Virginia flips the script: The Streak is over, the new day is finally here
The ‘Hoos controlled, just short of dominated, the first half, leading 13-3 after a couple of long Bryce Perkins touchdown runs, then flirting with getting up more, before a flurry of nonsense calls from the guys in striped shirts actually made it a little closer, on a late Tech field goal that made it 13-6 at the break.
That said, breathe, you’re up a score, and you’re controlling the line of scrimmage.
And then, the third quarter happened.
Virginia Tech rang up 224 yards of total offense, scored on three of its four possessions.
It was 13-13, then 20-13, and Virginia, which had been rolling, was in a stretch of five straight three-and-outs.
The Cavaliers answer, so we’re back to square.
In a flash, Tech gets a 61-yard TD pass from Hendon Hooker to Tre Turner.
It’s 27-20 now, and this is the story that you’ve seen written before.
The bulk of the last 15 games, it was just a better Virginia Tech team beating up on an undermanned Virginia.
The few times the teams were evenly matched, the Hokies just found a way to win.
Sometimes it would be a fortunate bounce, but even then, it felt like the Tech coaching staff – led by Frank Beamer for the first 12, then Justin Fuente the most recent three – just outdid the staff on the UVA side.
It felt like adjustments made by Virginia Tech were fueling this one. Perkins had been running crazy in the first half when the Hokies sat back in what was basically a nickel defense, daring UVA to run.
When the Cavaliers proved they could run, defensive coordinator Bud Foster switched things up, starting stacking the box, and it seemed that Virginia couldn’t figure out what the Hokies were doing.
And then they did.
“They adapted, and we struggled to match for a while,” UVA coach Bronco Mendenhall said. “Then we seemed to gain our footing and our understanding and our execution versus what they were doing, and that allowed us to break free again.
“It was a challenging game from a schematic standpoint for both sides – the changes in matchups that were happening cerebrally.”
Specifically, what UVA did differently, at the direction of offensive coordinator Robert Anae, was go tempo, as the kids like to say these days, basically, going no-huddle, to prevent the defense from subbing.
The first third-quarter touchdown drive was seven plays, 79 yards, in 2:19 of game clock. The second: five plays, 75 yards, 2:18 of game clock.
The Wayne Taulapapa 2-yard TD run that capped that second drive tied the game at 27 with 13:30 left in the game.
But still, that meant the Tech offense would get the ball back. A big kickoff return set up the Hokies at their own 44, and in two plays, the ball was at the UVA 27, first-and-10.
Here we go again, right?
Except, this time, the UVA D stiffened.
Deshawn McClease was stopped in the backfield for a loss. Hooker was incomplete on a pass in the flat to Turner.
On third-and-12, for some reason, Tech offensive coordinator Brad Cornelsen called a Hooker draw, which UVA stopped for no-gain.
Even when Brian Johnson was good from 47 yards on the field-goal try, it felt like a win for the Virginia defense.
The quick-strike ‘Hoos offense answered quickly. Perkins saw one-on-one coverage on Hasise Dubois presnap, held on to the ball to the last split-second, took a hit as he was throwing, but connected with Dubois at the Tech 45, and Dubois took the catch-and-carry inside the Hokie 10.
The drive stalled, but a Brian Delaney field goal tied the game at 30 with 7:35 to go.
Again the Tech offense got the ball in plus territory, but this time, the drive would end with a stop, in the form of a Noah Taylor interception of a third-down pass.
The play of the game – of the UVA season; maybe of UVA history – would come.
But first, it seemed that the Cavaliers were doomed to another overtime. After picking up a first down at the Tech 35, UVA was signaled for a hold on a wide-receiver screen, setting UVA behind the chains with a second-and-18 at the 43.
Perkins ran for three yards to make it third-and-15.
You need somewhere in the area of seven to 10 yards to give Delaney a shot at long field goal.
Delaney would say after the game that he had told the coaching staff that he felt good from 50 going in this direction, toward Bryant Hall.
That said, it was in this same direction that Delaney had missed an earlier extra point.
Yeah, which is pretty much why the game was tied, and not a one-point UVA lead.
Tavares Kelly took the screen pass nine yards, to the 31.
Delaney, waiting out an three-minute TV break for an injury timeout, was good from 48, and with 1:23 to go, it’s 33-30 Virginia.
“How fitting, after a missed extra point early?” Mendenhall gushed afterward. “I thought that was going to haunt us. I guess you’d have to think when was the last time, at least in my tenure, that we kicked the ball through the uprights in that kind of pressure-filled moment to win a football game? It’s just another breakthrough. Really proud and happy for Brian, because he’s done a really nice job all year.”
But it was far from over yet.
There was a feeling developing earlier in the second half that the last team with the ball would win, the way the offenses were going.
Well, Virginia Tech would get the ball last.
A short kick from Delaney was fielded at the Tech 16 by McClease, who had acres of green ahead of him, but he tripped on the 18.
The breaks had always been going the Hokies’ way the last 15. Here was one that went UVA’s way.
And it seemed to energize the UVA D.
“The whole game we were thinking it would come down to those last two minutes, and we were going to have to go out there and make a stop,” defensive tackle Mandy Alonso would say afterward. “We were just going full speed ahead to get after him.”
First down. Tech comes out in an empty-backfield look. Zane Zandier plays the numbers game, stunts from inside around the left tackle, and takes down Hooker untouched.
On second down, another sack, lineback Matt Gahm up the A gap.
Now it’s third-and-forever from the Tech 7. Hooker drops back, and he needs time to get his receivers to the sticks, all the way out at the 28.
He didn’t have time. Alonso got there first, and began wrestling Hooker to the ground in the end zone.
“We ran a stunt, and I was the lucky one who got free and had a straight shot to the quarterback,” Alonso broke it down later.
You’re thinking safety here, but even better, the ball came loose, and Eli Hanback fell on it.
“I didn’t do anything. I just fell on it,” Hanback said. “Mandy got the sack, Mandy knocked the ball out, so all the credit to him.”
OK, but, safety, it’s 35-30, Tech can onside kick on the free kick, there’s still a chance.
Touchdown, and …
Pandemonium. It felt like Scott Stadium was about to fall to the ground.
Seriously, it wouldn’t surprise anyone to learn that the rumble underneath would register on the Richter Scale.
A minute and a second to go, and it was over, 39-30.
“How about Eli Hanback being the final touchdown after four years starting every game?” a visibly emotional Mendenhall said later. “There’s never been a moment where he has faltered or wavered, anything other than resolute. That can’t be scripted any better. I mean, there’s a movie that ought to happen about that.”
In roughly 45 seconds of game time, UVA went from a tie game and third-and-15 at the 40 to a two-score lead.
Tech would get the ball inside the UVA 10 in the game’s final seconds, but all that did was give fans time to gather in the end zone to prepare to rush the field.
“We definitely earned it. I feel like this was our most complete game all year,” said Dubois, who had 139 yards on four catches in his final game in Scott Stadium. “The defense played hard, the offense played hard, and the special teams played hard. We just gave it our all, and it came out in our favor.”
Mendenhall was asked in his postgame presser if he was glad that he wouldn’t have to answer questions about the streak anymore.
Obviously, right? He laughed as he answered in the affirmative.
He’d opened the presser with a huge nod to the Tech program and coach Justin Fuente.
“It’s not an accident that their program has had the kind of success they’ve had. They’re well coached, they have a great vision, they have amazing support. Their players play really hard, as they did again today. I respect their program, and I respect them as a rival. The quality of their program has helped us improve our program. They’ve set a standard that has been helpful for us to measure against and to grow against in the short time I’ve been here,” Mendenhall said.
There’s a lot of talk around the UVA football program about a new standard. How about this for a new standard: next week, Virginia plays in its first ACC Championship Game, against defending national champion Clemson, with an expected date in the Orange Bowl coming thereafter?
A bunch of firsts, for a program that as recently as two Novembers ago was just happy to be bowl-eligible for the first time in a million years.
“It’s amazing for this program and for Coach Mendenhall to come in and change the whole program. To be a part of this is just a grateful feeling,” Alonso said afterward.
It’s all uncharted territory from here on out.
Just enjoy it.
Story by Chris Graham
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