TOBIN: Football delivers on long-awaited upset moment

After many heartbreaks, the Cavaliers have finally given the fan base something to cheer for

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A big play by corner back Bryce Hall prevented Miami from scoring a touchdown in the second quarter.

Christina Anton | Cavalier Daily

Virginia football taught me the meaning of heartbreak from the onset of my collegiate career. 

On Saturday, Sept. 12, 2015 — a date forever burned into my memory — the Cavaliers came back from a 12-point deficit to lead then-No. 9 Notre Dame 27-26 with just under two minutes left in the game. The crowd of over 58,000 at Scott Stadium sensed an upset in the air, as thousands of Virginia fans yelled and gathered on the hill in anticipation of storming the field.

But the dream never became a reality. With 12 seconds remaining in the game, then-redshirt freshman quarterback DeShone Kizer tossed a 39-yard touchdown to then-junior wide receiver Will Fuller to seal the 34-27 victory for Notre Dame.

The following season — the first for current Coach Bronco Mendenhall — provided the Cavalier faithful with the worst sense of déjà vu. Against then-No. 5 Louisville on Oct. 29, 2016, the Cavaliers once again took a one-point lead over a superior opponent at home with just under two minutes left. And, just like Notre Dame had the year prior, the Cardinals marched down the field and picked up a seven-point victory — robbing Virginia of an upset bid.

Given this history, I had a difficult time remaining calm last night when Miami junior quarterback Malik Rozier ran the ball in for a touchdown to cut Virginia’s lead down to 16-13 with three minutes remaining.  Though I had predicted the upset before the game and had confidence in the team, I couldn’t help but feel nervous about the Cavaliers going three-and-out, giving Miami the ball back and losing the game. 

Yet that never happened. After the referees called a roughing the kicker penalty on the Hurricanes, it was over — Virginia had gotten the first down with around 30 seconds left, and Miami had no timeouts remaining. The fans exploded and stormed the field as I stood in the stands feeling a mix of jubilance, numbness and shock. We had finally done it.

Certainly, Virginia’s offense did not play the prettiest game. Junior quarterback Bryce Perkins only threw for 92 yards with no touchdowns and three interceptions. Virginia’s star wide receiver, senior Olamide Zaccheaus, was held to three receptions for 15 yards. In the second half, the Cavaliers scored a putrid three points. 

Whereas Virginia’s offense lacked, though, its defense delivered. Senior safety Juan Thornhill and sophomore safety Joey Blount combined for a total of three crucial interceptions. Sophomore linebacker Zane Zandier flew all over the field, leading Virginia with nine tackles. And the play of the game came from junior cornerback Bryce Hall, who chased down Miami junior running back Travis Homer amidst a 70-yard reception to prevent a touchdown and to preserve Virginia’s lead.

Virginia’s play last night has shown just how far the program has come throughout Mendenhall’s reign over the past three years. Two seasons ago, many of the Cavalier faithful, including myself, would leave the stadium early out of frustration, as nobody thought the Cavaliers could pull off any sort of comeback. The team showed some life last season — making it to a bowl game for the first time since 2011 — but even then, there were many skeptics of the team.

This season is the first in years in which Virginia has demonstrated confidence and competency. No matter how poorly the Cavaliers played against the Hurricanes, the 42,393 fans in attendance at Scott Stadium not only cheered on their team — they seemed to genuinely believe that Virginia would win.

And the team finally believes in itself, too. Following last night’s game, Thornhill discussed what the victory means for Virginia’s potential this season.

“It just woke everybody up and it shows that we have a shot to win this — to win the ACC,” Thornhill said.

Before the win against Miami, it had been over four years since Virginia last beat its last ranked opponent. A whole generation of Cavalier students has passed through Grounds since then. For current fourth-years and others who have wanted to see an upset for so long, we all finally had our moment last night.

Now, it’s time to go break some other fan bases’ hearts en route to making a Cinderella run to the ACC Championship Game.

Ben Tobin is the Managing Editor of The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at b.tobin@cavalierdaily.com or followed on Twitter @TobinBen.

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