Trying to find the silver lining in UVA’s fourth straight loss

uva footballFive games removed from the program’s first Orange Bowl appearance, Virginia Football is back to having to feel good about giving it the old college try.

“Yeah, our team tried hard, and they’re tough, and they’re physical, and they’re resilient, and I thought they played well. I thought they played a really hard game, and they played with a lot of heart and great mindset and supported each other, and probably the most physical and the most intense they played the entire year. Yeah, so I celebrate that. I thought it was, I was really proud of them. In terms of the effort they gave.”

This was UVA coach Bronco Mendenhall after the Cavaliers had lost at #11 Miami by a 19-14 final that was, yes, a moral victory, for a program that had been touched up in back-to-back 17-point defeats at the hands of ACC second-division dwellers N.C. State and Wake Forest.

This one started like those, and every other game in 2020 for UVA, with Miami getting on the board first – this time in a ridiculous 28 seconds, on a two-play, 75-yard drive after the opening kickoff.

Credit due to the ‘Hoos, they bowed up, getting back to square on their first drive, then hanging around thereafter, behind gritty starting quarterback Brennan Armstrong, who threw for 181 yards and two TDs and ran for 91 yards after missing the past six quarters with a concussion sustained in the N.C. State loss, and a defensive unit that had found itself getting lit up early and often the past three weeks.

Miami would still end up gaining 444 yards on offense, but there was a bend, but don’t break feel to the proceedings, bolstered by the run defense – which allowed just 122 yards on 48 attempts – and a pass rush that registered five sacks.

“This defense tried hard and left everything on the field,” said senior linebacker Charles Snowden, who had a solid all-around game – eight tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, a sack, two quarterback hits, two hurries, one pass breakup.

Big plays had been the bugaboo for this defense – Wake gained 314 of its 483 yards on seven of its 69 plays, echoing the production of NC State (270 of its 363 yards came on 14 of its 67 plays), Clemson (364 of its 466 yards came on 18 of its 70 plays), and Duke (280 of its 342 yards came on 11 of its 78 plays).

The big play was still an issue Saturday night: Miami gained 324 of its 444 yards on 14 of its 78 plays.

But after the first drive, it felt like it was more under control than it has been all season long.

“I mean, every guy was flying around hitting stuff, making plays,” Snowden said. “I mean, there were plays, obviously, one or two plays here and there, but from an effort, from a heart standpoint, this whole defense can walk out with their head held high.”

As in the previous three losses, it was a series of little things that added up in the end that would ultimately doom Virginia.

An alignment issue between tight ends Tony Poljan and Grant Misch led to an ineligible receiver downfield penalty on Misch that wiped a second quarter touchdown pass from Armstrong to Ra’Shaun Henry off the board, ahead of Brian Delaney whiffing on a 37-yard field goal try.

Three, or seven, there, and it’s obviously a different ballgame.

“We could take the lead there, and then we’d be getting into halftime, and I think we would have held that lead at halftime, had the ball coming out. It’s just a way different feeling towards the game,” Armstrong said. “I mean, we still came out, we knew we were in it, but you know, having that lead at half, a bigger play like that little scramble touchdown, you know, that brings a lot of juice to the team. Defense would have stepped up. You just would have felt a different momentum going into there.”

Then there were the usual issues with timeouts – two used in the second half to try to slow down Miami’s tempo, the third used because of a personnel issue on a ‘Canes two-point try.

“The third one was totally a mistake on our part and my part,” Mendenhall said. “The defense wasn’t ready for a two-point play, had the wrong personnel out on the field, miscommunication, and had to use it. And glad I did, because we stopped the two-point play, which did give us a chance. But, yeah, that was not by design, nor was it good time management, nor was it good communication by my staff. So, had to use it as a miscue from the defensive staff communication.”

Those kinds of things just can’t happen. Honestly, you can’t use timeouts to get your defense rest. Certainly can’t use them ahead of a two-point play.

Alignment issues between two veteran tight ends five games into the season – again, just can’t happen.

And yet in spite of all of the recurring issues – the little things adding up, the big plays going against the defense, the fifth straight game digging an early hole – it was a one-score game in the fourth quarter.

A moral victory.

Just calling it what it was.

Story by Chris Graham


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