blue ridge bank

Fake punt helps Virginia upset 15th-ranked Tar Heels, 44-41

By Jerry Ratcliffe


UVA QB Keytaon Thompson heads upfield against #15 UNC. Photo courtesy Atlantic Coast Conference.

Virginia came into Halloween night’s game against 15th-ranked North Carolina with its back against the wall. Mired in a four-game losing streak, the Cavaliers needed something to go their way to pull them out of a horrorful tailspin.

When it was over, it was Carolina and Coach Mack Brown that were haunted by a punishing UVA running attack and a physical defense that outlasted the Tar Heels, 44-41, in a down to the wire shootout.

Carolina quarterback Sam Howell passed for 443 yards and four touchdowns, taking advantage of a depleted Virginia secondary, but it wasn’t enough. The Cavaliers’ defense contained UNC’s running attack, limiting the Tar Heels to 93 yards on the round, well under its 249 yards per game average, while harassing Howell with five sacks and a fumble.

Up 41-20 late in the third quarter, Virginia managed to fight off Carolina’s high-octane offense, which scored on back-to-back possessions on a 75-yard march, followed by another touchdown converted from Brennan Armstrong’s only interception of the game, cutting the Cavaliers’ lead to 41-34 with 13:09 remaining in the game.

Virginia answered with its most impressive, if not most crucial game of the season when it ran off a 15-play, 9-minute and two-seconds drive that ended with a Brian Delaney 35-yard field goal to make it a two-score game at 44-34 with 4:07 to play.

“It took everything possible to scratch out the victory,” UVA coach Bronco Mendenhall said after watching his team improve to 2-4 on the season.

Yes, it took everything, because as soon as the Cavaliers made it a two-score game, Carolina answered the bell in only 66 seconds, going 75 yards on back-to-back pass plays to receiver Dyami Brown for 19 and 47 yards to the UVA 9. Two plays later, it was UVA 44, UNC 41 with 2:51 to play.

Carolina had a challenge to stop the Cavaliers running game, which had not been overly impressive for most of the season. But if the Heels had an Achilles Heel it was its inability to stop running quarterbacks.

Virginia had taken full advantage of that throughout the game with Armstrong and backup Keytaon Thompson delivering daggers to the Tar Heels defense.

With UVA starting on its own 35, Armstrong was injured on the first play of the drive and was helped off the field with an apparent injury to his left ankle. Thompson took over and ran the ball twice, but couldn’t gain a first down.

With the Tar Heels burning their last two time outs in hopes of getting the ball back in time to score, Virginia was facing a punting situation with two minutes left to play, plenty of time for Carolina to tie or win the game.

Mendenhall had a trick up his sleeve, which was certainly no treat for the Tar Heels. He called for a fake punt, with the ball snapped to the up man, Thompson, who tucked the ball and ran to his left for a 5-yard gain and a first down with 1:25 to play.

All backup quarterback Lindell Stone had to do at that point was kneel on the ball twice to end the game and keep Mack Brown winless in Charlottesville in seven trips to Scott Stadium during his two tenures at UNC.

The decision to call for a fake punt was all Mendenhall’s.

“It’s my call because if you don’t get that, they’re in great field position and that’s a game winner or probably a game loser,” Mendenhall said. “The head coach is the only one that makes those [calls]. It is a lonely, lonely feeling.”

Mendenhall had faith in the call because he had seen it work in practice and he liked the fact that Thompson, a strong dual-threat transfer quarterback from Mississippi State, was the man with the ball in his hands.

“It didn’t even go the way we thought it would, but, I though it gave our team the best chane after all that battle,” Mendenhall said. “I wasn’t going to go out passively. And, so, yeah, I chose to go for it.”

The Cavaliers started off positively on a three-game home stand, hosting Louisville and Abilene Christian with a chance to get back to .500 on the season.


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