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Barber: For Virginia, being good enough to win may be good enough, for now

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APTOPIX Virginia Georgia Tech Football

Virginia's Jonas Sanker, left, breaks up a pass intended for Georgia Tech wide receiver Nate McCollum during the first half of Thursday's game in Atlanta.

CHARLOTTESVILLE — Virginia wasn’t very good Thursday night in Atlanta. But it was good enough.

And for this season, that might be the goal.

UVA edged Georgia Tech 16-9, snapping a three-game losing streak in spite of an embarrassing collection of mistakes from its offense and special teams, thanks in large part to an inspired defensive effort.

“After a losing streak, you’re just begging for a win,” said quarterback Brennan Armstrong. “And we got one. On the road. And that’s hard to do.”

The defense, the culprit behind last season’s disappointing 6-6 mark, controlled the game and saved the night, recording eight sacks, an interception and a fumble recovery and holding the Yellow Jackets — who played most of the game without starting quarterback Jeff Sims — to a 6 for 21 showing on third down.

The eight sacks were the most since 2006 and one shy of a school record. UVA forced 10 punts in the game, the most since 2017.

Outside linebacker Chico Bennett, a Georgia Tech transfer, and inside linebacker Nick Jackson, an Atlanta native, combined for 15 tackles and four sacks, strong homecomings that highlighted an all-around solid outing for the defense.

But, as coaches are fond of pointing out, there are three phases to a football game. Virginia’s offense got off to a decent start, moving the ball and scoring a pair of first-half touchdowns. But it also continued to commit the kind of self-inflicted wounds that have plagued it all season — Perris Jones fumbled on the first possession and Georgia Tech returned an interception for a touchdown on a ball that went off Keytaon Thompson’s fingertips on the second.

In all, UVA (3-4, 1-3 ACC) committed three turnovers and missed a field goal in the first half, but still led 13-9 at the break.

If the offense failed to truly play complementary football Thursday, Virginia’s special teams contributions were down right insults to the defense’s effort.

“You want to play complementary football, but at times, you have to compensate,” said first-year Cavaliers coach Tony Elliott. “Those guys over there (on defense) didn’t flinch. They’re playing inspired.”

Virginia had a punt blocked, freshman kicker Will Bettridge missed an extra point and a field goal, and the Cavaliers allowed a fourth-down conversion when wide receiver Lavel Davis Jr. was penalized for leaping over a blocker on a Georgia Tech punt.

That was just part of Davis’s shaky night. He dropped a sure touchdown pass in the first half, a play after committing an offsides penalty.

In all, Hoos were flagged for 10 penalties for 82 yards against the Yellow Jackets (3-4, 2-2), a disturbingly ragged showing for a team coming off an open date. But, after all that, the night ended with a victory.

“Hopefully, it frees a lot of guys minds,” said Armstrong, noting the team plays its next four games at home. “Hopefully, this win on the road just kind of frees guys up, if they’re putting pressure on themselves.”

What’s left for the Cavaliers? Can they still salvage this season and perhaps even challenge to reach six wins and become bowl eligible?

Rival Virginia Tech is bad enough to label the teams’ annual regular-season finale a toss-up. The Cavaliers’ host Coastal Carolina, which has already lost to an Old Dominion team that Virginia beat, the weekend before that one, in their final non-conference game.

Outside of those two late-November dates, UVA’s best chance for a victory may come in the form of an opponent — Miami, Pittsburgh or North Carolina — overlooking the Cavaliers or simply laying an egg.

Is there hope Virginia can do more than ‘win ugly?’ Of course there is. Part of the problem with UVA’s errors have been how remarkably untimely they’ve been, especially on offense.

Thursday night, Davis’s dropped touchdown could have been the type of score that put the visiting team on the path to a resounding win. But, as Elliott astutely noted, that missed opportunity didn’t start a spiral to defeat.

In Virginia’s last game, before Armstrong fumbled in the red zone against Louisville, the Cavaliers appeared on the verge of a blowout win. When the game ended, they had been beaten soundly, never really recovering from that miscue.

Thursday night, UVA found a way to move on and still win the game. And that, Elliott noted, is progress.

“The previous game, we were up by 10 going in and had the chance to really jump out on [Louisville],” Elliott said. “And then we ended up self-destructing. Here, even though we had some moments where we were kind of beating ourselves, we still found ways to make enough plays.”

And this year, that might have to be good enough.

mbarber@timesdispatch.com

Twitter: @RTD_MikeBarber

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