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UVA football snatches victory from the jaws of defeat

uva footballTwo plays from scrimmage into the second half, and UVA football was reeling. The ‘Hoos had played solid, for the most part, in the first half, hanging tight with heavily favored Georgia Tech, climbing back to within a point, 14-13, just before the half, on a 92-yard kickoff return touchdown by Joe Reed.

And then, the trainwreck.

The Yellow Jackets, on the first play from scrimmage, scored on a 78-yard run by quarterback TaQuon Marshall, who faked a handoff to a running back moving to the left of the formation, tucked it and went right, and had just one defender, at the line of scrimmage, between him and the end zone.

Too easy, that one, and then Virginia gave the Jackets another easy one, when Kurt Benkert, on the Cavs’ first play from scrimmage, was intercepted on a slant by Bruce Jordan-Swilling, who took the ball 27 yards for the picksix, and 35 seconds into the second half, it was 28-13 Georgia Tech.

It’s at this stage that we need to look back for a moment. This Virginia program had seen these kinds of things happen often in the Mike London years, and the standard operating procedure in terms of response was to pack up the tent and head home.

The sidelines would have been a wake, and the play-calling would have gone vanilla, basically trying to prevent more bad stuff from happening, after which time, more bad stuff would happen.


The UVA sidelines on Saturday, though, after those two disastrous plays, were far different. Players who had been jumping up and down on big plays to get their teammates up and the crowd up were still just as pumped as they had been, maybe even more so.

Benkert, after the game, said he looked his offensive teammates in the eye when they gathered on the sideline before the kickoff and said, in effect, we’re still in this, let’s go play.

The response: Benkert threw two touchdown passes in the next four minutes and change, and a two-point conversion pass after the second, which came after a Quin Blanding interception, that tied the game at 28.

Virginia took a 31-28 lead early in the fourth quarter on an A.J. Mejia field goal, then extended the margin after a Lester Coleman punt was downed at the 2, and Marshall fumbled and was sacked in the end zone on the next play.

The game seemed in hand, but the UVA offense couldn’t milk the clock, and the Jackets responded, driving 90 yards, capped by a Marshall-to-Ricky Jeune 33-yard TD pass, to go back up with 3:10 to go.

It’s here that we need to talk about the weather. A steady rain had been falling most of the game, and it picked up to downpour status during the TV timeout, as Virginia prepped itself for what was likely its last chance.

Again, it’s fair to look back into the past at this stage. You’ve survived those third-quarter big plays, recovered to take the lead, but now you’re down again, it’s pouring down rain, the odds are long.

Back to Benkert, who calmly connected with Olamide Zaccheaus on a 19-yard deep out on first down to get Virginia into Georgia Tech territory.

Next play, Benkert keeps on a designed play for five yards, then on second down, he hooks up with Jordan Ellis on a 5-yard pass play to move the chains.

First down, Benkert completes a pass to Doni Dowling, who had struggled at times in the rain, dropping three passes, including a sure touchdown earlier in the fourth.

Gain of eight sets up second and two, Benkert throws his best ball of the night, connecting with Andre Levrone on a fly pattern down the left sideline in the end zone.

The issue: the clock. It’s still 1:22 to go.

In each of the past two seasons, UVA teams scored late in games against Notre Dame and Louisville, only to see the Irish and Cardinals answer to pull out wins.

Georgia Tech would make it interesting, converting a fourth-and-16 with a 35-yard pass from Marshall to Jeune to get to the UVA 32.

An Andrew Brown sack on third down set up another fourth-and-long, and this time, the D was true, with Chris Peace flushing Marshall out of the pocket, and forcing a wobbly pass that flew harmlessly out of bounds, incomplete, ballgame.

There were several junctures where Virginia teams of old, and honestly, more recent vintage, would have thrown in the towel and lost this game.

It’s a mark of where coach Bronco Mendenhall has things in Year 2 that this one turned into a win, and that it was the one that has the program heading back to a bowl game for the first time since 2011.

Column by Chris Graham