Offensive struggles continue against Tar Heels
Benkert benched in 35-14 loss to North Carolina
Junior linebacker Micah Kiser pried the football from North Carolina near midfield, giving junior quarterback Kurt Benkert and his Virginia offense a chance to level the score at 14 with 13:34 left in the third, but the Cavaliers (2-5, 1-2 ACC) faltered on another third down and saw the game get away from them.
The Tar Heels (6-2, 4-1 ACC) coasted to their seventh straight victory over Virginia, 35-14.
“There are some things that right now are just simply above our threshold,” coach Bronco Mendenhall said. “And that was one of them, when we weren’t able to capture that … We need to capitalize on every one of those opportunities.”
Benkert understood that his offense’s inability to put up points after Kiser’s effort hurt the cause. The signal caller took full responsibility for failing to take advantage of field position.
“It’s a big letdown,” Benkert said. “We were moving the ball. I think it was just off a turnover. I mean, when we get a turnover, we need to score. And it starts with me. I have to move us down the field.”
Carrying over the disconnect from that second half against Pittsburgh, the Cavalier offense converted on just three of 19 third downs and finished with a season-low 253 total yards of offense Saturday. Senior running back Taquan Mizzell did most of the damage, rushing for 106 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries.
Meanwhile, Benkert completed 19 of 32 attempts for 126 yards and no touchdowns before Mendenhall and staff substituted senior quarterback Connor Brewer into the game at the start of the fourth.
“I did feel in the fourth quarter that it would have been more beneficial for the team that Connor go in and do stuff that he’s capable of doing,” offensive coordinator Robert Anae said. “And for Kurt, to kind of take a step back and take a look to see how the game looks from the side, without being in that pressure cooker.”
Brewer struggled as well, completing only two of 12 attempts for a total of six yards. The most effective Virginia passer on the field Saturday happened to be senior holder Matt Johns, the team’s third string quarterback and last year’s starter under former-coach Mike London. Johns was 1-1 with an 11-yard touchdown pass on a trick play to junior tight end Evan Butts, who snapped the football.
“We walked out, and we spread out in the formation we were in, and No. 23 was pointing at Butts, so in my head, ‘Well, now the play’s not going to work,’” Johns said. “And so [senior kicker] Sam [Hayward] said his cadence, and he ran to the sideline. No. 23 ran with him and then Butts was wide open. It was a very well executed and thought out play.”
Johns did not see any snaps behind center even after Brewer’s trouble, though Anae made it clear competition at the quarterback position remains — and Johns is still an option.
Leading North Carolina’s attack, senior quarterback Mitch Trubisky threw for 310 yards and three touchdowns. After Virginia had narrowed the deficit to 14 points at the nine-minute mark of the fourth quarter, Trubisky delivered a perfect ball two plays later to junior wide receiver Austin Proehl in stride for a 46-yard touchdown.
The son of former NFL wideout Ricky Proehl, Proehl tallied 76 yards receiving on the afternoon, while seniors Bug Howard and Ryan Switzer added 109 and 72, respectively. Howard leapt above Cavalier defenders in the end zone to secure a devastating 40-yard touchdown that made it 14-7 close to three minutes before the half.
Junior Tar Heel running back Elijah Hood also surpassed the century mark in rushing yards, totaling 107 on 16 carries. Hood set the tone, scoring the game’s first touchdown on a four-yard run late in the first quarter.
“UNC executed longer and more effectively than us,” Mendenhall said. “They were able to sustain drives, execute when needed, recover from turnovers at a higher level than we were. Really their program, currently, is more mature and further along than ours is.”