North Carolina silences Virginia's bowl hopes
Tar Heels use 17-0 fourth quarter run to score Thursday night rout, 37-13, end Virginia’s postseason chances
An enthusiastic orange-clad fan waving a white towel occupied nearly every seat in Scott Stadium during the Virginia football team’s Thursday evening showdown against Coastal Division rival North Carolina. The cheers of 45,760 people filled the Charlottesville night air, a scene few could have foreseen just two weeks ago, when the Cavaliers’ six-game losing streak left them as the only team winless in the ACC.
For nearly 45 minutes, Virginia (4-7, 2-5 ACC) resembled the team that had won back-to-back games in impressive fashion. But down the stretch, the Cavaliers reverted to the error-prone squad that had moved within one defeat of missing a bowl berth.
Sophomore running back Kevin Parks was stopped short on a pair of runs from inside the Tar Heel two-yard line late in the third quarter, and North Carolina (7-4, 4-3 ACC) grabbed control with a 97-yard, touchdown-scoring drive to spoil the Cavaliers’ Senior Night and end the team’s postseason chances, 37-13.
“It was a big turning point in the game,” Parks said of the fourth down play. “We get it, it’s a different ball game.”
From there, the wheels fell off. Sophomore running back Khalek Shepherd’s long return was wiped out by a penalty. Sophomore wide receiver Darius Jennings dropped a would-be touchdown pass thrown by sophomore Phillip Sims. Tar Heel junior quarterback Bryn Renner added two more touchdown passes to his sterling night. And Shepherd fumbled a kickoff to send possession back to North Carolina amid a 17-0 fourth quarter run for the Tar Heels. As the clock hit zero, the last sounds remaining in Scott Stadium came from the North Carolina marching band.
“It seemed like the game kind of turned on not getting that fourth down opportunity,” coach Mike London said.
Renner used his pinpoint accuracy and no-huddle offense to complete 29-of-36 passes for 315 yards. North Carolina’s quick-strike ability was on display early and often as Renner orchestrated first-half touchdown drives of 91 and 75 yards in 3:23 and 1:50 respectively.
The Cavaliers slowed Renner’s favorite weapon, sophomore running back Giovani Bernard. But in his place, freshman wide receiver Quinshad Davis set the Tar Heel freshman single-game reception record with 10 in the first half alone. Davis finished with 16 receptions for 178 yards. Bernard finished with four catches and 57 rushing yards.
“Our mindset was to shut [Bernard] down,” senior linebacker LaRoy Reynolds said. “I feel like that’s what we did. It was the other things that we should have focused even more on.”
The Tar Heels breezed down the field on a heavy dose of wide receiver screens, whereas the Cavalier offense was slow and methodical. Sims led a 14-play, touchdown-scoring drive that took more than five minutes after replacing junior quarterback Michael Rocco for the team’s third drive with the Cavaliers trailing 14-3.
Sims scrambled for a 13-yard run on third down, and Parks and senior running back Perry Jones added first down runs as well. With the pocket collapsing on third down and goal, Sims rolled out to his right and fired a strike across his body while his momentum carried him out of bounds and completed a sensational nine-yard touchdown pass to Jennings to make the score 14-10. North Carolina answered with its quickest score of the game, this time with Renner on the sideline. Rocco, who completed 11-of-16 passes for 155 yards, had his pass intercepted by junior safety Tre Boston and returned for a 36-yard touchdown that extended the Tar Heel lead to 20-10 before halftime.
“The safety rolled down into cover three, and I tried to fit one in there,” Rocco said. “The ball was too low.”
A Virginia team brimming with confidence following a blowout win against NC State and a thrilling finish against Miami did not go quietly into the night. Bernard fumbled sophomore Alec Vozenilek’s opening punt of the second half and senior defensive end Ausar Walcott — one of 16 seniors to play his final game at Scott Stadium — recovered the ball at the Tar Heel 12-yard line.
On the ensuing drive, senior defensive tackle Sylvester Williams recorded one of three sacks on Rocco, and Virginia was forced to settle for a 28-yard field goal by junior kicker Drew Jarrett to make the score 20-13.
“I thought we played very competitively in the first half and had a chance, and we left some points on the field for sure,” London said.
The drive that defined the loss began with 7:51 remaining in the third quarter and spanned nearly seven minutes. Jones reached another milestone, offensive coordinator Bill Lazor got creative and Rocco showed his fearless desire. None of it was enough.
Jones surpassed 2,000 career rushing yards in his illustrious Cavalier career with back-to-back carries that went for eight total yards, setting up a third-and-short. Lazor dialed up a reverse play to Jennings, and Rocco delivered a flawless lead block to set up an 18-yard gain. Parks picked up another first down on a 13-yard first-down rush, but Virginia faced third-and-18 after a holding penalty by redshirt freshman center Ross Burbank.
On third down, Rocco found sophomore wide receiver Dominique Terrell for a 17-yard gain to bring up fourth-and-one. Lazor called upon his short yardage specialist, Parks, and he did not disappoint, powering through nine Tar Heel defenders in the box for a seven-yard gain. From the three-yard line, rushes by Jones once and Parks twice came up short, setting up North Carolina’s 97-yard touchdown drive, its longest of the season.
“We’re not happy,” Rocco said. “You play for a bowl game, you play for championships and you play to win. After a loss, it’s tough, especially knowing that you’re not going to be able to go to a bowl game for our seniors.”
Virginia will conclude its season Nov. 24 against Virginia Tech (5-6, 3-4 ACC) in Blacksburg in a battle of Coastal-division basement dwellers.
“It’s a very quiet locker room in there with a lot of disappointment,” London said. “We’ve got to pick ourselves up and get ready to play one last football game.”