October 23, 2021

Independent analysis and commentary on UVA athletics

‘Hoos Escape Miami With Wild Win

In one of the wildest endings of the Bronco Mendenhall era, Virginia survived a second-half surge from Miami on Thursday night as true freshman kicker Andres Borregales doinked a 33-yard game-winning field goal off the left upright, sending the Wahoos to a hard-fought and rare road win, 30-28. UVa snapped a two-game losing streak overall and against Miami and picked up its first win away from Charlottesville since taking the victory Nov. 2, 2019, at North Carolina.

Miami native Mandy Alonso broke the rock after recording two sacks and tackling Hurricanes running back Cam’Ron Harris for a safety in the first quarter. If you look at the final score, you can figure out how important that safety was.

Another highlight of the game came when Dontayvion Wicks caught one of the craziest 36-yard TD passes you’ll ever see from the seat of his pants in the third quarter.

Wicks’ catch brought comparisons of former Packers star (and unfortunately, a Hokie) Antonio Freeman’s similar reception against the Vikings on “Monday Night Football” in 2000.

Virginia’s performance was far from perfect, but the Cavaliers made strides. The defense showed a bit of improvement, and the offense did enough. The players wanted it badly. Noah Taylor bowed on the ground after the missed kick for several seconds, head in hands. Though it is one game, it feels like Virginia (3-2, 1-2 ACC) has a chance to get its season back on track now. Because of one short missed field goal.

After looking like it should’ve won in its past two trips to Miami in 2019 and 2020, Virginia got the job done on its third try with a combination of improved play and a little luck.

The offense picked up a couple of first downs on its first drive before punting. It punched it in on its second drive, though. On second-and-goal at the Miami 15-yard line, quarterback Brennan Armstrong evaded pressure and dove for the goal line, coming up just short. Wayne Taulapapa, back after missing the Wake Forest game with an injury, took the handoff and got the short TD. Earlier on the drive, he bounced off a couple defenders before finding an opening on the left side for a 27-yard gain.

Taulapapa’s return provided a boost to the running game, and offensive coordinator Robert Anae actually did a good job with sticking with the run (I’m sure leading the entire way helped). Both Taulapapa (11 carries, 62 yards) and Mike Hollins (10 carries, 38 yards) got double-digit carries. Hollins also scored a TD on a 25-yard run in the third quarter. Hollins caught five passes as well, with one going for 15 yards.

Keytaon Thompson also was more involved in the offense than versus Wake. He had 47 yards rushing, including a long of 34 yards, and also posted four catches for 55 yards. He wore a cast on his left hand, and that may have affected him when he had a big TD drop in the fourth quarter. Because of it, Virginia settled for a field goal and went up 30-21, allowing Miami (2-3, 0-1) the opening to win with a TD and a field goal.

With Miami QB D’Eriq King ailing with a hurt throwing shoulder, redshirt freshman Tyler Van Dyke got the start. But in a somewhat curious move, the ‘Canes came out throwing the ball. Virginia forced a three-and-out on Miami’s first drive, with true freshman linebacker West Weeks batting down the third-down pass. The defense followed up the offense’s TD by forcing a second three-and-out.

The Hurricanes started their third drive on their own 1-yard line after Virginia punter Jacob Finn and the coverage team did a nice job of pinning them deep. On first down, Cam’Ron Harris took the handoff and was nowhere close to getting out of the end zone, with Alonso grabbing him by the legs as other Cavaliers piled on, resulting in a safety.

There were a number of instances when the Virginia defensive line got a nice push at the line of scrimmage, and that was one of them. Miami went just 5 of 15 on third downs — it was 0 for 7 before converting its first on a TD pass in the third — with UVa stopping at least a couple of third-and-shorts. Early in the third, Nick Grant crept up from his safety position and stuck Jaylan Knighton in the backfield on a third-and-1.

One of the great things Virginia did twice in this game is respond with TD drives after Miami TD drives. The first occurrence came in the second quarter after the ‘Canes made it 9-7. UVa set out on an eight-play, 80-yard drive that didn’t even take two minutes and was capped by Hollins’ long run. Billy Kemp IV caught four passes on the drive. The veteran wideout finished with nine grabs for 81 yards.

To start the second half, Alonso picked up his second sack, and Miami went three-and-out. Virginia went down the field, and backup kicker Brendan Farrell made a 43-yard field goal right down the middle. With starting kicker Justin Duenkel injured, Farrell stepped up big time, making both field goals and all three extra points. It made me think about how when Mendenhall arrived at UVa, the Cavaliers pretty much didn’t have any solid kickers. And now they have at least two.

The ‘Hoos got yet another three-and-out and the ball back, but then the game changed on Armstrong’s biggest mistake of the game, when he locked onto Wicks on a slant, and Hurricanes LB Corey Flagg Jr. stepped in front of it and picked it off. UVa pushed Miami to third down, but the ‘Canes finally converted one and scored on a nice pass from Van Dyke to Mike Harley to make it 19-14.

Even better than the first response, Armstrong shook off his interception and guided the Cavaliers on a seven-play, 75-yard drive taking nearly four minutes. On third-and-7, Armstrong scrambled for 14 yards around the left side, using a nice hesitation move to get around the defense. Armstrong was surrounded by defenders as he was rolling left, then he took a peek downfield, saw no one open, and took off. I’d like to know if Armstrong was really looking to pass or if his mind was made up and he was dekeing the defenders by looking like he was maybe going to pass.

Armstrong finished completing 25 of his 44 passes for 268 yards, one TD, and one pick. He rushed for 19 yards and was sacked three times. After the game, he said he played like “crap.”

The drive ended with Wicks’ amazing catch, which is still making the rounds on social media. No word yet on if he even knew the ball was still alive when he grabbed it, but I’m betting he had a sixth sense about where it was.

Following the circus catch, Virginia held Miami to a three-and-out but was unable to end the game with a touchdown-scoring drive. UVa picked up one first down and then on third-and-11 handed off to Hollins, who got stuffed. I didn’t like that conservative play call by Anae.

Miami got something going on its next drive, which covered 90 yards. It didn’t take that long, though, because Harris burst through the middle of the line untouched for a 57-yard TD to make it 27-21. Virginia mounted a response, but Thompson dropped a pass in the end zone and then Armstrong overthrew Ra’Shaun Henry, and the offense had to settle for Farrell’s second field goal to make it 30-21.

Nick Jackson got UVa’s next defensive possession started right with a sack of Van Dyke. But on fourth-and-1, Harris dove forward for a first down, and Miami seized momentum on the drive. Eventually, Van Dyke eluded pressure, UVa didn’t do a good job of keeping him in the pocket, and the less-than-fleet-afoot QB ran down the right sideline for a 24-yard TD to make it 30-28.

Virginia got the ball back with nine minutes remaining. After one first down, UVa faced third-and-5 at its own 44. Armstrong looked Wicks’ way, and the pass fell incomplete, but safety Gurvan Hall Jr. lowered his head and hit Wicks in the upper back. It looked like an obvious targeting call, and the Virginia sideline and fans watching at home waited for the flag to be thrown. It wasn’t, and to make matters worse, the announcers and rules experts all said it was a bad no call. So, already fearing Thompson’s dropped TD catch would come back to haunt Virginia, needless to say, once Miami got the ball back, I expected the worse.

Coming into the game, true freshman kicker Andres Borregales — whose brother, Jose, was a great kicker for Miami who graduated last season and is now in the NFL — had made 6 of his 8 attempts, with a long of 55 yards. Clearly, he had the leg to win the game once Miami got to about the 35-yard line.

But I’m going to have to pat myself on the back here a bit, because in my preview for the game, I pointed out that both of his misses came from within 40 yards. By golly if that didn’t come into play. Also, Miami got down to the 14-yard line, but then to center the kick, Van Dyke went backward and was tackled at the 16. I think it is safe to say those 2 yards mattered a lot to Virginia’s football season. And I don’t want to get too dramatic, but it is of course possible that those 2 yards and that miss could change the entire arc of the 2021 season for the Wahoos. But we will have to wait and find out.

Moving forward

Were there still problems for Virginia in this game? Oh yes. The defense looked much better than it did the past two weeks in the first half when it held Miami to 7 points and fewer than 100 yards. But the ‘Canes came back — behind a backup QB — in the second half and ended up recording 372 yards. So the fact that they could do that with a backup is disconcerting, and Virginia seemed to help them by playing less aggressively on defense.

And what was Mendenhall doing by letting the clock run with under 2 minutes left once Miami had the ball and was in field-goal range? He finally called timeout, but those precious seconds ticking away would’ve left UVa with no time to try to score once Miami kicked. So that was odd to see.

But when you’re on a two-game losing streak, you just gotta take the win however it looks, especially on the road. And we know those types of victories have been hard to come by for this program. One win and two losses in the conference sounds a lot better than zero and three. This team — despite the issues against UNC and Wake — has an overall winning record. That’s not bad at all and more or less what we expected at this point. For sure, 4-1 or even 5-0 would’ve been nice, and it was within the realm of possibility, but most fans probably would’ve taken 3-2 at the beginning of the season and been pretty content, no matter how we got there.

Challenges lie ahead, and the schedule still looks pretty tough — especially November — but for now, a road victory on a short week, getting back to an overall winning record, and recapturing a bit of lost momentum is a good place to be.

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