The Virginia Cavaliers fought through adversity in a major way on Saturday, overcoming a 15-point deficit to defeat the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets 40-36 and earn bowl edibility for the first time since 2011. The wet and chilly conditions made for a sloppy first half, particularly on offense, but the Cavaliers scored 27 points in the second half and got enough stops to secure the win. Below are the keys to the game, as well as a look ahead to the upcoming game against Louisville this weekend.
Keys to the Game:
Toughness: Head coach Bronco Mendenhall has been preaching toughness from the moment he arrived in Charlottesville, and that mentality was on display against Georgia Tech. The weather on Saturday afternoon was absolutely dismal – a steady rain came down all afternoon, and the temperature never rose above 54 degrees. The Virginia offense had a number of good opportunities, but drops and poor execution – perhaps a result of the weather – resulted in only six points and 138 total yards of offense in the first half. After the Yellow Jackets scored a touchdown with 2:31 left in the second quarter, wide receiver Joe Reed took the ensuing kickoff back 92 yards for a touchdown to keep the score close at the half. But Georgia Tech reeled off 14 points in the first 35 seconds of the second half, and Cavaliers found themselves down two scores after going into halftime only down one point.
Yet the Cavaliers never stopped fighting. After quarterback Kurt Benkert’s first throw of the second half was intercepted and returned for a touchdown by linebacker Bruce Jordan-Swilling, Benkert bounced back, going 14-of-23 for 182 yards and three touchdowns after the pick. The last touchdown throw went to wide receiver Andre Levrone with 1:22 left to play, capping off a 64-yard drive that took less than two minutes and put the ‘Hoos ahead for good. Safety Quin Blanding and cornerback Brenton Nelson both had interceptions in the second half, linebacker Chris Peace had two sacks, and the Cavalier defense forced their first safety of the season. Virginia persevered through a difficult first half and elevated their play when it mattered most, and it resulted in a hard-fought victory.
Run Defense: Georgia Tech likes to run the ball, and they do it well – coach Paul Johnson’s triple-option attack entered the match-up against the ‘Hoos averaging almost 350 rushing yards per game, tops in the ACC. Further, despite Mendenhall saying he enjoys the challenge of defending against the option, it requires a very different defensive approach that can be difficult for teams to successfully adopt when they do not face option-style offenses regularly. None of that bothered the Cavaliers. The Yellow Jackets were never able to get the running game going – they ran for 220 yards, but needed 52 carries to get there. Excluding quarterback TaQuon Marshall’s 78-yard touchdown scamper that kicked off the third quarter, Georgia Tech averaged only 2.8 yards per carry. More importantly, the Virginia defense was particularly strong on first and second down. On average, the Yellow Jackets needed to gain 7.3 yards on their 17 third down tries, and they were only able to convert six of those tries into first downs. Defensive linemen Andrew Brown and Eli Hanbeck were in the opposing backfield all day, and the UVa linebackers consistently made plays in space. Shutting down the running game is crucial for any team facing Georgia Tech, and the Cavaliers’ ability to do so put them in a position to win the game.
Special Teams: Special teams play has been an area of strength for the ‘Hoos in the last few games, but it was particularly excellent against the Yellow Jackets. Reed was especially good – he averaged 56.5 yards per kickoff return, including this dazzling 92-yard touchdown that kept Virginia in the ball game heading into halftime.
Punter Lester Coleman had another excellent game, averaging 48 yards per boot and limiting Georgia Tech to only one punt return. He also played a major role in the safety – his punt stopped on a dime at the 3-yard yard line, and the Yellow Jackets mishandled the snap on the very next play, allowing linebacker Jordan Mack to trip Marshall in the end zone. Kicker AJ Mejia made all of three of his field goals, and knocked in a crucial extra point after it somehow hit both goalposts. Bad weather games often result in sloppy special teams play, but aside from conceding a blocked punt the Cavaliers were flawless.
Player of the Game: WR Joe Reed
This is a tough one. Benkert and the passing game came alive in the second half, but the first half was filled with dropped balls and missed receivers. The defense stopped the run very well, but still gave up 36 points and had a few moments of weakness. Still, Joe Reed had the most consistently excellent game, which included the first Virginia kick-off return touchdown since 2010. Reed has been a weapon on special teams all season, helping the Cavaliers average 26.1 yards per kickoff return (third in the ACC and 11th in the nation). He also took a jet sweep around the edge for 29 yards, and added two receptions for nine yards. Reed came up with big plays on a day where UVa struggled to find them, and he provided a spark when the team desperately needed one.
Next Week: Saturday, November 11th vs. Louisville (5-4), 3:30pm EST at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium on ESPNU
The Cavaliers head to Kentucky this weekend to face the Louisville Cardinals and reigning Heisman-winning quarterback Lamar Jackson. For Louisville, everything starts with Jackson – he averages over 426 yards per game of total offense, and has scored 32 touchdowns already this year. He is the ultimate dual-threat quarterback, and absolutely one of the best players in the country. Although the Cardinals’ season is off to a bit of rocky start, offense has been no issue, thanks largely to the prowess of Jackson. The defense has been another story – Louisville has allowed 410 yards and 30.8 points per game to opponents. They have been vulnerable on the ground and through the air, particularly in ACC play, where they have won only two games.
Despite the talent of Jackson and company, Virginia played the Cardinals close last year, going ahead with two minutes left only to lose on a last-minute touchdown pass. Although this is a different Louisville team, the Cavaliers should be able to fall back on some of the same strategies that were successful last year. Two areas to watch: Jackson’s mobility and big plays. UVa’s defense has struggled at times to contain mobile quarterbacks at times this season, and Louisville’s offense is at its very best when Jackson opens up the game with his legs. The ‘Hoos will need to force Jackson to become one-dimensional and limit big plays as much as possible.