Improvement: But loss at #1 Clemson shows UVA still has a way to go
Playing at Clemson, #1, perennial national-title contender, is a measuring stick. Virginia, try as it did, still doesn’t measure up.
“We were more prepared, as a coaching staff. Our players were certainly more prepared after seeing what Clemson looked like a year ago. We were anxious to play, eager to play and believed we could win. A handful of plays, a handful meaning five or six, were the difference in the game. To Clemson’s credit, they made those plays,” was how UVA coach Bronco Mendenhall summed it up after his team had lost 41-23 Saturday night in Death Valley.
It was there, for the taking, at least, the make interesting.
A pair of Brennan Armstrong INTs, a late second quarter pick that Clemson turned into a TD, and the play of the year on defense from Andrew Booth, Odell Beckham Jr.-like, in the end zone, turned out to be the difference.
One TD on the board, one off, and then Clemson turned the second pick into a field goal.
That’s 17 points in a game that was basically a 17-point game – Virginia went for two after its final score with 1:11 to go.
“We were marching down the field in the second half, and that was going to be a big score for us, you know, get some momentum starting the second half,” said Armstrong, who finished with 270 yards, and three TDs, on 24-of-43 passing through the air, and 89 yards on 22 totes on the ground.
Virginia gained 417 yards total offense all told.
First ACC team to go 400+ on Clemson in three years.
“The pick in the end zone, that would have really swung it, honestly,” Armstrong said. “That’s the one thing, I look back, the pick in the end zone, that kind of hurt us. I think we would have scored there, would have had good momentum, and the outcome of the game, just the score of the game, could have looked a lot different.”
It wasn’t 62-17, the final in last year’s beatdown in Charlotte, in the ACC title game, but it’s still a loss, a bad loss.
Clemson, being the heavyweight, made the plays it needed when needed, going 8-of-15 on third downs, 4-of-7 on third-and-nine-plus.
Tailback Travis Etienne, the two-time ACC player of the year, had a pedestrian 73 yards on the ground, on 14 carries, but he had 114 yards on five catches – included in that a 21-yarder to convert a third-and-16, a 16-yarder to convert a third-and-nine, a 46-yarder to convert a third-and-17.
“He is one of the best players in college football,” said Virginia senior safety Joey Blount, who had nine tackles and a sack in the loss.
“There were a lot of plays left on the field, that we had him in the position we wanted, but he didn’t wait,” Blount said. “With his athleticism and his game, he made it for himself and got out of the situations we had him in. We need to be better at tackling, pursuit of the ball and really just wrapping up. There were a lot of missed tackles as a team where it looked like we had him, and he made a play out of nothing. Etienne is a really good player, high-caliber player, and he had a really good game today.”
Also having a really good game: Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence, on his way to being the top pick in the 2021 NFL Draft.
Lawrence did as Lawrence does – slicing UVA up for 329 yards and three TDs through the air, on 25-of-38 passing, and adding 36 yards on the ground, as if he needs to move the chains with his feet, with so much talent around him to do that without putting him at risk.
It’s frustrating playing a team like Clemson, which has so much talent, and almost never makes mistakes – and always takes advantage of yours.
There’s no margin for error.
Virginia played as well as it could have – putting up the big numbers on offense, largely limiting the impact of the big play on defense.
And still, look at the scoreboard.
In the end, it wasn’t close.
“Probably the difference in the game, maybe a turnover by us and an interception in the end zone by them,” Mendenhall said. “Couple of things, we need to make those plays, it goes right to the end. I liked our conditioning, our toughness, our resiliency, I liked our execution, but a handful of plays was the difference. A significantly different story than a year ago, and that’s how I see it.”
Story by Chris Graham