When you get down into the details and dig into the minutiae, football is a complicated game. But it is also simple on the surface: Make big plays in big moments, and hope for some luck. After being on the wrong end of big moments and luck seemingly since the second half of the Notre Dame game -- with the exception of the Duke blowout -- the Wahoos' fortunes seemed to switch Saturday night in Chapel Hill. UVa picked up the big 38-31 road win to reclaim first place in the Coastal Division. There was no shortage of star players on both sides of the ball. Let's get into the big plays and names, both offensively, and yes, even a few defensively on a night that saw that unit struggle mightily:
Right off the bat, Virginia kicked the ball off out of bounds to set North Carolina up at the 35. Not a good start. But true freshman defensive lineman Jowon Briggs made up for that with a big sack on the first play in which he drove the center back near UNC QB Sam Howell, then wrapped the fellow first-year up for a 12-yard loss. It was Briggs' first career sack and set up second-and-22. The Heels punted on the drive.
The offense had its best night of the season. Right away, you could see Virginia worked at a different pace than normal, and color commentator Matt Hasselbeck made a comment about it. The offense lined up quickly and then looked to the sideline for the play call. It was a great way to try to throw off the Tar Heels' defense. After the Notre Dame game, former Virginia quarterback Kurt Benkert was on former UVa wideout Ahmad Hawkins' podcast saying the Cavaliers should mix up the pace more often than they do. He and Hawkins said even if the offense takes time to run the play, if it lines up quickly, that puts the defense in react mode at the outset. Great adjustment for this game.
Despite the solid start on offense, UVa punted the ball back to UNC, and on the Heels' next drive, cornerback De'Vante Cross made a big play. North Carolina ripped off chunk play after chunk play in the game, and it started with this one. Dyami Brown took a pass across the middle for 57 yards and was pretty close to scoring, but Cross, Bryce Hall's replacement, dove out and tripped his feet just enough to bring Brown to the ground at Virginia's 23. It was the first of many poor plays by the defense, BUT this particular sequence showcased excellent hustle by Cross, and ended up being a key moment, because UNC only came up with a field goal on the drive. It was reminiscent of Hall's 22 mph rundown of Miami RB Travis Homer a year ago, a play that also ended up resulting in a field goal for that offense. Defensive lineman Mandy Alonso also made a good play on the drive, stopping RB Javonte Williams on third-and-3 following Cross' tackle. It was another play that stuck out on a night in which the defense wasn't usually clicking.
Terrell Jana had a breakout game for UVa at wideout. On Virginia's first drive, it was obvious that Jana was a big part of the game plan, as UNC played man-to-man defense and made sure its best defenders were on Hasise Dubois and Joe Reed. Jana was the beneficiary, winning matchup after matchup and making catch after catch. On Virginia's second drive, on third-and-8 at UVa's 32, Bryce Perkins threw a long pass on an out pattern to Jana that was low. Jana dove to secure the reception and extend the drive. Like the diving tackle by Cross, this third-down conversion by Jana was timely and did end up mattering because UVa ended up punching it in for a touchdown on this drive. Jana finished with a career-best 13 catches for 146 yards, shattering his previous high of seven catches in the first half alone. Upon rewatching the game, I only recall one drop, and it would've been a tough catch.
About that fake punt on the same drive ... I'm not a special teams coach, so I'm not going to attempt to explain it, but linebacker Charles Snowden was the snapper, Brennan Armstrong shifted into the punter's spot, a bunch of players lined up on one side of the field, and the result was a pass to tight end Tanner Cowley for a first down. A very weird formation, but a fun play to watch unfold. Props to special teams coach Ricky Brumfield, who has done a solid job with every special teams unit in 2019.
On the next drive, UVa made another stop, this one on fourth down. UNC drove 54 yards to Virginia's 20, but on fourth-and-3, Beau Corrales dropped a catchable pass from Howell. It was one of two big drops I noted from Corrales. As will be a theme, the defense gave up a lot of yards, but came up big when it mattered. The Tar Heels ended up 0 for 3 on fourth down.
As I'll get into more obviously, Perkins was fantastic running and passing, but like at Louisville, I think the rushing attack with the running backs would've been successful, too, had UVa stuck with it more. On UVa's next drive, Wayne Taulapapa and PK Kier had back-to-back runs of six and five yards. Small sample size, yes, but I really like the way they run, especially Taulapapa, and I think he could get more carries in certain games. He did fumble later, but I hope that doesn't take away from his opportunities. He finished with five carries for 21 yards (4.2 ypc).
Jana was the star of the receiving corps Saturday, but Dubois had a nice game, too. On this drive, he made a circus catch for 40 yards to the UNC 8, reaching high over his head for the ball. He may have gotten away with a pushoff on the defender, but I think the Heels got away with one later anyway. And UVa finished this drive with a field goal, whereas Brown got a touchdown when he pushed off of cornerback Nick Grant in the fourth quarter.
Brown was a huge problem all night for the 'Hoos. His first TD and UNC's first TD came on the next drive. Cross missed the tackle, and Brown took it 47 yards for the score to tie the game at 10. Cross had his good moments, but this was another time that UVa missed Hall, who is a pretty sure tackler. Brown finished with six catches for 202 yards and a trio of touchdowns.
To me, this game swung in about nine minutes spanning the two halves when Virginia went on a 21-0 run. UNC scored again to go up 17-10, and Virginia had just over two minutes to try to tie the game before halftime, and the Cavaliers put together a nice 13-play, 78-yard drive in 1:47 to do just that. The drive featured two big third-down conversions, including the scoring play. The first came on third-and-5 at the UNC 44. Perkins rolled to his right and found Dubois on a quick turnaround for an eight-yard catch. It was a good call by offensive coordinator Robert Anae to move the pocket to Perkins' dominant side and let him pick the open guy. The second conversion came from the 6, and also went to Dubois, who just outbattled the defender to grab the ball and cross the goal line for the touchdown. Dubois has turned into one of the better possession receivers in Virginia history. If the ball is near him, he often comes up with it. Virginia finished a solid 7 of 13 on third downs.
Now to the best play of the night, Perkins' 65-yard TD run to begin the second half, the longest of his career. I could watch it over and over again. It went from looking like he was going to be sacked, to picking up a small gain, to oh wow, look at how he tiptoed on the sideline to finally, OH MY GOODNESS, HE GONE! Incredible, but also sublime in the way he moved stealthily through all of the traffic. One of the first and only times this year we've seen a play from the 2018 version of Perkins. More of this, please.
Only two quarterbacks in college football have at least 2,000 passing yards, 300 rushing yards, and 7 rushing TD’s:— Danny Neckel (@DNeckel19) November 4, 2019
Jalen Hurts - Oklahoma
Bryce Perkins - Virginia
Perkins tallied a school-record 490 total yards, 378 passing and 112 rushing, breaking the mark of 465 set by Benkert against Connecticut in 2017. Perkins completed 30 of 39 passes with three scores and added two rushing scores. In his only two meetings with UNC, Perkins was a menace. Last season, he completed 18 of 27 passes for 217 yards and three TDs, and also ran for 112 yards and a score.
So all of a sudden, Virginia was up 24-17, and the defense kept the good vibes going by stopping UNC on its first second-half drive. The defense didn't play well the rest of the quarter, but that was a key stop because Virginia's offense was feeling it and needed to create even more separation in a game that turned into a mini-shootout.
Jana's second awesome catch sparked UVa's next touchdown drive. It came on 3rd-and-11 from Virginia's 14 with Perkins throwing a dart on a deep post to Jana, who made a fantastic jumping grab with the defender right on him. The completion went for 34 yards.
Jana wasn't done with the big plays on this drive. Later, from the UNC 27, Taulapapa fumbled, and Jana was the one to dive on the turf near the ball and use his arm to scrape it close to his body, retaining possession for UVa. After the game, Bronco Mendenhall, noting that fumble piles are nasty places to be, said it was fitting it was Jana who wound up with the ball because, "He's tough." Just as big as Jana's 13 catches was this fumble recovery, because Virginia needed every touchdown it got, and this particular scoring drive wouldn't have been possible without this save by Jana.
The drive ended with a nifty jump pass from Perkins -- who acted like he was going to run the ball -- to Cowley. It was a great play call because of the success Perkins was having running the ball. He was able to draw the defender away from Cowley, who found himself all alone in the end zone. Near the end of the second quarter, UNC was up 17-10. Now, it was 31-17 Virginia.
To show you the importance of individual plays and moments, Cross had a chance on the ensuing UNC drive to pretty much put the game out of reach but could not. On second-and-16, DL Aaron Faumui got his hand up and deflected a pass, and Cross had a really good shot to pick it off, and if he had, there was going to be plenty of open space for him to possibly score, but he couldn't catch it. What happened next? North Carolina converted on third-and-16 and ended up scoring on the drive to make it 31-24.
But UVa's offense did an excellent job of responding. Instead of bogging down, it kept its foot on the gas once UNC got within a TD. Right away, Dubois ran a slant, and Perkins put it on the money for a 20-yard gain. Later in the drive, Perkins hit a wide-open Cowley down the seam, and the slender senior rumbled for 39 yards to the North Carolina 6. Cowley doesn't get many chances, so he's usually open over the middle, and he often makes the most of his catches. I hope Anae continues to get him more opportunities. Just look at this game -- only three catches, but each was huge. The fake punt, the jump pass TD, and this long gain. From the 6, Virginia used a two-tight end formation and ran a beautiful play to get freshman tight end Grant Misch open for a TD on a crossing route. Not only was it the first touchdown of his career, it was his first catch period. Incidentally, on that same Benkert-Hawkins podcast, Benkert said Virginia should use its tight ends more.
I'm not going to grumble too much about this since UVa won, but as I alluded to above, I thought Brown could've been called for offensive pass interference on North Carolina's final touchdown. He and Grant were fighting for position, and I think Brown's arm extended a little too much. Grant was sort of falling already, and he did have his hand on Brown some, too, but I don't think UNC would've had anything to gripe about had the flag been thrown there on Brown for a little bit of a pushoff.
The Taulapapa fumble that Jana collected was the luckiest bounce Virginia got all night, but there was a second fumble UVa recovered, too, after UNC's final scoring drive. Perkins was fighting for extra yardage when the ball was stripped away from him, but the Cavaliers were able to corral it somehow amid a pile of Tar Heels. The 'Hoos ended up punting on the drive, so I'm not sure how much turning it over there would've mattered, but at the very least, it would've given a few more yards and a burst of momentum to North Carolina.
That brings me to my final overall point of closing the game, situational play calling, and decisions. On this same drive, the Cavaliers were nearing comfortable field goal range at the UNC 30 facing second-and-8. Tualapapa and Kier looked good on limited carries -- minus 'Papa's fumble -- but why not just hand it off and see if one of them can get you a first down or two? Instead, Anae called for a Perkins run, and he got no gain and was exposed to the potential for injury. I understand Perkins is a huge weapon, of course, and that was made so very well known in this game, but still, at that point, was it absolutely necessary to run him? The second mistake Virginia made came on third-and-8, when it took a delay-of-game penalty. That did two things. One, it essentially knocked the offense out of field goal range and two, it made it third-and-13, which pretty much meant a pass was required to pick up the first down. Once an offense gets into scoring range, every yard is valuable. You can't be taking penalties like that. So UVa dropped back to pass, and Perkins was sacked. The choice was then easy: punt. But I think had the 'Hoos just lined up and ran it with Taulapapa straight ahead and not been penalized, it could've given itself a good chance at picking up a first down on two carries or at least put itself in field goal range.
Virginia's offense recorded 517 yards, but its defense didn't help the cause much, giving up 539. However, it did come up big in certain moments. I've talked about four of those times above: UNC was forced to punt on the first drive of the first half and the first drive of the second half, Cross' diving tackle that may have saved a TD on a drive that resulted in just a field goal, and a fourth-and-3 stop from the UVa 20 early in the second quarter. Virginia's defense also came up big in the fourth quarter, which Howell came into the game owning, having thrown eight touchdown passes this season in that period.
UNC's first shot to tie ended at the Virginia 6-yard line. Corrales had a good chance to catch the pass in the end zone, but could not, his second big drop of the game, with the other coming on the fourth-and-3 in the second quarter. Redshirt freshman cornerback Jaylon Baker, seeing time with UVa's secondary decimated by injuries (including safety Brenton Nelson, who is out for the year, a new addition to the injury list), jumped a little late, but he may have distracted Corrales just enough to break his concentration. Baker also did a good job of not drawing a pass-interference penalty.
OK, back to situational play calling, and I want to discuss Virginia's final drive. Why, oh why, was Perkins dropping back to pass? Please run the ball here, Anae. Perkins literally dropped back into the end zone on the first play of the drive. That could've ended in disaster. Rememeber the sack fumbles at South Bend? Perkins dropped back to pass later in the drive, too, once completing a nice pass to an open Jana for 16 yards, and another time, he got sacked. I'm just not a fan of passing at all when there is so little time left, and the team is basically trying to get a couple more first downs to seal the win.
Virginia ended up punting, but then held off North Carolina on the last drive. It was a gutsy performance by the team, especially a week after a weak effort against Louisville. The offense played with a great sense of urgency, something seen only in fits and spurts this season. It was as if it knew it had to make up for some of the defensive issues. But when it was all said and done, even the defense made some winning plays. The all-around effort was strong. Mendenhall said after the game that it was as if the players surrendered the outcome of the game and were just going to play as hard as they could and "come what may."
UVA has started 6-3 for the third straight year.— Danny Neckel (@DNeckel19) November 3, 2019
The Hoos were 6-3 through 9 games just once between 2008-2016. #GoHoos
Mendenhall also mentioned that getting to the postseason was becoming "normal" at UVa. The Wahoos' win in Chapel Hill was their sixth, making them bowl eligible for the third year in a row, the first time that's happened since 2003-05. It's great that it is becoming a footnote, certainly something to get used to in Charlottesville. Fans should be grateful for that, but we know and the team knows there's more out there for the 'Hoos if they can seize the moment and play well down the stretch. On this Saturday at least, they looked hungry for more than just a sixth victory.