Virginia hosts UNC in first Thursday home game in six years
Cavaliers put bowl hopes on the line in a rare midweek game at Scott Stadium
Sophomore tight end Jake McGee kept the Virginia football team’s bowl hopes alive with his game-winning catch against Miami on Saturday — his second game-winning catch in as many home wins. The play punctuated a furious fourth-quarter comeback to give the Cavaliers a riveting 41-40 win. After the game, senior linebacker LaRoy Reynolds texted senior running back Perry Jones and told him he wants no part of another thriller.
“It was nerve-wracking … I was like, ‘Why do we always have to go through this?’” Reynolds said. “This is causing my heart problems.”
Reynolds will have to cope with the high-stakes pressure and make-or-break moments for at least one more week. Virginia hosts North Carolina Thursday in the lone college football game in the nation, the first Thursday evening showcase in Charlottesville since 2006. The eyes of the college football world will turn to the battle of Coastal Division rivals as the resurgent Cavaliers look to move within one win of becoming bowl-eligible despite a 2-6 start to the season.
“I think this is just another opportunity for us to show that the team that’s here, we’re not going to let the lights and the big name of the Thursday night game get to us, and that when all eyes are on us, we’re not really worried about that,” Jones said.
The task begins with shoring up a defense that allowed 40 points against Miami — the fourth time this season the Cavaliers have allowed 40 or more points. That type of showing will not pass against the high-scoring Tar Heels, who reached the 50-point plateau for the third time this season in their 68-50 loss to Georgia Tech Saturday.
“We don’t want to make this a high-scoring game,” Reynolds said. “We as a defense want to control the game and get the offense the ball.”
North Carolina junior quarterback Bryn Renner directs a Tar Heel offense that relies heavily on a no-huddle attack. Virginia defensive coordinator Jim Reid has tried to simulate the speed of the game in practice to prepare his unit. While one offensive unit runs a play a second unit prepares for the next snap, creating a “rapid-fire” practice, senior linebacker Steve Greer said.
The Cavaliers struggled to slow a similarly quirky offense in their 44-38 loss to Louisiana Tech Sept. 29. The Bulldogs needed an estimated 12 seconds on average between plays, keeping Reid’s defense uncomfortable throughout the disappointing loss.
“I think Louisiana Tech, we got a good sense of what the offense is going to look like,” Greer said. “It’s definitely going to be fast-paced.”
North Carolina is enjoying one of the most prolific offensive seasons in program history. The Tar Heels are averaging 488.7 yards per game, more than 40 yards better than the previous school record set in 1983. Giovani Bernard, Player of the Year candidate and sophomore running back, has catalyzed the unit. Bernard ranks second in the nation in scoring with 17 touchdowns, third in all-purpose yards and fourth in punt return average.
Virginia has struggled to stop young, explosive offensive players before, allowing touchdown returns to Maryland freshman wide receiver Stefon Diggs Oct. 13 and again last week to Hurricane freshman running back Duke Johnson. Bernard burned Virginia last season for 102 rushing yards during the Tar Heels’ 28-17 win.
“He’s a dynamic player that they have that you have to know where he’s at all the time,” coach Mike London said. “He’s won games for them.”
Bernard leads the ACC with 126.0 yards per game — a full 40 yards per game ahead of any other running back. Thanks in large part to Bernard’s offensive prowess, North Carolina ranks third in the conference in rushing yards per game. Virginia, a team that prides itself on its ability to move the ball on the ground, ranks seventh in the ACC with 136.7 yards per game.
The elusive Jones was expected to carry the Cavaliers’ ground game, but sophomore Kevin Parks has emerged as the more reliable threat, averaging 66.0 yards per game to Jones’ 39.5 yards. With two or three games remaining in his collegiate career, Jones’ focus is far from the stat sheet.
“It’s not about me anymore,” Jones said. “I’ve gotten away from that. If I have a good game [great], but as long as I’m doing things to help this team, it doesn’t matter what it is.”
Jones’ selfless attitude has enabled a seamless transition toward a more active role for Parks, who made his first two starts of the season in the past four games.
A timeshare at running back is nothing new in college football. A timeshare at the quarterback position is a different story entirely.
Virginia’s late-season revival coincided with London’s decision to use both sophomore Phillip Sims and junior Michael Rocco on an alternating basis at quarterback, based on what London has called a “random rotation.” During the past two weeks — both wins — neither quarterback has thrown an interception, a feat not accomplished since the team’s season-opening win against Richmond.
“I’ve never seen it, especially not two games in a row,” Jones said. “Maybe a couple of teams have done it early in the season just to figure out who’s going to be the starter, but I’ve never seen it done at this point in the season in multiple games.”
London defended his decision Monday to phase Rocco out of the offense following the team’s loss to Louisiana Tech.
“When I look back, I look back at a lot of things that were written and said about him, said about how he was playing, how he wasn’t playing,” London said. “You can always look back and second guess, but I refuse to second guess where we are now because I think what we’re doing now with him, it’s the best thing for this team.”
Thursday’s game will be the 117th meeting against North Carolina, the fourth-longest rivalry in FBS history. The two teams have faced each other each season since 1919 in a rivalry dating back to 1892. Virginia is 54-58-4 all-time against the Tar Heels.
Kickoff will be at 7:30 p.m. Thursday.