Mack Brown’s Charlottesville curse ends with UVA’s best shot at upset falling short

By Jerry Ratcliffe

UVA coach Tony Elliott saw some positives in Saturday’s 31-28 loss to North Carolina. (Photo by Michael Bruder)

Virginia was poised to pull off an upset over ancient rival North Carolina on Saturday, and might have finished off the 17th-ranked Tar Heels had it not been for some Drake Maye magic and another round of self-inflicted blunders.

At halftime, Carolina knew it was in for a battle at Scott Stadium, a hellish host to the Tar Heels over the last four decades. Virginia surprisingly led 14-10 at the break despite missing key weapons from its offense.

Maye, a phenomenal redshirt freshman and one of the nation’s hottest quarterbacks, got off to a particularly rocky start against UVA’s dogged defense. He was only 5 of 8 passing for 42 yards at the half.

All that changed drastically in the second half when Maye caught fire, hooking up with one of the nation’s top receivers in junior Josh Downs, and UNC escaped Charlottesville with a 31-28 win. Maye was 21 of 29 passing for 251 yards in the second half, leading the Tar Heels on consecutive scoring marches of 75, 71 and 80 yards to improve to 8-1 overall and remain unbeaten in ACC play at 5-0.

Carolina had lost four of its last five games against Virginia, and had tasted very little success on this side of the state border. Since 1983, the Cavaliers had owned the Tar Heels in Charlottesville, winning 16 of 20 meetings. In fact, UNC coach Mack Brown had never won at UVA in six prior visits over two coaching stints.

Even with Maye’s magic in the second half, Virginia showed fight until the end, coming back from a 10-point deficit with 13 minutes to play. UNC maintained that gap when UVA’s defense stopped the Tar Heels on a fourth-and-three at the Cavaliers’ 29.

Quarterback Brennan Armstrong completed a 40-yard strike to wide receiver Demick Starling to the Carolina 20, and after a 12-yard pass to Billy Kemp at the 8, Armstrong scrambled toward the end zone and bulled his way through tacklers to paydirt. Suddenly, the Cavaliers had an extended life, cutting the deficit to just a field goal with 3:24 to play.

Problem was, Virginia had burned its last two time outs at 11:25 and 6:11 because of miscommunications with its punt team, and couldn’t stop the clock after an unsuccessful onside kick. Carolina ran out the clock at the UVA 3-yard line to secure the win.

Afterward, UVA coach Tony Elliott said even with the loss, he saw growth in his team.

Carolina, which is 5-0 on the road for the first time in 25 years, knew how to win. All five of those wins are by seven points or less. Virginia, which dropped to 3-6 overall and 1-5 in the ACC, clearly still needs to learn how to win.

Three of UVA’s five conference losses have come by three points or less, and five of its nine games have been decided by a touchdown or less.

Some observers believed Saturday’s game would have been a blowout with red-hot Maye bringing the ACC’s top offense (more than 500 yards per game) to town. When news broke just prior to game time that UVA’s top three receivers, Dontayvion Wicks, Keytaon Thompson and Lavel Davis Jr. were all out with injuries, joining starting running back Perris Jones on the injured list, the prospects of a blowout grew.

No one told UVA defensive coordinator John Rudzinski about that script. His unit, which had not given up a TD in eight quarters, played a gritty first half, but couldn’t hold up against UNC’s offensive pressure in the second half.

“We didn’t do enough on third down,” Rudzinski said about the second half.

Carolina converted 7 of 11 third- or fourth-down conversions in the second half to keep those scoring drives alive — none of the conversions longer than third-and-seven.

Meanwhile, minus the majority of its offensive stars, Armstrong kept Virginia in the game with new parts: tight end Sackett Wood Jr. (6 catches, 94 yards), wide receiver Sean Wilson (5 catches, 61 yards), Starling (1 catch, 40 yards), running back Mike Hollins (16 carries, 75 yards in a starting role) and running back Ronnie Walker Jr. (6 carries, 30 yards and a TD).

Suddenly, one of the nation’s worst offenses in the red zone — one that couldn’t score a touchdown in four quarters and four overtimes in a loss to Miami a week ago — was 4 for 4 in the red zone against the Tar Heels.

Yeah, we know, Carolina has one of the worst defenses in Power 5 football, ranked No. 122 in total defense and giving up 462 yards per game. UNC was missing its defensive ends, both knocked out for the remainder of the season with last week’s win over Pitt.

Armstrong, who became only the 15th player in ACC history to eclipse 10,000 total yards offense in the game, threw for 232 and ran for 64 more and two TDs.

“Brennan Armstrong is one of the best quarterbacks the ACC has ever seen,” said Brown, a Hall of Fame coach. “To have him hit 17 of 35 with one interception (tipped ball) is really good.”

Virginia’s coaches praised their team’s next-man-up mentality, and for carrying out the game plan minus key players.

“We challenged the [O-Line] to be able to block [Carolina] in the run game,” said offensive coordinator Des Kitchings. “We felt like if we could run the ball and control it, that’ll give us a chance to win the game. And those guys did a great job with that.”

Virginia did put up 186 yards rushing and scored all four of its touchdowns with its ground game, but again it was against a somewhat depleted UNC defense that entered the game ranked No. 102 in the nation in rushing defense.

Still, Elliott was encouraged with what he saw.

“They got closer today in learning how to win,” Elliott said.

UVA has three games remaining, with Pitt and nonconference opponent Coastal Carolina coming to town the next two weekends before ending the season on the road at Virginia Tech, which is 2-7 overall.

Elliott said the staff learned Thursday it would be without the three receivers, none of which the coach ruled as long-term injuries. Wicks could be out the longest with a bone bruise. Thompson is expected back this week, and Davis is day-to-day. Elliott said some of their return will be dictated by their pain tolerance.

Clearly, Virginia needs a win to stop the bleeding. An upset over Carolina could have worked wonders for this team.

“Give Tony Elliott credit,” UNC’s Brown said. “They played hard, they played well and gave themselves a chance to win. Tony’s got things headed in the right direction.”