More Heartache, Heartbreak For Virginia Football, Fans After Thriller In Blacksburg

By Jerry Ratcliffe

BLACKSBURG – When Virginia stormed back with a 31-point second half Friday night at frozen Lane Stadium, it appeared that the Cavaliers were finally going to lay to rest their 14-year losing streak to arch-rival Virginia Tech, and a 20-year losing streak in Blacksburg.

Instead, the frustration lives on.

The host Hokies, attempting to keep another streak alive _ a 25-year bowl streak _ robbed the visiting Cavaliers of a long-awaited celebration. Seemingly dead in the water, down 31-24 with 2:41 to play and no time outs, Tech stunned UVa’s defense on third-and-10 from its own 25, as quarterback Ryan Willis hooked up on a 45-yard pass to Dalton Keene (his only catch of the game), for a first down at Virginia’s 30. Two plays later, Steven Peoples fumbled en route to the end zone with Hokies’ teammate Hezekiah Grimsley recovering in the end zone as Tech remarkably tied the game at 31-31.

The Hokies won it in overtime on a field goal _ snakebitten Virginia’s second overtime loss in the last two weeks _ as Cavaliers quarterback Bryce Perkins fumbled away his team’s only chance in the extra period.

Virginia had a first-and-10 at the Tech 14 on its only overtime possession, after Perkins had hit wide receiver Hasise Dubois on an 11-yard pass. At that point, the Cavaliers’ odds of finally ending the streak looked like a lock. All UVa had to do was score a touchdown to win.

On the very next play, Perkins attempted to hand the ball to running back Jordan Ellis but fumbled and Tech defensive end Emmanuel Belmar fell on it, ending the game, leaving Virginia stunned and Wahoo fans across the state looking for the nearest bridge.

Perkins, who delivered another solid performance, declined to speak to media after the game, but who could blame him. What could he say?

Ellis said the play call was a run-pass option (RPO) that didn’t work.

“I didn’t see [the fumble],” Ellis said. “[Perkins] pulled it and I didn’t see it. Someone recovered it. That’s all I saw.”

Virginia’s best chance to end this now 15-year landslide died right there at the 15-yard line.

The Cavaliers, now 7-5 overall, 4-4 in the ACC, will await their bowl assignment. Tech will host Marshall (7-3, and playing at Florida International on Saturday) in what was a “conditional” game, scheduled on the provision that it would be played only if Tech beat UVa. The Hokies are 5-6, 4-4, and one game shy of bowl eligibility due to a canceled game with East Carolina at the beginning of the season because of a hurricane.

“I just told Bryce it wasn’t his fault,” Ellis said. “We had other chances to win the game, and that one play doesn’t define the whole story of the game. I told him to keep his head up. Times like this will only make him stronger down the road.”

The Cavaliers were overly conservative at times, coming out sluggish and unimaginative offensively in the first half, then again later in the game when they got the ball back at Tech’s 11-yardline on a Charles Snowden interception with 3:42 to play, up 28-24.

Virginia’s defense had pressured Willis into a throw away incompletion on first down, followed by Snowden batting down a second-down pass, then Snowden batting the third-down pass into the air and intercepting the ball.

What a perfect chance to put the Hokies away and wash away 20 years of disappointment in one swoosh.

But Virginia got conservative again. Perkins lost a yard on first down as the Hokies used their last time out. Ellis gained two yards on second down, and a pass attempt to Zaccheaus fell incomplete on third down, with the Cavaliers having to settle for a 28-yard field goal by Brian Delaney that made it 31-24, Virginia, with 2:41 to play.

With its back to the wall, the Hokies certainly weren’t conservative, slinging the 45-yard pass to keep their hopes alive.

For Virginia fans it was reminiscent of the Cavaliers’ last best chance to end the streak at Lane in 2014, when Tech also appeared beaten. UVa had executed an 89-yard drive behind QB Greyson Lambert for a 20-17 lead with just 2:55 remaining.

However, Hokies QB Michael Brewer connected on a desperation, 50-yard pass to Bucky Hodges, then hit Hodges again for the winning 9-yard touchdown with 1:48 remaining for a stunning 24-20 win.

“I’m heartbroken,” said UVa’s Dubois. “We had this game in our hands and let it slip away. We knew it was going to be hard fought, played to the end. It was a heartbreaking loss. We fought back and played our best ball.”

Defensive lineman Eli Hanback echoed Dubois’ thoughts.

“We battled to the end of both Georgia Tech and this game and it just didn’t go our way,” Hanback said. “It’s good for our program that we have one game to play (the bowl). This one stings a bit for sure.”

The Cavaliers trailed 14-0 at the half and didn’t generate much excitement offensively with only seven first downs. Perkins ran the ball a dozen times for 48 yards but couldn’t move the team. He passed for only 34 yards in what appeared to be a conservative game plan offensively.

Coach Bronco Mendenhall, who appeared stunned by the outcome and had little to say, defended the play-calling.

“We thought we could get first downs and use the clock,” Mendenhall said.

There weren’t any significant adjustments made at halftime, although UVa appeared to be much more liberal in its offensive attack in the second half.

“There wasn’t much except that we simply could play better and focused on assignments and execution,” Mendenhall said of the message at the break. “There wasn’t any ranting or raving or motivational speeches. It was just assignments and execution.”

Offensive coordinator Robert Anae, who has come under fire by a legion of UVa fans, took no questions after the game, but did make a statement, saying that “turnovers turned out to be the cause for the game, I believe. With that said, we’ve got to do a better job of securing the ball and taking opportunities and securing moments when we have them, and there were plenty tonight that we did not take advantage of.”

Perkins was somewhat spectacular in the second half. The junior quarterback came into the game at about 90 percent after suffering a sprained ankle last week at Georgia Tech, an injury that appeared to be much worse than what it turned out to be.

After a less than impressive first half, Perkins was the catalyst for Virginia’s 31-point comeback. He was red-hot passing, completing 9-of-13 passes for 225 yards and 3 TDs in the second half (was 5-16 for 34 yards in the first). He also finished with 112 yards rushing on 24 attempts.

Perkins came out firing after halftime, connecting with the emerging wide receiver Joe Reed for 29- and 75-yard scoring strikes on the Cavaliers’ first two possessions. In fact, UVa reeled off touchdowns on its first four possessions (12-yard run by Ellis, 29-yard catch by Dubois) to take a 28-24 lead with 6:51 remaining.

“We just had to respond,” said a numb Reed afterward. “That second touchdown was a short pass, and I just wanted to make something happen. This hurts but we’ve got to move on.”

Tech ended a four-game losing streak, its longest since the 1970s, and put forth its best defensive effort in a while. The Hokies were ranked 11th in the ACC in points allowed, points scored, total defense, rush defense, and rushing offense coming into the game.

Olamide Zaccheaus, who had only four touches in the game for 55 yards (but was targeted more), said the talk at halftime was no negative plays.

“The biggest difference is we didn’t execute in the first half,” Zaccheaus said.  “We had to score 31 points in the second half. If we had started faster, it wouldn’t have been that close.”

Mendenhall, who now plans to hit the recruiting road for the next two weeks, said that even with the loss that Virginia is narrowing the gap in the ACC Coastal.

He told his players after the game that all was not lost.

“I told them I was proud of them, and that they have a chance to win eight games and a bowl game,” Mendenhall.

Encouraging words for sure, but the sting of this defeat will last for a long, long time. It isn’t easy to brush off two decades of agony.

Comments

  1. John says:

    Worst UVA football loss I’ve ever experienced

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