as well.) Four plays later, Walker again exposed the Hoos’ perimeter run defense with another slow-developing run turned into a cutback alley for the 9-yard touchdown. Suddenly a tie game was a 14-point deficit for the Wahoos.
The turnover deep in its own territory has been a common part of Virginia’s struggles this month too. Against Clemson, Brennan Armstrong threw an interception in the second quarter inside the 40. The Tigers’ Nolan Turner returned the ball to the Cavalier 36-yard line and less than two minutes later, Clemson had posted another touchdown for a 24-3 lead. In the NCSU game, the Wolfpack started five drives in Virginia territory and another at midfield. They scored a touchdown after one interception, a field goal after another, and returned a third for an 18-yard pick-6 touchdown.
Following those miscues from the defense and special teams, the offense completed the collapse against Wake Forest later in the fourth quarter. Still down two scores entering the final eight minutes, the Cavaliers tried to get a drive going but on 3rd-and-3 a first down run by Wayne Taulapapa was negated by a holding penalty. On the next play, Lindell Stone’s 3rd-and-13 pass was intercepted by Caelen Carson at the UVA 34-yard line. The Deacs turned the good field position into a field goal this time and the 40-23 final margin was on the scoreboard.
With three more turnovers this week, the Hoos now have 12 in four games this season. That’s on pace for 33 turnovers on the season.
It all adds up to some head-scratching inconsistency and some soul-searching in the weeks ahead.
“Really what turning anything around does, it starts inside then works out,” Mendenhall said. “So, first of all the mindset and the competitive spirit and the work ethic, I was really impressed and encouraged by what I saw all weekend and throughout the game tonight. Then it’s the execution and the identities as those continue to flesh out, and flesh out with different players changing through injury, etc. And so, a little bit of a moving target right now. So mindset is mindset and work ethic and preparation is what we can control. Then eventually that will lead to execution at some point, if we remain diligent and when we remain diligent.”
The Cavaliers entered Saturday’s game needing to execute on offense without its starting quarterback. Brennan Armstrong left the NC State game with a concussion and did not make it back for the Wake contest. Mendenhall said after the game that there is still no clear timetable for Armstrong’s return.
With Armstrong out, the Hoos decided to use a three-pronged attack at quarterback with Stone getting the start but Keytaon Thompson and Iraken Armstead rotating in for certain plays throughout the game. That plan helped bolster the running attack as UVA piled up 218 rushing yards and 5.7 yards per carry. Thompson led the way with 10 carries for 71 yards, while Wayne Taulapapa added 68 yards and a touchdown on 10 carries of his own. Armstead chipped in 6 carries for 46 yards and a touchdown too.
The majority of the running quarterback production came in the first three quarters, though. Thompson had 7 carries for 54 yards, while Armstead had 5 carries for 37 yards the touchdown in the first three quarters. Armstead’s last carry came on the final drive of the game with the big deficit already posted. Thompson had 2 carries for 13 yards at the opening of the fourth quarter as the Hoos drove to tie the game at 23-23 and his final carry on the first play of the next drive with Virginia down 37-23 and 11:38 remaining.
The passing game fell almost fully to Stone as Armstead went 1-3 for 9 yards and Thompson did not attempt a pass. Stone had some bright spots on some throws, but similar to his relief duty against NC State, incompletions and yards per pass attempt didn’t add up to enough points on the scoreboard. Stone finished 24-42 for 193 yards with 0 touchdowns for 4.6 yards per attempt.
Billy Kemp IV led the receiving corps again with 9 catches for 68 yards,while Terrell Jana added 4 catches for 48 yards. Tony Poljan had 4 catches for 46 yards as well.
“I think it worked pretty well, to be honest,” Thompson said of the QB rotation. “We’ve been getting out to kind of slow starts and stuff like that and I think it helped us, you know, jumpstart and it helped us in the running game a lot. I feel like Ira’s a great player, you know he’s really fast. He got in the end zone and that was really big for us. I got a few carries. I was able to get a few first downs. I feel like it helped you know and all the way up until the fourth quarter I feel like we had a chance. And just a few critical plays, you know we dug ourselves in a hole in the fourth quarter that we just was not able to recover from. So I think it did give us a chance to win but we just made a few critical mistakes at the end.”
“I thought that gave us the best chance to move the football and [help] our team. Each has a different skill set,” Mendenhall said of playing three quarterbacks. “We’re looking for complete play at quarterback after losing Brennan [Armstrong]. And so we tried to innovate and use them in a manner that would be helpful to us. I think, probably as you look at the statistics, you’ll probably see what happened both Ira [Armstead] and KT [Keytaon Thompson], were probably around seven yards per rush. Ira’s scrambling ability probably added something to that. And so I thought, collectively, our approach, gave us a chance. We didn’t execute well enough to finish the game and to finish with the win, but I think it gave us a chance.”
The chances to win evaporated through the aforementioned turnovers and the UVA defense’s inability to stop explosive plays. In addition to the two long touchdown plays covering 40 and 75 yards, the Demon Deacons piled up 6 more plays of 20+ yards. That included runs of 20 and 22 yards plus passes of 49, 39, 37, and 32 yards.
The chunk plays helped Wake Forest record 483 total yards. Walker III led the ground game with 128 yards and 3 touchdowns, while Hartman led the passing attack with 309 yards and a TD on 16-27 passing. Jaquarri Roberson posted 7 catches for 126 yards, while Donavon Greene added 4 catches for 73 yards.
For the Hoos, that helped add up to another night to forget this month. They’ll try to get back on track and back in the win column with a trip to Miami up next. They know that will take turning things around in practice and with game day execution.
“Basically, you know, our culture is pretty solidified on this team,” said UVA’s Jowon Briggs, who had 2 sacks against Wake Forest. “So, we all know … watch the film, come back and get right down to working. There’s no slippage as far as people feeling sorry for themselves or people pointing the finger at others. We all know we got to put our noses down and get to work.”