MESSIER: What’s new with Virginia football?
While Saturday’s loss brought Virginia to 0-3, this particular defeat against Connecticut was much different from the other two. This one felt like the all too familiar heartbreaking losses of previous Cavalier football teams.
Just last week, I wrote about why Virginia would defeat the Huskies. And they could’ve. So what exactly went well, and what went wrong for the Cavaliers Saturday that turned a hopeful contest into a heartbreaking defeat?
Things seemed to be going pretty well for Virginia at first, which held an early 10-0 lead. Most of the early success can be attributed to a much-improved Cavalier defense. Overall, the defense gave up only 277 yards to Connecticut and limited the Huskies to two field goals and a touchdown. Virginia also held Connecticut to 3-13 on third-down conversions.
The success of the defense was surely a team effort. Junior safety Quin Blanding and junior inside linebacker Micah Kiser tallied 11 tackles apiece, while senior inside linebacker Zach Bradshaw and sophomore outside linebacker Chris Peace collected seven each — a career high for Peace.
Junior defensive end Andrew Brown may have had his breakout game as a Cavalier Saturday afternoon. The Chesapeake, Va. native — who was touted as a five star recruit out of high school — recorded 3.5 tackles for loss, including a sack. The junior also stopped Connecticut’s momentum in the fourth quarter when he recovered a fumble at the Virginia 26-yard line.
In the third quarter, the Cavaliers earned their first forced turnover. Sophomore cornerback Juan Thornhill intercepted what would have been a crucial Connecticut pass in the end zone to halt a long Husky drive.
There were also some highlights on the offensive end as well. Senior wide receiver Keeon Johnson continued to impress with six catches for 73 yards — one a 34-yard reception that got the Cavaliers into scoring position late in the fourth quarter. Senior tailback Taquan Mizzell tallied 66 yards rushing and had six receptions — extending his receptions streak to 36 games — which is good for third longest in the nation.
However, the offense’s possession over the course of the game may be what hurt Virginia the most. The Huskies were able to hold the Cavaliers to 5-of-16 on third-down conversions. The epitome of Virginia’s offensive struggles came in the drive before Connecticut’s winning field goal. The Cavaliers encountered fourth and one on the Huskies’ 24-yard line, when senior tailback Albert Reid was stopped for no gain. On the ensuing drive, Connecticut converted the winning 43-yard field goal.
It’d be hard to neglect the missed field goal that most visibly cost Virginia the chance to take the game into overtime. Sophomore placekicker Alex Furbank was playing in his very first football game after transferring from Randolph-Macon, where he played soccer. The sophomore made a 23-yard kick to give the Cavaliers their first points of the game and their first lead of the season. However, on the final play of the game, he kicked a 20-yard field goal wide to the left after rushing the kick, cementing Virginia’s loss.
While the missed field goal certainly prompted heartbreak for Virginia fans, it was evident the Cavaliers missed many opportunities to get ahead before the last-minute field goal.
Penalties were a factor that plagued Virginia. The Cavaliers were penalized twice on Connecticut third-down incompletions — allowing them to extend the drive that would tie the game for Virginia. The Cavaliers committed 10 penalties during the game, compared to three penalties committed by the Huskies.
Play calling may have cost Virginia the chance to score a late touchdown and leave East Hartford, Conn. with their first road win since 2012. The Cavaliers’ final drive began on their 25-yard line, and was highlighted by a pass from junior quarterback Kurt Benkert to junior wide receiver Doni Dowling for 32 yards.
Just when it seemed like the game would be over for Virginia at fourth-and-10, Benkert connected with Johnson for a 34-yard reception that brought the Cavaliers to first-and-goal with just 35 seconds left. Offensive coordinator Robert Anae called a first down running play that gained the Cavaliers only four yards. Benkert threw the ball away on second down to stop the clock, and on third down, Benkert ran for a gain of only three yards. This ultimately put Furbank in a tough position with little time for the potential equalizing field goal.
With so much good in the game, it’s hard to believe that Virginia extended its road game losing streak to 17 games, or that coach Bronco Mendenhall has now fallen to 0-3. Many little mistakes cost the Cavaliers a game that seemed well within reach. However, it appears as if the Cavaliers are close to breaking through after week three, and they will get another chance to do so at Scott Stadium Saturday against Central Michigan.