Perkins Finds Another Gear As Cavaliers Making This A November To Remember

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Georgia Tech’s David Curry (6) can’t quite believe it, but Bryce Perkins shows him in the ball in the end zone after a touchdown run (Photos by John Markon).

So this is what Novembers are supposed to look like.

Hall of Famer George Welsh used to say, “They remember November.” For the longest time around Charlottesville, Cavalier fans just wanted to forget. Bronco Mendenhall is attempting to change all that.

Going 2-0 so far this November, it gives hope that better things lie ahead. After capturing a “must-win” at Carolina last weekend with an offensive explosion rarely seen around these parts, Virginia followed with a less-impressive, but yet winning encore Saturday afternoon with a 33-28 triumph over visiting Georgia Tech.

While UVA was a more-than two touchdown favorite coming in, sometimes it’s more important to find a way to win than to cover the point spread.

The game was a strong example of what Mendenhall likes to call complementary football, when the Wahoos are getting heavy contributions from offense, defense, and special teams. When that happens, Virginia is at its best.

Saturday’s effort confirmed that notion, as quarterback Bryce Perkins put together back-to-back, 100-plus yards rushing games and threw for another high-percentage (24 for 35) for 258 yards. He was aided by performances by under-used receivers Tavares Kelly Jr. (two receptions, 46 yards) and Billy Kemp IV (four catches, 51 yards).

Terrell Jana, who has come on strong at the end of the season, had another good day (9 receptions, game-high 108 yards), giving him more catches in the last three games (28) than he had in the previous seven games combined.

Virginia’s defense, one of the best in the nation, and struggling with a secondary that resembles a M*A*S*H unit, found a way to rise to the occasion for a hair-chested stretch of play in the second half for the second week in a row.

Even with the nation’s most dynamic kickoff-return man hobbled with an injury from a week ago, UVA didn’t lose much by putting quicksilver Kelly in his slot. The diminutive Miami speedster posted 129 yards on five returns, including a long runback with less than a minute left in the first half that led to a go-ahead Wahoo touchdown.

As a result, the Cavaliers rest atop the ACC Coastal Division standings at 5-2 (7-3 overall) heading into a bye week before hosting non-conference Liberty and rival Virginia Tech. This is the most ACC wins by UVA in a season since it won five in 2011, and the ‘Hoos clinched a winning season.

Cavalier defenders Richard Burney (16), Zane Zandier (33) and Jordan Mack (4) exit the field after a third-down stop.

The win also to some degree avenged last season’s heart-breaking overtime loss in Atlanta, as the Cavaliers kept a strong grip on their domination of the Yellow Jackets (2-7, 1-5) at Scott Stadium. Since Tech ruined No. 1 Virginia’s season in 1990 with a last second field goal (41-38), the Jackets have lost 12 of their 14 games in Charlottesville.

“We are doing what we need to do to win games,” Mendenhall said after watching his Cavaliers remain undefeated at home this season (5-0). “This is two Novembers now, going late where we have a great chance to win the Coastal and that’s really what I — and we all — really expect internally.”

For Wahoo fans, it has been a long time since they’ve heard a coach mutter such high hopes this late in the season. The Cavaliers have never won the Coastal since the ACC went to split divisions in 2005, although they were projected to break that slump in the summer’s preseason media poll.

There’s no secret on how Virginia got here. It’s called Bryce Perkins. Normally, coaches would never heap such expectations, at least publicly, on one player. Mendenhall has never once shied away from that declaration since the junior-college quarterback stepped foot in Charlottesville, far from his Arizona roots.

“We go as far as Bryce Perkins can take us,” Mendenhall has said ad nauseam.

With Perkins at QB, Virginia is 15-8 overall, including two overtime road losses, and 10-1 at home. The Cavaliers barely won more than 15 games in the previous four seasons before Perkins’ arrival. Plus, he’s got at least three more games to play, maybe four if he can lead the Wahoos to the Promised Land of Charlotte, N.C., on Dec. 7, to face Clemson for the ACC crown.

Mendenhall knows that Perkins is UVA’s golden ticket to the Queen City and a chance to elevate the program’s profile, not only by playing for the league title but a higher-profile bowl game.

For the past two weeks, Perkins has been on a tear.

The true definition of Mendenhall’s preference for a dual-threat QB, something he calls a ‘Thorterback’ after the mythical character Thor, Perkins has accounted for 859 yards of total offense the last two games and seven touchdowns.

He has rushed 45 times for 218 yards and three scores, while passing for 641 (54 of 74) and four more TDs. Oh, and by the way, no interceptions during that streak.

“The progress of our offense in general has increased and it makes everybody feel good,” Perkins said after the win. “We’ve picked up a physical nature and it showed in these last two weeks. Incredible.”

Virginia’s Cav Man mascot joins fans on The Hill to celebrate a fourth-quarter field goal.

Perkins finding another gear down the home stretch is not by accident. Mendenhall challenged him in the offseason, telling him that what separates great quarterbacks from just ordinary ones is championships.

“Can you lead us to a championship?” was the coach’s challenge to Perkins, who didn’t take that lightly. There is no question that Perkins wants that as part of his legacy at Virginia. While he has made an incredible impact on this program in his short two years in Charlottesville, he won’t feel complete without at least the Coastal title.

He’s been like a rolling ball of butcher knives over the last two games. He took off on a 65-yard draw play (RPO) at Carolina to spark the offense. On Saturday against the Yellow Jackets, he did the exact same — this one for 43 yards down to the Tech seven, then ran it in behind a block by running back Wayne Taulapapa to give UVA the lead (24-21) and the momentum just before halftime.

“You have to respect the pass, you have to respect the running back, and then he [Perkins] just takes off,” said Tech junior linebacker and top tackler David Curry. “We got around him, we just didn’t get him down enough. He’s a good football player and very slippery, and he’s been doing this every game the whole season.”

But not like the last two games, not when it turned November and everything became magnified after UVA’s three-game road losing streak, struggles in the red zone at Miami, an inability to run the football. No, this is completely different.

Had the Cavaliers played like this at least in Miami, this whole Coastal thing would likely have been wrapped up by now.

Now, it’s about finishing the fight. As Mendenhall said, doing what they need to do to win.

They remember November. Maybe this one will be most memorable.

Comments

  1. Sam Smith says:

    Great read Hoots!

© JerryRatcliffe.com | Email: info@jerryratcliffe.com | Charlottesville, VA 22911 | Site design by Augusta Free Press LLC