Virginia makes strides, but missing parts and critical mistakes extend losing streak

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Virginia tight end Tony Poljan catches a first-quarter touchdown as Miami’s Bubba Bolden fails to defend (Photos: ACC Media Services).

After a two-week absence, “Havoc” returned to Virginia football Saturday night in Miami. But the Cavalier defense packed light, missing its two most experienced defensive backs for its southern excursion.

Oh yeah, UVA’s three-headed monster at quarterback made the trip, including the welcome sight of starter Brennan Armstrong, who had missed the past six quarters in concussion protocol. Missing in action on that side of the ball was the offense’s only true deep threat, Lavel Davis Jr., the towering freshman wide receiver who was declared out for undisclosed reasons.

With all those good things — havoc, Armstrong and whatnot — going for them, the 13-point road dogs couldn’t overcome the negatives. As a result, the Cavaliers continued their agonizing four-game nosedive in a 19-14 loss to the Hurricanes, a “what-if” loss that tests every pillar that Bronco Mendenhall brought with him from the Rockies to the Blue Ridge.

Armstrong shook off the cloud that had sidelined him since the first half of the NC State game and finally got Virginia off to a good start, answering Miami’s game-opening touchdown with one of its own on a tightroped, tip-toe touchdown catch by tight end Tony Poljan in the final back inch of the end zone (which turned out to be No. 2 on SportsCenter’s Top Plays).

Problem was, the Cavaliers couldn’t score again until after they were left for dead, down 19-7 and seemingly no wind in their sails until a two-play, 67-yard quick strike with 5:27 to play. Armstrong bolted for a 32-yard run to the Miami 35 and finished it off on the next play, a TD pass to Ra’Shaun Henry, a transfer who made his first catch as a Wahoo.

Down 19-14, UVA had hope, slim as it was, until the Hurricanes milked the clock, giving the ball back with 23 seconds to play, leading to one of those helter-skelter, last-resort, backyard-football kind of plays in the waning seconds.

In between those two UVA TDs, the Cavalier defense somehow held up under the weight of missing its best defensive backs, Joey Blount and Brenton Nelson, then losing Darrius Bratton and others during the course of the game. Miami QB D’Eriq King led the 5-1 Hurricanes in a driving rainstorm with 322 yards passing (21 for 30, one TD). Ten of those passes going to Mike Harley (170 yards).

Virginia’s Ra’Shaun Henry (17) and Terrell Jana (13) celebrate the apparent 24-yard touchdown in the second quarter that was taken off the board.

While Virginia was playing with one hand tied behind its back with its secondary hobbled, the rest of its defensive effort was a step forward. After failing to pressure quarterbacks the past two weeks in losses to NC State and Wake Forest, the Cavaliers finally created havoc again. Led by senior outside linebacker Charles Snowden, who got his mojo back, UVA posted five sacks (tied with Clemson for the most against Miami this season), blocked a field goal and essentially shutdown the Hurricanes’ running game (122 yards on 48 attempts, 2.5 per carry).

But who needs a ground game when going airborne gets the job done with ease? King picked UVA apart, passing the Canes out of trouble time and time again every time they were in a pickle.

As much pressure as Snowden & Co. applied to King, the Cavaliers couldn’t force a turnover, which possibly could have made a difference.

The biggest difference-maker, though, came late in the first half when the Cavaliers marched from Miami’s 48 all the way to a first-and-goal at the Hurricanes’ 10-yard line. On third down, Armstrong found Henry for an apparent 24-yard TD pass, which would have put Virginia up 14-7.

However, the Cavaliers were flagged for an ineligible receiver downfield. Tight end Grant Misch was lined up on the left side of the field, and so was tight end Tony Poljan, who was split out, but on the line of scrimmage, which essentially covered up Misch. Misch was around the goal line when Henry caught the ball, negating the score.

Asked about the gaffe after the game, Mendenhall wasn’t clear on the whole thing.

“Yeah, I wasn’t given an explanation (from game officials),” the coach said. “And man, it’s not that difficult, but we signal in and each player is responsible to communicate and make sure that we’re aligned appropriately, and within the rules. And man, what a rough play for that to happen, when we have a touchdown called back.”

With the penalty, Virginia settled for a 36-yard field goal attempt by Brian Delaney, who seemed to be golden up until last week. He has now missed two of his last three kicks.

After that, Virginia’s offense never saw the red zone again until that late drive. In fact, the closest the Cavaliers came in between its two TDs was the Hurricanes’ 37.

Offensive coordinator Robert Anae’s first-half gameplan — using backup quarterbacks Keytaon Thompson and Ira Armstead in various roles to confuse Miami’s defense — worked well, just like last week’s first half against Wake. And just like last week, Anae went away from it in the second half.

Mendenhall offered up an explanation, that Miami’s defensive adjustments negated the strategy.

Armstrong, who turned in a solid performance in his return, rushed for a career-high 91 yards to easily lead UVA in that category, and passed for 181 yards and two TDs on 16-for-30 passing (no interceptions). There wasn’t much more of a ground game by the Cavaliers. Thompson and Armstead combined for 46 yards, and tailback Wayne Taulapapa had 56 yards.

Virginia quarterback Brennan Armstrong throws the ball in the first quarter.

It didn’t help that Virginia had no timeouts late in the game after burning them earlier, one of them that Mendenhall called a mistake.

“The others were intentional, to stop touchdowns and let our defense rest. The third one was totally a mistake on our part and my part,” the coach said. 

“The defense wasn’t ready for a two-point play, had the wrong personnel on the field, miscommunication, and had to use it. Glad I did, because we stopped the two-point play, which did give us a chance. But yeah, that was not by design, nor was it good time management, nor was it good communication by my staff. So, had to use it as a miscue from the defensive staff communication.”

So where does that leave the Cavaliers, mired in an unexpected losing streak after getting their only win in the opener against a weak Duke team? Miami didn’t look like the No. 11 team in the nation, but it was good enough to win.

“A penalty took a touchdown off the board, and that changes the game,” Mendenhall said. “You could probably argue there’s one or two plays, or maybe one play.”

Mendenhall would be the first to say there’s no value in moral victories, and that close only counts in horseshoes.

Another ranked team, North Carolina, is coming to town for another Saturday-night showdown, and the Tar Heels are playing for a spot in the 15-team race for the ACC Championship game.

The Cavaliers?

They’re playing for whatever they can get out of the rest of the season. They have six games remaining and have to win five of those to salvage a winning season. There’s little margin for error.

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