The game at North Carolina swung on three straight drives to end the first half and begin the second when UVa went from down 17-10 to up 31-17. A similar swing occurred right before halftime at Scott Stadium on Saturday and lasted through the third quarter as the Wahoos survived and won against the scrappy Yellow Jackets, 33-28, to remain on target to claim the Coastal if they beat Virginia Tech on Nov. 29.
After UVa took a 17-14 lead in the second quarter, Georgia Tech went back out in front on a drive that began when Virginia went for the first down on fourth-and-4 at Tech's 35-yard line. I didn't like the call. On TV, offensive coordinator Robert Anae could be seen on the sideline telling the offense to hurry up with the play, but the result just ended up looking rushed as Bryce Perkins forced a pass into traffic. Tight end Tanner Cowley had a chance to make the catch, but he was sandwiched between two Yellow Jackets, jarring the ball from his grasp. UVa's defense did a terrible job on the ensuing drive, allowing Tech to score on three plays in 37 seconds, but still, with just more than a minute remaining in the half, I think UVa should've elected to punt and make the Jackets drive more than 65 yards to score.
Luckily, Tavares Kelly and Perkins salvaged the half when Virginia got the ball back. Kelly was the primary kickoff returner because Joe Reed was not 100 percent healthy, Bronco Mendenhall said after the game. He made the most of his opportunity with five returns for 129 yards (25.8 per return), and this was his best one, taking it 40 yards to the 50, giving Virginia's offense a chance to score with just 44 seconds left. Perkins took it from there with a long run straight up the gut as he saw an opening after dropping back to pass. He got all the way to the 7 and ended up scoring on third down when the offensive line and Wayne Tualapapa provided some good blocking. Thanks to two explosive plays, Virginia went into halftime up, 24-21.
Kelly had easily his best game as a Wahoo. In addition to his returns, he finished with two catches for 46 yards, and his roommate and fellow sophomore Billy Kemp had his best game as well with four catches for 51 yards, including picking up Virginia's final first down on a 16-yard catch across the middle of the field to seal the win. Tech did a nice job of limiting Hasise Dubois to no catches, so it was important for guys like Kelly and Kemp to step up. With the defense continuing to struggle, it's great to see the offense getting more diverse with new players beginning to make more plays.
Virginia's offense wasn't quite as good as it was at UNC (413 yards vs. Tech; 517 at UNC), and Perkins wasn't quite as magnificent (24 of 35 for 258 yards, one TD, no picks), but the unit still made timely plays when needed, and it was necessary, because the defense gave up some chunk plays. It was better in the second half, however, holding Tech without a point in the third quarter and into the fourth on three consecutive drives as Virginia widened its lead. UVa's offense did a good job of sustaining drives and flipping the field a couple of times, even if it wasn't scoring constantly. Georgia Tech's three empty drives started at its own 12, 2, and 12 again.
Despite the disadvantageous field position for the Jackets, they were able to advance the last of those three drives to midfield, and, after a punt, UVa had to start at its own 14. But the offense went to work on a long drive that ended with a field goal to make it 27-21. The drive featured two key third-down conversions, one a 35-yard reception by Kelly on third-and-2 (the longest pass play of the day), and the other a play-action run with Perkins bulling his way for nine yards on third-and-9. Despite only getting a field goal on the drive, UVa's offense covered 70 yards and took 4:40 off the clock. In the game, Virginia was a healthy 9 of 16 on third-down conversions. On the year, the Cavaliers are at 44.1 percent, which is third in the ACC.
Virginia's final TD drive was more of a quick strike. Kemp returned the punt 10 yards to the 50, and the Cavaliers needed only four plays and 1:34 to make it a two-score game for the first time. The drive featured two catches by Terrell Jana, who continued to impress with nine catches for 108 yards. In his past two games, that's 22 catches for 254 yards for the junior. Oddly enough, he hasn't scored yet, but he's looking like he will slide nicely into the No. 1 role in 2020 after the graduation of Reed and Dubois.
After a Jana catch put the ball on the 3, Tualapapa plunged into the end zone for his second score of the day. He continued to be solid if unspectacular, but effective enough for me to want to get him more carries. He had 10 attempts for 39 yards, and Virginia finished with 37 carries for 155 yards, which is a pretty good day. At this point, with the offense willing to go all in on Perkins' rushing ability with backup QB Brennan Armstrong healthy again, the running game has probably settled into its final 2019 form: Perkins will be the primary ball carrier, and I'm OK with that, as long as the play calls are smart. Tualapapa will get about 10 carries per game, but I think he should be closer to 15. UVa has definitely done a better job rushing recently after bottoming out with just 69 yards against Old Dominion and four at Notre Dame. In the past four games, the rushing attack has averaged 130.3 yards. The offensive line also did a good job of protecting Perkins against the Jackets, as he was sacked just twice, and both came on the same second-half drive when he held the ball too long. At that point, it was 24-21, and those sacks took Virginia out of field goal range. Perkins has to be more aware on those plays. Mendenhall singled out the offensive line after the game as a group that has been making incremental improvements.
Besides that stretch that spanned halftime and the third quarter, the other crucial part of the game came in the first half when the Cavaliers took the lead for the first time. Georgia Tech had just made it 14-7, and the UVa offense went three-and-out. Tech had all the momentum, having scored fairly easily on its first two drives. But on the second play of the drive, James Graham was intercepted by Joey Blount, who returned the ball 37 yards to the Jackets' 28-yard line. Virginia tied it up quickly when Perkins found Reed, who put his foot in the ground, juked a defender, and got into the end zone. The defense then forced a three-and-out, and UVa went down and kicked a field goal to make it 17-14.
The "a win is a win" cliche fits this performance. Virginia didn't play its best game against a team that came in 2-6, but it did what it needed to do to survive, advance, and ensure the Coastal Division is on the line against the Hokies. The defense had a chance to be elite this year, but injuries have taken their toll, especially in the secondary. The unit was far from special in this game and got zero sacks, but there were some timely stops in both halves, just enough to capture the victory. The offense had some nice moments. There were a few explosive plays, and Perkins seems to have rounded into his 2018 form just in time for the stretch run. But the offense also had a few dry spells, and it only scored nine points in the second half. The end result, though, was another 30-plus-point performance, which is probably the minimum total it will have to log to win vs. Virginia Tech.
Before facing the Hokies, though, UVa gets a bye week and then faces Liberty at home. Mendenhall said the No. 1 priority during the bye week will be healing up. Liberty went 6-6 last season and gave Virginia issues until the second half, then the 'Hoos pulled away for a 45-24 victory. Liberty seems to be a little better overall this year -- the Flames are 6-4 and need a seventh win to be bowl eligible and still have lowly New Mexico State on the schedule -- and it should be a good matchup for UVa to ease back into game action after the bye. Ideally, the Flames will provide a challenge, but one that should give the Cavaliers a chance to iron out issues before Virginia Tech comes to Charlottesville. After being left for dead after getting throttled 45-10 in Blacksburg by Duke, the Hokies have won four of five and are 6-3 after beating 7-1 Wake Forest 36-17. Tech is playing its best ball at the right time, and Virginia needs to do everything it can over the next couple of weeks to sharpen the offense even more and patch up the defense where possible. Black Friday is looking like it's gonna be wild.