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Doubling down: Matt Johns to get start at QB for UVA at Virginia Tech

matt johnsMatt Johns was given the start at quarterback last week to give a late-season spark to UVA. The spark never materialized in a 31-17 loss to Georgia Tech that saw Johns throw three second-half interceptions, including a game-clinching picksix.

So it’s no surprise, of course, that Johns will get the start in the season finale on Saturday at Virginia Tech.

“We’re going to start Matt. Again, I thought composure and experience and decision making for a lot of the game was right on point. And we were playing complementary football and really some of our best football, through again about two and a half quarters. And it was fun to watch that all happening at the same time,” Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall said.

Not sure what game he was watching, but Johns never had it on Saturday. Even in the first half, which ended with the Cavs up 10-7, and gaining 209 yards of total offense, Johns was an OK, but nowhere near spectacular, 12-of-18 passing for 112 yards.

And of course, one half is roughly half the story, and Johns’ second-half story was something from the mind of Stephen King, going 15-of-26 passing for 108 yards and the three INTs.

The third pick was on an end-of-game Hail Mary, but the first two set up 10 Georgia Tech points.

Yeah, ugly.

For the game, Johns finished 27-of-44 for 220 yards. That’s 5.0 yards per pass attempt. Kurt Benkert, the starter for the first 10 games, was benched after a stretch of four and a half games that saw him average exactly 5.0 yards per attempt.

Difference being, Benkert, a junior, presumably is back next year, whereas Johns, a senior, is done with football after Saturday.

“Matt, like some of the other players in our team, when circumstances changed or field position changed, or when we played from behind, he pressed a little bit and made a few mistake, as did other players on our team. But I would like to give him another chance and see what he can do with our team and I think he will do a nice job,” Mendenhall said.

No doubt Johns is deserving of a lifetime achievement award for his contributions to Virginia football, with his efforts in 2014 that had the Cavs within a couple of whiskers of a 6-6 finish, and then starting all 12 games in a 2015 season that got Mike London fired, sure, but again, the team was competitive most weeks against a tough, tough schedule.

That said, the numbers being equal, as they are, wouldn’t it make more sense to give Benkert a shot at Virginia Tech, which has won the last 12 in the series, with an eye toward him getting the ball next fall at home against the Hokies, than to go with Johns?

“I think the best word that I could use to describe what Matt brought was just presence. There was a spark, but there was this almost calm confidence with how he managed the team,” Mendenhall said. “Again, especially early, the decision making on early downs, a lot of our success in that game, while we were having success, was we were managing early downs really well, which had us in third and manageable a lot. And we were converting third downs. They couldn’t get us off the field and they couldn’t stay on the field.

“We really had complete control of the game for a long time against a team that thrives on holding on to the ball and not letting the opponent on the field. And we had reversed the script and Matt allowed us to do that, especially with his decision making on early downs and then being poised and putting the ball where it needed to be on manageable, just to keep the chains moving.

“I think there was a sense of confidence and again just presence. There was a calming factor to our team.”

Mendenhall is paid a lot, lot more than the rest of us to make these decisions.

Column by Chris Graham