MIAMI GARDENS, Fla.
Virginia’s defensive havoc returned Saturday. Nick Jackson, Zane Zandier and Charles Snowden harassed Miami quarterback D’Eriq King throughout four quarters as the Cavaliers limited the Hurricanes to about half their scoring average.
But conquering a top 15 opponent on the road, something no UVA team has done since 1994 at Virginia Tech, demands the complementary football that Cavaliers coach Bronco Mendenhall preaches. And with the offense stagnant for prolonged stretches, and the coaching staff torching all three second-half timeouts by early in the fourth quarter, Virginia chartered home with a 19-14 setback.
“They’re tough and they’re physical and they’re resilient,” Mendenhall said of his players. “I thought they played well. I thought they played a really hard game, and they played with a lot of heart and great mindset. … Probably the most physical and most intense they’ve played the entire year. So I celebrate that.”
Few would dispute. Absent injured safeties Joey Blount and Brenton Nelson, the defense didn’t blink after absorbing a first-series haymaker. And the offense, without its most gifted receiver, freshman Lavel Davis Jr., for undisclosed reasons, was turnover-free until a last-second desperation gadget ended with a lost fumble.
But UVA (1-4 overall and ACC) has dropped four straight since an opening victory over Duke and heads home to face another nationally ranked team in North Carolina, one that’s better than No. 11 Miami (5-1, 4-1) offensively.
To slow the Tar Heels, the Cavaliers will need linebackers Jackson, Zandier and Snowden to replicate Saturday, when they combined for 34 tackles, six behind the line of scrimmage.
In 14 games last season, Snowden and Zandier combined for 23 tackles for losses and 10 sacks. Through four games of 2020, they had four TFLs and no sacks.
This was more like it.
“Every guy was flying around … making plays,” Snowden said.
Snowden’s lack of disruptive plays had been glaring, and as UVA prepared for Miami, he sought counsel from friends and teammates. His conclusion was simply: “I’ve got to start playing like myself.”
King threw for 322 yards, and Mike Harley caught 10 passes for 170 yards and a touchdown, but otherwise the Hurricanes did not resemble a team that was averaging 35.6 points.
For all of Virginia’s defensive progress after the previous week’s 40-23 loss at Wake Forest, the most discussed play will be a pass-interference call on Nick Grant with less than three minutes remaining that allowed the Hurricanes to convert a third-and-8.
UVA Twitter erupted at the late flag, which came from a distant official rather than the closest as Grant and Miami’s Dee Wiggins jostled along the Hurricanes’ sideline. Watching one quick replay, I saw considerable contact, but rest assured, I was shouted down by Cavaliers faithful, who undoubtedly parsed the sequence frame by frame on DVR.
“He threw [the flag], didn’t know if anyone saw it, picked it up and threw it again,” Mendenhall said of the trail official. “I think that’s why it came in late.”
The penalty allowed Miami to run all but the final 23 seconds off the clock because Virginia was out of timeouts, the final one taken with 12:04 remaining as the Hurricanes lined up for a 2-point conversion following Donald Chaney’s 1-yard touchdown run.
The first two timeouts “were intentional to stop touchdowns and let our defense rest,” Mendenhall said. “The third one was totally a mistake on our part and my part. The defense wasn’t ready for a 2-point play, had the wrong personnel out on the field, miscommunication and had to use [the timeout]. … That was not good time management. Nor was it good communication by my staff.”
Miami exposed UVA’s short-handed pass defense immediately. Tight end Will Mallory outfought safety Antonio Clary for a 32-yard reception on the game’s first play, and Harley streaked past linebacker Noah Taylor on a deep route for a 43-yard touchdown catch on the second snap.
Two plays, 75 yards, 28 seconds.
But Virginia counterpunched quickly. Tony Poljan, the 6-foot-7 transfer tight end from Western Michigan, made a leaping catch in the back of the end zone of Brennan Armstrong’s 2-yard flip, toe-tapping with his left foot.
“You have to give those guys credit,” Miami defensive end Jaelan Phillips said. “They played an amazing game. ... I think this was a great test for our defense.”
UVA appeared to break a 7-all tie when Armstrong (272 yards total offense after missing a game in concussion protocol) found Ra’Shaun Henry lonesome in the end zone on a third-and-goal from the 24. But tight end Grant Misch was ineligible and flagged for straying downfield, though a teammate’s misalignment may have caused him to be ineligible.
Instead of leading by a touchdown, Virginia settled for a 36-yard Brian Delaney field goal attempt, which drifted wide right.
“A penalty took a touchdown off the board, and that changes the game,” Mendenhall said. “Miami’s good. They played well. I thought we played well. You could probably argue there’s one or two plays, maybe one play, and that’s what I saw.”
It’s a familiar and frustrating refrain.