Was Thursday night in Atlanta the first step in Winning 101 for the Wahoos?

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Tony Elliott talks to his team after picking up his first ACC win against Georgia Tech. (Photo: UVA Athletics)

After a recent loss to Louisville, Brennan Armstrong said something in the postgame about Virginia not knowing how to win.

In retrospect, there was something to what Armstrong said. The previous two years, the Cavaliers were 5-5 and 6-6. Last season, two of those UVA wins hinged on missed field goals by opponents, so the record could have just as easily been 4-8.

After a rocky 2-4 start this season, maybe the Cavaliers stumbled upon something Thursday night in Atlanta when one hard-luck team outlasted the other. Virginia ended a win drought in this chilly Southern city, beating Georgia Tech, 16-9.

To most of us, it wasn’t pretty, but if the old axiom is true about beauty being in the eye of the beholder, then to Armstrong, Thursday’s win over the Yellow Jackets was oh, so fetching.

It was Tony Elliott’s first ACC win as a head coach, it was UVA’s first win in Atlanta since 2008, it was the Cavaliers’ first road victory since October of 2021. Most importantly, in Armstrong’s view, it was the end of a miserable three-game conference nose dive. Perhaps, with Virginia not having to leave the state borders for the rest of the season, it can build enough momentum, confidence and chemistry to make the noise most of its fanbase expected.

Maybe, in Elliott’s baby steps in rebuilding this program, it was the first movement toward learning how to win.

“That’s what I told them,” Elliott said. “I told them, really proud of finding a way to win because you look at the previous game (Louisville) and we’re up by 10 going in and had a chance to really jump and we didn’t. Then we ended up self-destructing.”

Tried as it may, Virginia was not the one that self-destructed this time. The Cavaliers did just enough to win, even though they were haunted by familiar demons: penalties (10-82), inability to convert third downs (2 of 14), dropped passes (4), special-teams gaffes (had a punt blocked, missed two field goals and an extra point, fair caught a kickoff on its own 3-yard line, and let Georgia Tech out of a hole on a penalty for “leaping” on an attempt to block a punt), along with a failure to produce points (UVA entered the game No. 122 in the nation in scoring average at 17.8 points per game and managed just 16).

“Coming on the road, getting this win [no matter] how ugly it was, how pretty it was, bottom line we got the win,” said Armstrong, who threw for 255 yards and rushed for 91, while becoming UVA’s all-time TDs passing leader (57).

Previously this season, and stretching back to last season, Virginia would have found a way to lose this game, not win it.

Let’s be honest, though. Had Georgia Tech quarterback Jeff Sims not suffered a game-ending injury early in the contest, it most likely would have been a different outcome. Sims, who was dynamic in wins over Pitt and Duke coming in, is the Yellow Jackets’ offense.

With him out of the game with a lower-leg injury, suddenly Tech’s offense watched its zone read and RPO threats vanish, along with most hopes of winning. With Sims gone, the Jackets were suddenly very one-dimensional, and backup QB Zach Gibson was fair game for Virginia’s aggressive defense.

John Rudzinski’s guys had pretty much shut down the rest of Tech’s running game, and without Sims, the Jackets were forced to throw. That allowed the Cavaliers to pin their ears back and attack Gibson all night, sacking him seven times (UVA’s eight sacks were the second-most in program history since the NCAA began tracking that statistic). Tech was 17 of 37 for 146 yards (an interception) and was highly ineffective.

In fact, starting the second half, Virginia’s defense posted six straight three-and-outs and wore out the Jackets’ punter. The defense only gave up three points (the other six came on a pick-six on UVA’s fifth offensive play of the game).

“Man, they’re playing inspired,” Elliott said of UVA’s defense. “They’re having a lot of fun. They’re playing fast.”

This is the same defense, mind you, that had surrendered 72 points and 850 yards in its last two outings against Duke and Louisville. Coach Rud’s ‘D’ has 23 sacks in seven games, a nice trend if it can get some sort of scoring support.

Virginia left at least 14 points on the field when Lavel Davis Jr. dropped a pass in the end zone and freshman kicker Will Bettridge missed field goals from 29 and 39 yards in addition to a PAT. With the kicking woes, Elliott admitted, “I’m kind of in a pickle right now.”

He can go back to senior Brendan Farrell, or stick with the rookie and hope he gets better.

Offensive coordinator Des Kitchings believes his squad is getting closer each week.

“We felt like we had a really good plan to attack [Tech] in the run and passing game to set up some play-action pass stuff that we did connect on that created some explosive plays,” Kitchings said.

One of those was a 44-yard catch-and-run by wide receiver Dontayvion Wicks, where he hauled in the pass on the sideline and made a brilliant cut back to the middle of the field, a play that was No. 3 on SportsCenter’s Top 10. He finished the night with four catches and a season-high 99 yards.

“Vintage Wicks tonight,” Armstrong said. “I was happy to see it.”

So was Kitchings.

“If we take away those freakin’ turnovers and these drops (42 on the season), this thing will be pretty,” the OC said. “It’ll be pretty. It’s going to come.”

It must come in a hurry, because an erratic Miami team comes to town a week from Saturday, the first of four-straight home games for Virginia before closing the season in Blacksburg.

The Wahoos still need a lot of work, particularly on offense and on the not-so-special teams.

For the rest of the weekend though, everything is beautiful in Charlottesville with a one-game winning streak, a lesson in how to win.

 

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