December 2, 2020

Independent analysis and commentary on UVA athletics

‘Hoos Snap Four-Game Losing Skid, Win Fourth Consecutive Matchup With Rival Tar Heels

Virginia 44, No. 15 North Carolina 41:

Well, that was a Halloween treat.

The Cavaliers played their best offensive game of the season, took advantage of some mistakes by the Tar Heels to surge to a 21-point lead, and then held on for a win thanks to a gutsy fake punt Saturday at Scott Stadium in the 125th edition of the South’s Oldest Rivalry. A breath of fresh victory air in this stench of a 2020 season, and it came against the oldest rival no less, making it even sweeter. That’s now four straight wins over North Carolina.

My colleague Karl Hess called for a win in his preview, and was even close on the margin of victory, but he predicted a defensive battle and a 24-20 win for the Wahoos. It ended up being a shootout, but as UVa football fans, we still take the W’s any way we can get them.

The defense continued to be quite porous — particularly the secondary — giving up 536 yards, 443 through the air. UNC QB Sam Howell only had five incompletions, but he was harassed for much of the night by the linebackers and linemen, especially LB Charles Snowden, who had a monsterlike performance on Halloween with four sacks, one of which caused Howell to fumble. The Cavaliers (2-4, 2-4 ACC) were opportunistic, scoring 14 points off of the two fumbles by the Tar Heels (4-2, 4-2). Entering the matchup, Virginia had forced just one turnover in the past four games after getting seven against Duke.

Earlier in the year, Snowden was off to a slow start. Coach Bronco Mendenhall revealed after the game that Snowden was probably going too hard for too many reps in practice. Now that has been adjusted, and Snowden has performed much better the past two weeks, combining for 18 tackles and five sacks.

“It was on [Snowden’s] part, an increased focus,” Mendenhall said. “We needed to manage him a little bit better. He was playing and practicing a little bit too much, a little bit too hard because he goes hard. So we had to start resting him more in practice, which just kinda freshened him up. With his mindset more specific, and his body fresher, just that little tweak, kind of now, here he goes, and we’ve seen it the last two weeks.”

The coaches dialed up a ballsy fake punt at midfield with only two minutes left to seal the big win. Keytaon Thompson took the snap, ran right, almost slipped but reversed field, then bullied his way to a first down, as he did quite a few times on the night. On the previous play, Thompson had a similar run where he tried to reverse field, but it went for no gain.

I don’t know if I would’ve made that call, but after thinking about it a bit after the game, coach Bronco Mendenhall made the right move. It looked likely the defense was not going to stop UNC’s offense from scoring again, and all it needed was a field goal to tie the game. A straight ahead run may have been too easy for the Tar Heels to stop. The fake punt formation was just enough of a decoy to make the play work, though admittedly, UNC seemed to know what was coming, and the main thing that made it work was Thompson’s effort.

“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 [decisions],” coach Bronco Mendenhall said after the game. “It is a lonely, lonely feeling. But, I trust the fake. I’ve seen it work in practice, and I loved [it was Thompson] who was doing it. It didn’t even go the way we thought it would. But, I thought it gave our team the best chance after … that battle. I wasn’t going to go out passively. And so, yeah, I chose to go for it.โ€

Thompson is becoming quite the offensive weapon. The Mississippi State transfer finished with 43 yards rushing and a TD. He also took a handoff and threw the ball downfield to Shane Simpson, a play that led to a pass-interference penalty against North Carolina. Perhaps that was a sign that Thompson is overcoming his shoulder injury that has kept him from being available as a full-time backup QB.

“[Thompson’s] becoming one of the cultural stories or cultural examples we can present when a player comes into our program,” Mendenhall said. “Bill Belichick has this saying, ‘The more you can do, the more you can do.’ I added my own sentence to that. ‘The more you can do, the more valuable you are.’ And so Keytaon, he does everything. [Like my former BYU player Taysom Hill now with the Saints] … he plays football. When you list the position, it would be smart to just put ‘football’ underneath. He might be setting a record for the most positions played in a game each and every week.”

Brennan Armstrong completed 12 of 22 passes for 208 yards and three TDs, and he also rushed for 66 yards and Virginia’s first score of the game on a Bryce Perkins-esque scramble. Armstrong wasn’t perfect; he threw a costly interception, but he’s continued to improve each game and shown he’s a warrior and strong leader.

โ€œI’m so proud of Brennan,” Mendenhall said. “I thought he played an amazing game, and that’s just the beginning. As we saw from the Duke game to the Clemson game when he had a chance to go back-to-back. Now you see Miami to this game and go back-to-back. He has such an amazing future, and running and throwing and leading, and he’s so competitive.”

Armstrong hurt his leg near the end of the game, but Mendenhall had no immediate update, and Armstrong was seen standing on the sideline. I’m sure the coach will have more of an update later in the week. Armstrong was chosen to break the rock in the locker room, a testament to the work he has put in and how his teammates view him.

For the most part, as evidenced by Armstrong’s low number of pass attempts, offensive coordinator Robert Anae smartly pounded the Heels on the ground, accumulating 210 rushing yards. I tell Anae to run the ball more each week, and he finally listened! Simpson led the team with 70 yards in his best game as a ‘Hoo, and Wayne Taulapapa tallied 30 yards and a TD. In particular, the offense did a superb job of eating up nine minutes on a 15-play drive in the fourth quarter after UNC had cut the margin to 41-34. The only thing that was missing was a TD, but Brian Delaney booted through a 35-yard field goal to give UVa a two-score lead with only 4:07 left.

“We wanted to score, but we wanted to take as long as possible, because they were scoring so fast,” Mendenhall said. “The shorter the game was, the better the chance we had to win. The primary focus was to have the ball on the ground. With different runners and different plays, we were able to occupy the clock and have the chains move. [North Carolina] had a personal foul along the way, too, out of frustration, which happens a lot of times when the ball is being run effectively on you or the game might be slipping away. Robert did a masterful job pulling off exactly what we needed in that situation.”

Worth noting on that long drive was Taulapapa’s extra effort to get the first down on his fourth-down carry. He was initially stopped in the backfield, at least 2 yards shy of the line to gain. But he surged forward, appeared to land on a player, which kept him off the ground, and then center Olu Oluwatimi pushed him as well. Great effort by all involved.

In addition to his 70 rushing yards, Simpson scored on a 71-yard swing pass for Virginia’s second TD. The pass was a little low, and Simpson did an excellent job of using his hands to catch the ball as UNC LB Chazz Surratt was bearing down on him, albeit at a poor angle. It gave the Cavaliers a 13-10 lead, their first since the Duke win.

TE Tony Poljan recorded a 17-yard TD reception, muscling his way across the goal line as he was being crunched by two defenders. He had another catch across the middle of the field for 16 yards. He did have one drop, something that has been an issue with him. Ra’Shaun Henry also had a TD reception for the second straight week. The graduate transfers had a great game. Safety D’Angelo Amos tallied eight tackles, including one for loss, and his former James Madison teammate DL Adeeb Atariwa added three tackles.

“They’re essential,” Mendenhall said of the transfers. “We identify needs. I don’t think it is wise to bring in a graduate transfer unless they’re gonna have a significant contribution and role because they don’t have much time, and we don’t have much time. So I want people to be happy. I want them to be fulfilled. I want them to have roles that can help them grow and progress. … I’m thankful they are all here. They fit into our culture so well. They are all unselfish. They’re all hard workers. They are all coachable. They’ve been a strong boost for our program in positions of need.”

Not everything that happened during the four-game losing streak was the players’ fault. Bad luck was involved, and the breaks finally seemed to go the Wahoos’ way against North Carolina.

For instance, the referees cost the Heels a possible TD with an errant whistle early in the second quarter. On third-and-14, LB Zane Zandier popped Howell, and the ball shot up in the air. It came down right into Atariwa’s chest, and he should’ve intercepted it, but it landed on the ground, where a UNC player accidentally kicked it forward. Howell and UVa DL Mandy Alonso were the only players alert enough to try to grab it. Howell got to it first, but then the whistle was blown. It looked like Howell would’ve scored, and based on my Monday research, the offense is allowed to advance its own fumble as long as it isn’t fourth down. Now, I don’t know what the rules actually say about the extra chance UNC received, but UVa did stop it, and had the whistle not blown on the first third-down play, the result would’ve been a North Carolina TD. Instead, it just got a field goal.

Then at the end of the first half, the backward pass cost the Tar Heels at least a chance at a field goal, and that ended up being the final margin.

Virginia took advantage of UNC’s miscues throughout the game, a welcome switch from the usual storyline during the Cavaliers’ losing streak.

UVa scored touchdowns on short fields after Howell’s fumble and Toe Groves’ muffed punt return. When the offense got to the 1-yard line following Groves’ fumble, I was happy with the play call, as Thompson took a handoff around the edge for an easy score. Remember in the N.C. State game when Anae called two QB sneaks in a row with Armstrong? Anae’s play calling has been much better since the Wake Forest game, which, ironically, was when the team had to start Lindell Stone under center. Perhaps Anae got more creative out of necessity due to Stone’s limited skill set. Whatever the case, the play calling has been more inspired recently.

The goal-line formation on Taulapapa’s TD to open the third quarter also looked really good. TE Grant Misch lined up beside Taulapapa in the backfield and was his lead blocker. And that was just a great drive in general, taking up five minutes and extending Virginia’s lead to 34-20. That was when I really began to believe a win was possible.

I was a little harsh on the guys after last week’s game, but I’m really happy all of their hard work paid off this week. I was tough on them because I knew if they put it all together, a win like this was possible. All of us expected more this season, and the players had higher expectations of themselves than a 1-4 start. It’s obvious they never got down on themselves, and I’m glad they were rewarded for keeping their chins up and noses to the grindstone.

โ€œI’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, and listen to us as coaches and give us a chance to coach them,” Mendenhall said. “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. How fitting, that it took really every phase and every way possible to scratch out the victory, and I just I couldn’t be more pleased.

“The tangible difference is just mindset. This team will keep working regardless. That’s who they are. It’s just more fun. … I like to see our players, when they work so hard, have fun. I love to see them smile, and I love to see them carry themselves in a way that they are proud of the outcome.”

Observations And Notes

  • Safeties Joey Blount and Brenton Nelson, DL Richard Burney, CB Darrius Bratton, and WR Lavel Davis were all out with injuries. Specifically, after the game, Mendenhall said he’d update Burney’s status in his weekly press conference, so we await news on Virginia’s sixth-year senior.
  • LB Nick Jackson recorded UVa’s other sack, and he led the team with 11 tackles. However, on UNC’s opening drive on third-and-4, he missed a golden chance at sacking Howell, who passed the ball for a first down. The Tar Heels scored a TD on the drive, so it was a costly mistake by Jackson.
  • Another terrible defensive mistake came on UNC’s third drive. On third-and-1, RB Javonte Williams took a handoff, and CB Nick Grant and Zandier both missed tackles in the backfield, and Williams picked up the first down. Zandier’s angle was especially odd. I think he thought he was going to be the assisting tackler and that Grant was already bringing Williams down. The Tar Heels scored a field goal on the possession.
  • At the end of the first half, right before UNC’s backward pass, Grant tackled WR Dazz Newsome at the 5-yard line after a 29-yard catch-and-run. That ended up being a TD-saving stop. Obviously without that play, the Heels’ brain fart of a play call never happens.
  • The decision to use Thompson as a running back is smart. He’s an athletic runner, much different in style than Taulapapa and in some ways than Simpson, and so that adds depth to a running back room in need of it. We are still waiting for transfer Ronnie Walker to see the field.
  • On Armstrong’s interception, he threw the ball way too late to Billy Kemp IV. But also, Anae should’ve called a run play at that point. It was the beginning of the fourth quarter, so time was at a premium for North Carolina, and Simpson had just rumbled for 29 yards. The running game was working. Let’s not overthink it. Another Armstrong mistake occurred on a third-and-1 with 11:50 left in the second quarter. On a read option, he carried the ball instead of handing off to Taulapapa. He lost 4 yards, Virginia punted, and then UNC scored a TD on the subsequent play. Taulapapa’s side of the field looked to be wide open.
  • WR Terrell Jana recorded three catches for 36 yards. He’s had at least one catch in 22 consecutive games.
  • Delaney continues to be shaky. He missed an extra point after UVa’s first touchdown, but made up for it later with his field goal. Still, that’s now three consecutive games with a miss from a pretty short distance for the senior (two 36-yarders and an extra point). The Cavaliers need him to be on point, because I bet there are more close games coming.

 

 

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