After dropping its third straight game, Virginia football looked to regain its stride against No. 11 Miami Saturday. The Cavaliers (1-4, 1-4 ACC) hung around with the Hurricanes (5-1, 4-1 ACC) in the pouring rain, although a bevy of crucial mistakes allowed a disciplined Miami team to walk away with a victory. Prior to the game, Virginia announced that four non-starting players would be unavailable due to COVID-19 testing, isolation and quarantine.
“Miami’s a good defense,” Coach Bronco Mendenhall said. “We had our moments … it was a really tough game. Miami’s good, they played well. I thought we played well.”
Virginia’s first quarter defensive woes continued this game, allowing Miami to open the scoring just two plays and 28 seconds into the game. Senior quarterback D’Eriq King found senior wide receiver Mike Harley Jr. who beat junior linebacker Noah Taylor down the seam for a 43-yard touchdown.
However, sophomore quarterback Brennan Armstrong, who re-joined the starting unit after a concussion kept him out against Wake Forest, did not miss a beat in his return to action. The Shelby, Ohio native responded with an 11-play, 64-yard touchdown drive, finding senior tight end Tony Poljan, who miraculously toe-tapped into the endzone for a two-yard touchdown.
After a torrid offensive blitz, both defenses managed to make adjustments and slow the pace down, as the two teams exchanged punts in their following drives.
The Hurricanes looked to regain their early rhythm as they opened the second quarter. The offense generated a methodical 12-play drive, fueled by a 38-yard connection between King and junior wide receiver Mark Pope on a key third down. However, the Cavalier front seven stepped up on the next set of downs, forcing a 42-yard field goal attempt. But senior kicker Jose Borregales’s kick was blocked, and the score stayed tied at 7-7.
Virginia could not capitalize off the missed field goal though as the Hurricane defense forced a punt that senior Nash Griffin managed to pin within the Miami four-yard line. Unable to wiggle out of the disadvantaged field position, the Hurricanes quickly went three-and-out and set Virginia up with a short field.
Starting the next drive at the Miami 48, the three-headed quarterback unit of freshman Ira Armstead, junior Keytaon Thompson and Armstrong marched down to the Miami seven-yard line, before a false start penalty and junior linebacker Bradley Jennings Jr. sack moved the Cavaliers back to the 29-yard line. On the following play, Armstrong appeared to find senior wide receiver Ra’Shaun Henry in the corner of the endzone for a touchdown, before the referees called the play back because of an ineligible man downfield penalty.
“We know we had a miscue with the touchdown called back,” Armstrong said. “We just can't have those. I mean that's all on me. We got to make sure everybody's situated — I got to make sure [everyone’s] situated on those things.”
Senior kicker Brian Delaney had an opportunity to take the lead on a 36-yard field goal attempt, but he missed wide right, and the Cavaliers squandered a golden opportunity.
The Hurricanes took advantage of Virginia’s special teams error, utilizing a no-huddle offense to march 65 yards and setting up a 32-yard attempt for Borregales, which he drilled.
Virginia could not score in their following two-minute drill, going into halftime down 10-7.
The defensive showdown continued at the start of the second half, as both teams went three-and-out on their opening possessions.
“I think [the Cavalier] defense tried hard and left everything on the field,” senior outside linebacker Charles Snowden said. “I mean every guy was flying around hitting stuff, making plays. I mean there were plays obviously, one or two plays here and there, but from an effort [and] from a heart standpoint, this whole defense can walk out with their head held high”
The Hurricanes found their offensive groove via a dominant running attack in their second drive, marching 88 yards on a drive that started at their own nine-yard line. With a first-and-goal from the Virginia four-yard line, King and the offense could not crack through and were forced to settle for another Borregales field goal. Midway through the drive, senior cornerback Nick Grant had a prime opportunity to return a pick-six on a perfect bubble screen read, but the ball slipped right through his hands and ended up hitting the ground.
“Miami goes really fast,” Mendenhall said of his team’s fatigue. “I thought our chances were diminishing to make a stop.”
With a stagnant Virginia offense in desperate need of a spark, senior wide receiver Terrell Jana provided just that on the first play of the next drive, breaking two tackles on a short comeback route for a 49-yard gain that pushed Virginia into Miami territory. However, just two plays later, a failed end-around moved Virginia back eight yards and out of field goal position.
The Hurricanes continued their success on offense, completing an 80-yard touchdown drive to extend the lead to 12, but Miami missed the ensuing two-point conversion. The Cavaliers forced Miami into two long third downs on the drive, but King’s mobility allowed the Hurricanes to convert both downs en route to a touchdown.
Once again in need of an offensive score, the Cavalier offense failed to produce. With a fourth-and-3 opportunity at their own 46-yard line, Armstrong could not connect with Poljan over the middle, and the Hurricanes took over possession.
The Cavalier defense once again forced a Miami punt, and Armstrong finally broke through. Starting at their own six-yard line, Virginia needed just six plays to find the endzone with a lethal passing attack taking advantage of a mistake-prone Hurricane defense. Armstrong managed to find Henry for a 35-yard score, making the score 19-14 with 5:27 to play.
After forcing a third-and-8 with just under three minutes to go, Virginia had a chance to get the ball back to Armstrong for a potential game-winning drive. However, a controversial passing interference call on Grant gave Miami a first down and essentially sealed the game.
Armstrong and the offense got the ball back with 23 seconds to go from their 31-yard line but failed to find the endzone with limited time and no timeouts, leading Virginia to fall 19-14. Overall, the Cavalier defense was outstanding against an electric Miami offense, but the Virginia offense sputtered after a strong start and allowed Miami to stay ahead all night.
Virginia returns to Charlottesville to face No. 14 North Carolina (4-1, 4-1 ACC) in another clash against a top-15 opponent. Kick-off against the Tar Heels is set for 8 p.m. Saturday and the game will be televised on the ACC Network.