Virginia has had quite the spell on North Carolina in football and basketball lately so expecting UNC’s Mack Brown to be the one to break the curse may have been a bit much too ask on Halloween. The Cavaliers snapped a four-game losing streak with a 44-41 win Saturday night under a full moon, which kept Brown winless at Scott Stadium in seven games.
That marked the Hoos’ fourth straight win against the Tar Heels in football and they’ve won six straight games against Carolina in basketball too. That’s a treat for the Wahoos no matter what day of the year it is.
“I actually grew up a huge UNC fan as a kid,” Virginia linebacker Charles Snowden said. “I have a picture with Roy Williams that I have framed and everything. So, to be 4-and-0 against UNC in my career and growing up also a UNC fan I also hated Duke, so to be 4-and-0 against Duke too, that’s something I will proudly, proudly wear on my sleeve for the rest of my life.”
Keeping that perfect record intact Saturday against the 15th-ranked Tar Heels took a lot of offense, timely stops for the defense including a key take-away, and a gutsy call on special teams. The Cavaliers got all of that in their first win of the month.
Offensively, Virginia put together its best outing of the season. The Wahoos posted 418 total yards, 28 first downs, 3 rushing touchdowns, and 3 passing touchdowns too as the offense cracked the 40-point barrier for the first time in 2020. It’s the first time UVA scored 40+ points against a team ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 since the 2002 Continental Tire Bowl win, 48-22 against then-No. 15 West Virginia.
The effort against Carolina was a blend of big plays and time-eating drives that added up to a winning effort. The Cavaliers scored on plays of 71, 23, 18, and 17 yards to help keep pace with the high-scoring Tar Heels. They had scored just three touchdowns of 20+ yards in the previous five games this season. They also kept the ball for 34:34 in time of possession, which helped keep the visitors off the field.
Quarterback Brennan Armstrong, who broke the ceremonial rock after the game, competed 12 of 22 passes for 208 yards and 3 touchdowns. He did throw an interception on a late throw into the flats, but otherwise protected the ball for the offense. He added 66 rushing yards, including a 23-yard touchdown run on the first drive of the game, but he had to leave the game on the final drive with an apparent leg injury of some sort. There was no official word on his status after the game.
In the passing game, Armstrong connected with running back Shane Simpson on a wheel route late in the first quarter that broke free for a 71-yard touchdown play. Simpson ran up the home sidelines and held on to make it in the end zone before Carolina’s final defender could get there for the angle tackle. He also hit receiver Ra’Shaun Henry and tight end Tony Poljan up the seams for touchdowns of 18 and 17 yards, respectively. Billy Kemp IV led the receivers with 4 catches for 37 yards, while Terrell Jana added 3 catches for 36 yards to push his streak to 22 straight games with a reception/
“Right before the play started, we saw that the corner was about to come and usually when they bring a corner, the safety rolls over the other side,” Simpson said of his touchdown play. “Me and Brennan talked in the huddle just to turn my head around real quick and expect the ball. As soon as I got the ball, I made sure nobody was able to catch me even though I was running out of gas towards the end. Thankfully, I got in there.”
The running game played a big role in the Hoos’ success too. In addition to Armstrong’s 23-yard scoring run, the hosts got a 1-yard touchdown run from Keytaon Thompson (on a handoff) and a 2-yard touchdown run from Wayne Taulapapa. The Cavaliers finished with 210 rushing yards at 4.12 yards per carry. Simpson led the way with 70 rushing yards, while Thompson chipped in 43 and Taulapapa added 29.
Of course, one of Thompson’s biggest runs didn’t even come on offense. It came on special teams.
Virginia led 44-41 with 2:02 to go when North Carolina called a timeout after a third down stop. That left the Hoos with a 4th-and-3 play at its own 42-yard line and Bronco Mendenhall had a decision to make. Go for it with the offense, punt, or call a fake. Considering that the Tar Heels had scored in just 1:16 on their previous drive (4 plays, 75 yards), there was plenty of time on the clock for the visitors to steal the win late.
Mendenhall decided for the fake punt option. The Cavaliers sent a direct snap back and to the left to Thompson, who started to follow the blocking to the right side of the field with punter Nash Griffin running in tandem as a potential pitch option. When the defense flowed with the blocking, however, Thompson put on the brakes and reversed field where the beat the defense to the first down marker and sealed the victory with a 5-yard gain.
“It’s my call because man if you don’t get that they’re in great field position and that’s a game winner or probably a game loser, and the head coach is the only one that makes those,” Mendenhall said. “It is a lonely, lonely feeling. But, I trust the fake. I’ve seen it work in practice and I loved who was doing it [Keytaon Thompson]. It didn’t even go the way we thought it would. But, I thought it gave our team the best chance after all that battle. I wasn’t going to go out passively. And so, yeah, I chose to go for it.”
That timely call and first down run from Thompson meant that the defense didn’t have to come up with a critical last stand. The Hoos struggled to contain the big play ability of North Carolina throughout the night as the visitors piled up 536 total yards behind the strength of their passing attack. Quarterback Sam Howell and receiver Dyami Brown tortured the defense for the second straight season as Brown recorded 11 catches for 240 yards and 3 touchdowns. Howell completed 23 of 28 passes for 443 yards and 4 touchdowns, including a 54-yarder on the first drive of the game and a 76-yarder early in the second quarter. That duo teamed up for 203 yards and 3 touchdowns against the Cavaliers last season in Chapel Hill. Howell has 8 touchdown passes in his two career games against the Wahoos.
While UVA didn’t have a way to slow down that part of the Carolina attack, the defense did clamp down on the rushing attack. The Tar Heels managed just 93 yards rushing as running backs Michael Carter and Javonte Williams tallied 64 and 54 yards, respectively. That duo had combined for more than 1,000 yards and 13 touchdowns prior to Saturday’s contest. The Hoos sacked Howell 5 times for 33 lost yards to help dent the rushing total. They are 14-1 under Mendenhall when holding opponents to less than 100 yards rushing.
Snowden led the defensive effort with 4 of those sacks en route to 10 total tackles, while linebacker Nick Jackson had 11 tackles of his own. Snowden is the first Cavalier to record 4 sacks in a game since Jamie Sharper in 1996, also against North Carolina.
Snowden also came up with one of the biggest plays of the game in tandem with linebacker Zane Zandier. Shortly after Virginia built its lead to 34-20 with a touchdown drive to open the third quarter, the defense forced a critical turnover. Zandier burst through the line to flush Howell out of the pocket to his right. Snowden joined the scene as Howell neared the sideline and as he wrapped up to tackle, he knocked the ball free. Mandy Alonso recovered and the offense covered 30 yards for a 3-touchdown lead less than 3 minutes later.
“I saw he wanted to throw it downfield, but he must not have liked what he saw because then he tried to tuck it back in and then he was caught in that kind of awkward ‘am I going to throw it, am I going to tuck it’ and then Zane [Zandier] and I both hit him and the ball came out,” Snowden said of the strip-sack play.
A muffed punt fumble that UVA’s Tucker Finkelston recovered late in the second quarter, which also led to a touchdown, and a goal line stand as the first half expired thanks to a dropped lateral pass from the 2-yard line were pivotal plays as well for the defense and special teams. The Cavaliers also won the turnover battle in their other win this season against Duke. Finkelston recovered a fumble in that game as well.
“I’m so proud of my team and I watch them every single day work and believe and work and believe and work and believe and stay together and work and believe and trust them,” Mendenhall said. “And listen to us as coaches and give us a chance to coach them. And I’m so thankful for them. I’m so proud of their effort. I’m so happy that they got a chance to have something tangible that comes out of all the work they put in – and how fitting. But, it’s really every phase and every way possible to scratch out the victory and I just I couldn’t be more pleased.”