GOSSAGE: Takeaways from Virginia’s loss to Miami


Senior running back Taquan Mizzell became the first ACC player to record 1,500 yards rushing and receiving in their career Saturday against Miami.

Miami outscored Virginia 17-0 in the second half as the Cavaliers fell to the Hurricanes, 34-14, Saturday. Virginia’s record dropped to 2-8 in coach Bronco Mendenhall’s first season. Football writer Grant Gossage had the following takeaways after the Senior Day loss.

Smoke makes history

Senior running back Taquan ‘Smoke’ Mizzell became the first player in ACC history to total both 1,500 yards rushing and receiving Saturday afternoon, but it’s a shame Smoke’s record-setting catch came late in the blowout loss and resulted in Virginia’s fourth fumble of the game.

The negatives have somewhat overshadowed his feat.

After the game, I reminded my friend — who’s as devoted a Cavalier football fan as there is — of the history Smoke had made. My friend muttered back, “But we lost.” When I said the record was still something to be proud of, he reiterated, “We lost.”

I get it. Cavalier fans are fed up with their team losing, so much so that hundreds emptied out of Scott Stadium early and weren’t there to witness Smoke’s moment in the fourth quarter. Even if they weren’t there, they should acknowledge it's a big deal. Former all-purpose backs like Virginia’s own Thomas Jones, Clemson’s C. J. Spiller, Florida State’s Devonta Freeman and North Carolina’s Giovani Bernard, among other stars, couldn’t do what Smoke did.

“It definitely would have felt much better with a win, but that’s something that I appreciate right there,” Mizzell said. “That’s big for me — just how many great players that came through the ACC weren’t able to accomplish that.”

Don’t single out Benkert

The blame falls on a signal caller if his offense can’t convert drives into points. It’s not always fair to him, but that’s how it goes. It comes with the territory. Don’t get me wrong — junior quarterback Kurt Benkert didn’t play well Saturday. He completed 16 of 27 attempts for only 143 yards and a touchdown, coughing up the football twice under Hurricane pressure.

“The first one, I just didn’t see it coming. I just got sacked and it happens,” Benkert said. “On the second one, I didn’t tuck it like I normally do and just got hit. I have to do a better job of keeping two hands on the ball when I’m moving around in the pocket.”

What the statistics don’t show is Benkert’s receivers dropped several passes they should’ve caught.

On an early drive, Cavalier wideouts failed to haul in three well-thrown balls.

It’s hard enough on the quarterback when his offensive line isn’t holding its ground. The Hurricanes sacked Benkert five times, and four occurred on first down, putting the Cavalier offense in a hole. Then when his targets out wide can’t help him by making a routine play, that really complicates things.

Johns earns his chance

With 5:47 remaining in the fourth quarter, senior quarterback Matt Johns took over for Benkert. Excluding the 11-yard trick-play touchdown he threw as a holder against North Carolina, Johns had only one pass attempt this season, a two-yard completion at Oregon. Of course, he started all 12 games for coach Mike London’s Virginia team in 2015, finishing with 2,810 yards and 20 touchdowns but an ACC-worst 17 interceptions.

He may not have great arm strength, but Johns is more mobile than Benkert and has shown an ability to rally his teammates around him. In his limited minutes Saturday, Johns completed 3 of 7 attempts for 64 yards, including a 44-yard pass to junior wide receiver Doni Dowling. Johns evaded Miami pass rushers as well.

“It felt like we were losing momentum, and I thought at that point having a change would give us a better chance to finish,” Mendenhall said. “It wasn’t necessarily Senior-Day-oriented. I love Matt and wanted to give him a chance. … He gave us a spark and put a few balls on the money.”

If the past is any indication, the Virginia coaching staff will stick with Benkert this week as the Cavaliers take on Georgia Tech (6-4, 3-4 ACC) in Atlanta, Ga. Saturday. But at this point I would like to see the change made. Johns is a fierce competitor that could re-energize this team.

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