How Virginia snatched defeat from the jaws of victory

UVaHelmet_1Virginia backup tailback Albert Reid burst through the left side, aided by Virginia Tech’s over-pursuit of jet sweep action moving across the formation to the right, and ran practically untouched for a 57-yard touchdown.

The score broke a 6-6 tie in the third quarter, and after the slog of the first two-plus quarters, it seemed like a breakthrough.

The Hokies had gained just 102 yards of total offense on their first 11 drives, eight of which ended with punts.

A one-score lead in a game that had played to that point like a war of attrition seemed monumental.

But the floodgates on the other side were about to be opened for them by an unwitting anti-hero.

On the first play of Tech’s next drive, quarterback Michael Brewer with Ryan Malleck at the Hokies 45 for what would have been a 20-yard gain.

Would have been turned into a 71-yard catch-and-run when Virginia free safety Quin Blanding went for the hero tackle, trying to hit Malleck high to dislodge the ball rather than wrapping him up, and Malleck, listed at 6’5”, 253, bowled over the 6’2”, 205 Blanding.

A 3-yard TD pass from Brewer to Sam Rogers tied the game at 13, and what had been a war of attrition turned into a track meet in the fourth quarter.

Virginia went back on top on its next drive, on a 27-yard TD pass from Matt Johns to Canaan Severin, who was originally ruled out of bounds, despite TV replays that showed him getting not just one, but both feet in play as he hauled in the catch just inside the pylon.

The Hokies would respond quickly again, on a 32-yard pass from Brewer to Isaiah Ford, tying the game at 20-20 with 8:40 to go.

UVA would be the team to blink, as has been the case often the past 12 years in the Commonwealth Clash, as it’s called.

After Olamide Zaccheaus gained 25 yards on a jet sweep to give the Cavs a first down at midfield, the stupid mistake thing reared its ugly head again. On second-and-six at the Tech 46, Virginia was flagged for an illegal shift, setting the offense behind the chains.

The next play call from the sideline from offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild was conservative, a run off left tackle by Daniel Hamm for two yards, setting up third-and-nine.

Johns tried to connect with Severin near the first-down marker, but the pass was incomplete, and Nicholas Conte, who earlier had come up two yards short on an inexplicably dumb fake punt on a fourth-and-6 from the Virginia 34 that set up a Tech field goal in the second quarter, punted the ball into the end zone, so his 49-yard punt had a 29-yard net, and gave the Hokies the ball at their 20 with 6:38 to go.

Brewer hit Ford for 21 yards on second down to push the ball to the Tech 47, and from there, it was water torture. A four-yard run, a five-yard run, two yards for a first down, nine yards to set up second-and-short, eight more yards to get the ball into field-goal range.

Joey Slye was good from 41 yards for his third field goal of the game, and the Hokies led, 23-20, with 1:38 to go.

Virginia had no timeouts, but with the clock stopping on first downs to allow the sideline crew to reset the chains, 1:38 is plenty of time to get the ball downfield for a chance at a game-tying field goal.

Johns got together with Keeon Johnson after a sack to pick up a first down at the Virginia 35. Johnson was able to get out of bounds with 1:07 to go, so UVA was a good 30 yards away from getting to the edge of kicker Ian Frye’s range.

It was not to be. Johns, under pressure on first down, threw off his back foot deep over the middle, breaking several cardinal rules for quarterbacks in the process. The floater was intercepted by Chuck Clark, and that was the ballgame.

Another effort at a hero play that went for naught. Johns could have thrown the ball out of bounds, at a receiver’s feet, anything, and regrouped for second down, but he went for the home run into double coverage, and was rewarded for it with the end of his season.

Saturday was yet another day that a Virginia team outplayed an opponent that walked away with the W. The ‘Hoos held their rivals to 67 yards rushing on 30 carries, and outgained them 433-304 overall.

But the 304 total yards at the end tell a story by themselves. Remember that the Hokies had gained just 102 total yards on their first 11 drives; they gained 202 yards on their last three drives, which resulted in two touchdowns and the game-winning field goal.

Virginia had its chances, getting an interception at the Tech 31 in the third quarter, but a conservative series led to a 45-yard field-goal attempt by Frye that the normally reliable placekicker just simply mishit, leaving points off the board there.

The Cavs also let an opportunity slip away on their first drive of the game, on a second-and-four play from the Tech 13, when senior Ross Burbank was called for holding, setting the series behind the chains and ultimately forcing a field-goal attempt.

Take points off the board there, on the missed field goal, give away points on the dumb fake punt, on the hero play missed tackle that got the Tech offense going.

That’s how you snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, how you hold your opponent to 67 yards on the ground when you run for 262, how you run 19 more plays from scrimmage and gain more yards per play, have nine more first downs, and still lose.

When you’ve lost to your rivals now 12 straight times, you’re standing on the sidelines waiting for whatever bad is going to happen to happen, or worse you’re thinking to yourself that you need to be the guy to keep it from happening.

That’s why Conte took off on a wild goose chase of a fake punt, why Blanding tried to outphysical a guy who has him by 50 pounds with a head of steam, why Johns puts the game on a wing and a prayer in the final minute on first down.

Nobody on your sideline, with a ton of talent up and down and all around, has any idea of how a team wins a football game.

How’s that for your ringing indictment of a regime?

For the untold gobs of money that the University of Virginia has invested in its football program, from the $86 million spent in the late ‘90s to upgrade and expand Scott Stadium, to the monies committed for practice and weight-room facilities, the $20 million-plus for coach Mike London and his staff over the past six years, that’s a pretty significant missing piece to have revealed in front of the thousands in attendance and the million or so watching at home every Saturday.

Virginia football isn’t mediocre for lack of trying, for lack of interest, for lack of money.

To use a military analogy, UVA has plenty of good soldiers; the general and his colonels aren’t putting them in the right places.

Virginia can win, it will win, and it will win next year.

Next man up.

– Story by Chris Graham

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The book, with additional reporting by Scott Ratcliffe and Zach Pereles, will take you from the aftermath of the stunning first-round loss to UMBC in 2018, and how coach Tony Bennett and his team used that loss as the source of strength, through to the ACC regular-season championship, the run to the Final Four, and the thrilling overtime win over Texas Tech to win the 2019 national title, the first in school history.
 
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