Losing can wear on a team, especially one that has lost as frequently as Virginia over the past few seasons. And when the Cavaliers entered halftime down a touchdown after Syracuse found pay dirt twice in 38 seconds, the team could have given up.
But unlike Virginia squads of old, the Cavaliers bounced back. From Notre Dame to Pittsburgh, the Cavaliers had let opportunities slip right through their hands, both literally and figuratively. That was not the case Saturday.
Virginia (2-4, 1-1 ACC) dealt Syracuse (3-3, 1-1 ACC) its third consecutive loss in a 44-38 triple overtime thriller. Down 24-21 with 6:52 remaining, the Cavaliers marched 88 yards to force overtime. And in the third period, seldom-used freshman running back Jordan Ellis punched in a three-yard touchdown as a blur of orange jerseys and helmets stormed the field in jubilation.
“[We] showed some fight, resiliency, and grit,” coach Mike London said. “You can find all of those types of words. We found a way to win a football game.”
Still, it took a while for Virginia to get going, both offensively and defensively. Despite a scoreless first quarter, Syracuse held the ball for 10:58 of the first 15 minutes as Virginia went three-and-out on its opening two possessions.
The scoring didn’t begin until early in the second quarter, when junior running back Taquan Mizzell, who had 127 all-purpose yards, fumbled. Syracuse took the football 44 yards for a touchdown to snag an early 7-0 lead.
“I knew I had to make it up for the team,” Mizzell said. “I knew I had to make plays when I had the chance.”
And Mizzell did. Virginia responded by marching 75 yards in 5:13, with Mizzell capping the drive with the first of his two touchdown runs.
Then after forcing Syracuse into a third and long, senior defensive end Mike Moore came around the end and forced a fumble. The ball squirted 10 yards down the field, but junior safety Will Wahee scooped it up and took it 32 yards into the endzone.
“I just picked it up,” Wahee said. “When I didn’t hear a whistle, I just kept going.”
But Syracuse quickly seized momentum, scoring two touchdowns within 38 seconds to take a 21-14 halftime lead and create a cry of boos from the 39,223 homecomings crowd as Virginia entered the locker room.
“I was not happy at all,” Johns said.
Syracuse gorged the Cavalier defense on its first drive of the third quarter, going 75 yards in 6:56 before settling for a 22-yard field goal to take a 10-point advantage.
But Virginia responded with a 75-yard drive of its own, and only the Cavaliers managed a touchdown. On third down, Johns found senior tight end Charlie Hopkins for a two-yard score, the first of his career, to cut the lead to 24-21 with 10:31 to play.
Johns then summoned some late-game magic. Pinned at its own four yard-line, Virginia went 88 yards down the field, including a crucial fourth-down conversion on a screen to Mizzell. Senior kicker Ian Frye drilled home a 25-yard field goal as time expired to force overtime.
“There were moments today that our offense dreamed of and we just have to build off of that,” Mizzell said.
Syracuse scored in five plays to begin overtime, and a targeting penalty on junior linebacker Zach Bradshaw forced Virginia to start its ensuing possession from the 40 instead of the 25.
But on 3rd and six, Johns found a double-covered senior wide receiver Canaan Severin in the endzone for a 36-yard touchdown. Frye’s PAT evened the game.
Virginia needed just three plays to score on its second possession. The Cavaliers picked up all 25 yards on the ground with Mizzell taking a pitch 13 yards for a touchdown.
Syracuse answered on the first play of its next possession after a 12-yard touchdown pass evened the game at 38. But Syracuse never got past 38, as back-to-back tackles for loss on its next drive forced the Orange to miss their second 48-yard field goal of the game.
Instead of simply kicking the go-ahead score, Ellis punched in a game-winning three-yard touchdown five plays later.
“We had the mentality to just punch it in rather than playing tentative,” Johns said. “Sometimes in the past, maybe our mentality has been a little tentative. We got in the huddle and I looked at [the offensive line] and I was just like, ‘Let’s punch this in.’”
Johns finished 24-for-37 for 234 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. Mizzell hauled in a career-high 10 receptions, while backfield-mate freshman Olamide Zaccheaus added 37 yards on the ground and 13 on receptions.
“It was just good to see a positive thing happen for these guys,” London said. “There are still things to correct, but at the same time, this is something we haven’t done in a long while. To see that type of effort culminate into a win like this, it’s something good for the kids and the program.”
Virginia will travel to Chapel Hill Saturday to face North Carolina in the South’s Oldest Rivalry. Kickoff is scheduled for 3:30 p.m.
Read this article translated into Mandarin here.