The Virginia Cavaliers put together another inspiring performance this weekend in Chapel Hill, defeating North Carolina 20-14 to remain undefeated in ACC play. The ‘Hoos did not play perfectly, but they again found a way to win on an afternoon when they were not at their best for much of the game. Below are the keys to the game, as well as a look ahead to Week Eight’s match-up with Boston College.
Keys to the Game:
Lock Down Pass Defense: UNC quarterback Brandon Harris is not very good. Harris, a graduate transfer, arrived in Chapel Hill this summer after failing to win the starting job at LSU, a school that has been plagued by poor quarterback play in his absence. That being said, the UVa defense made him look especially bad on Saturday. Harris completed seven passes for only 46 yards (the fewest passing yards by a UNC quarterback since 2000), threw three interceptions, and was sacked twice. The Cavalier secondary, led by CB Bryce Hall’s interception and two pass deflections, was excellent in coverage throughout the game, while the pass rush ensured Harris was never able to get comfortable in the pocket. Harris’ third interception came when Virginia LB Micah Kiser’s blitz interrupted the quarterback’s throwing motion, resulting in a pop fly that DB Brenton Nelson gathered and returned to the North Carolina 30-yard line. Six plays later K AJ Mejia nailed a 27-yard FG to give UVa a 20-14 lead that would prove sufficient to win the game.
Ground Game Gets Rolling: Last week’s column talked about the importance of the Cavaliers establishing a running game against a vulnerable UNC rush defense, and UVa delivered in spades. The ‘Hoos, led by junior RB Jordan Ellis, ran the ball on 47 of their 78 snaps, gaining 156 total yards. Ellis had a career-high 136 yards on 27 carries, including a 25-yard carry that was his longest of the year. Virginia’s success on the ground eventually wore out North Carolina, which allowed the Cavaliers to put together a 15 play, 60-yard drive in the fourth quarter that took more than eight and half minutes off the clock.
Virginia’s ground game also helped them dominate time of possession – UNC had the ball for a little over 20 minutes, and was only able to run 22 plays in the second half. It also allowed QB Kurt Benkert to ease into the game. He missed a few throws in the opening quarter that he normally makes, but finished the game 19-of-31 for 249 yards and a pair of touchdowns. The Cavalier defense has been physically dominant for much of the year, and it was nice to see the offense match the physicality and impose their will on the Tar Heels.
Big Plays in Big Moments: Both teams were a bit sluggish offensively, especially in the first quarter. Virginia finally got a field goal midway through the second quarter, and Benkert found TE Evan Butts for a 10-yard touchdown right before halftime that put the Cavaliers ahead 10-0. But UNC came charging out of the break, scoring two quick touchdowns on consecutive drives behind big runs from RB Michael Carter to jump to a 14-10 lead. But three huge plays helped Virginia pull ahead and secure the victory. First, with 3:25 left in the third, WR Olamide Zaccheaus collected a swing pass from Benkert, broke two tackles, and raced 81-yards for a touchdown. UVa retook a lead they would never surrender, snatching momentum right back from the Tar Heels. Then, just two plays later, Kiser was able to hit Harris and force the interception, which led to a Cavalier field goal. Finally, as UNC was driving down the field in an attempt to at least tie the game, LB Chris Peace was able to sack Harris on fourth down and end the game. This kind of late-game execution never happened last season, and, when combined with Week Six’s win over Duke, seems to suggest that this Cavalier team has finally learned how to win.
Player of the Game: RB Jordan Ellis
Jordan Ellis has been a dependable option all season for Virginia, and his stat sheet through the first five games was almost comically predictable: between 20 to 25 carries, around 90 yards, and a touchdown. But Ellis took a big step forward against UNC, running for a career-high 136 yards to go along with one reception for 14 yards. The Cavaliers were 3 of 3 on fourth down – each was fourth-and-short, and each time Ellis fought his way between the tackles and got the first down. His toughness and determination embodied the entire team’s effort. Coach Bronco Mendenhall elaborated after the game: “I think he had probably the most impact on the game of anyone on our team. He just kept falling forward and falling forward, running hard. I think he was the key to the game.” Could not have said it better myself.
Next Week: Saturday, October 21st vs. Boston College (3-4), 12:30pm EST at Scott Stadium
Scott Stadium should be rocking next week, as the Cavaliers have a chance to become bowl eligible for the first time since 2011 on Homecomings Weekend. They will take on a Boston College team that is fresh off one of the year’s biggest upsets, in which the Eagles defeated Lamar Jackson and the Louisville Cardinal on a last-second field goal. They ran the ball extremely well, lead by freshman RB AJ Dillon’s 272 yards and four touchdowns, earning Dillon Walter Camp National Offensive Player of the Week honors for his efforts. Boston College generally runs the ball well, averaging just less than 188 yards per game on the ground. QB Anthony Brown is a running threat, and he combines with Dillon to give the Eagles a strong ground game. Brown struggles to throw the ball, though, and he left the Louisville game with a shoulder injury. If Brown cannot go on Sunday, it is likely that graduate student Darius Wade, who played well in place of Brown last week, will start against UVa.
Fortunately, the Virginia defense has been relatively strong against the run this season. The Cavalier run defense is tied for 53rd in the country, allowing only 143 yards per game. If the Cavaliers can play Boston College the same way they played UNC, taking away the pass and forcing the opposing offense to become one-dimensional, they should be able to contain Dillon, Brown, and the rest of the Eagle rushing attack.
This is an important game for both teams. The last four games on Virginia’s schedule are tough, and if the Cavaliers want to get to a bowl game there will not be a better opportunity than this weekend. Additionally, a win could potentially put UVa in the top 25 of the Associated Press and USA Today Coaches Poll for the first time in six years (the ‘Hoos are currently 29th and 28th, respectively, in these polls). At the same time, Boston College’s season has been revived with their upset victory over Louisville, and a win against Virginia would put them only two games away from bowl qualification with five games to go. There is a lot on the line for both teams, and a larger-than-normal crowd at Scott will hopefully be able to witness a monumental next step for this team and the UVa program.