Virginia football took down No. 15 North Carolina 44-41 in a thriller Saturday night, winning the South’s Oldest Rivalry for the fourth straight year. The Cavaliers (2-4, 2-4 ACC) were energized by four total touchdowns from sophomore quarterback Brennan Armstrong while the Tar Heels (4-2, 4-2 ACC) were buoyed by sophomore quarterback Sam Howell’s 443 passing yards. Defensively, senior linebacker Charles Snowden was exceptional, posting four sacks after a lackluster start to the season.
“[The win] means the world,” Snowden said. “In Scott Stadium, the way we won, the resilience it took on all … four sides of the ball, I’ll never forget it.”
The Tar Heels started quick, taking just 1:25 to score a touchdown against a limping Virginia secondary missing four key players. On the fourth play of the drive, Howell hit junior wide receiver Dyami Brown on a 54-yard pass to put the Tar Heels up early and continue the trend of slow starts for the Cavalier defense.
However, the Virginia offense responded with authority, as Armstrong engineered a 10-play, 75-yard drive capped by an Armstrong 23-yard touchdown run. Just two of the Cavaliers’ 10 plays were pass plays, as Virginia looked to get Armstrong, junior quarterback Keytaon Thompson and junior tailback Wayne Taulapapa in rhythm on the ground. Senior kicker Brian Delaney would miss the extra point to keep the Cavaliers behind, 7-6.
The Virginia defense came alive during the Tar Heels’ following drive, sacking Howell twice after initially allowing North Carolina senior running back Michael Carter to break off on a 38-yard run. While Tar Heel graduate student kicker Grayson Atkins subsequently drilled a 51-yard field goal, the Cavalier defense showed life after looking helpless in North Carolina’s first drive.
During Virginia’s next offensive possession, the Cavaliers continued the momentum. On just the second play of the drive, Armstrong found graduate running back Shane Simpson on a swing route and Simpson took the pass 71 yards for his first touchdown as a Cavalier, giving Virginia its first lead since its season opener against Duke.
As North Carolina looked to respond as the first quarter winded down, the Cavalier defense seemed to have stopped the Tar Heels in their tracks, forcing a third-and-long, but a questionable pass interference call allowed North Carolina to continue their drive. The Tar Heels took advantage of the call, marching down the field to set up a 30-yard field goal for Atkins, tying the game at 13 points a piece.
On Virginia’s ensuing drive, the Cavaliers got the run game going once again via a 9-yard rush from Taulapapa, but Armstrong made a poor decision on the read option and was blown up in the backfield, forcing the first punt of the night from either team. The North Carolina offense subsequently took advantage of the stalled drive, as Howell connected with redshirt freshman wide receiver Khafre Brown, who dusted the Virginia defense for 76 yards and secured a touchdown to put the Tar Heels up 20-13 with 10:42 left in the second quarter.
Feeling the pressure to keep pace with a dynamic North Carolina offense, the Cavaliers used a deft mix of pass and run to keep the Tar Heel defense on its heels. Benefiting from an unsportsmanlike conduct call on North Carolina junior defensive back Trey Morrison, Virginia drove down the field, ending a 75-yard drive with an 18-yard touchdown pass from Armstrong to graudate wide receiver Ra’Shaun Henry, tying the game up at 20-20.
On their next offensive possession, the Tar Heels sputtered en route to a 52-yard field goal attempt by Atkins, which had the distance but went wide right. While the Cavaliers failed to capitalize on their solid field position, the ensuing punt from senior punter Nash Griffin was fumbled by North Carolina junior wide receiver Rontavious Groves and recovered by Virginia sophomore long snapper Tucker Finkelston.
Looking to jump on the No. 15 team in the country, it took the Cavaliers just three plays to find the endzone, as Thompson wrapped up a 20-yard drive with a 1-yard scamper into the endzone with 1:14 to play in the first half. Not looking to be outdone, Howell connected on a set of 36-yard and 29-yard passes to Brown and senior wide receiver Dazz Newsome, respectively, to get the Tar Heels within striking distance. Nonetheless, a fumble in the backfield three plays later would halt the threat and send the Cavaliers into the locker room up 27-20.
The offensive shootout continued in the second half, as Virginia immediately picked up where it left off. Energized by a 16-yard rushing effort by Armstrong and a pass interference call in the endzone, the Cavaliers marched down the field and picked apart the Tar Heel defense. The drive concluded with a two-yard rushing touchdown by Taulapapa, catapulting the Cavaliers to a 34-20 lead over their southern neighbors.
North Carolina had a more lethargic approach to the second half, as Howell fumbled on the Tar Heels’ fourth play of their first drive as he was sacked. Virginia pounced on the opportunity to extend its lead, as Armstrong connected with senior tight end Tony Poljan on a pinpoint 17-yard touchdown pass to make the score 41-20.
“We’ve got to take that challenge of when we have a turnover down in our part of the field, we’ve got to step up and do a better job,” North Carolina Coach Mack Brown said.
However, the Tar Heels refused to go down with a fight. On the ensuing drive, North Carolina drove 75 yards across 11 plays — including an 18-yard connection between Howell and Brown — to cut the Cavalier lead to 14. The Tar Heel defense would then do their part to contribute, as junior linebacker Jeremiah Gemmel intercepted Armstrong in Virginia territory.
North Carolina then capitalized on the Cavalier turnover, as Howell engineered a 48-yard drive supported by a 30-yard pass to Newsome on 3rd and 8 and a 13-yard touchdown pass to Brown, cutting Virginia’s lead to 41-34. Nevertheless, the Cavaliers responded with a time-draining 15-play drive that sucked 9:02 from the clock. Virginia battered the Tar Heel defense, calling 12 rushing plays en route to a 35-yard field goal by Delaney.
“We are very proud of [that drive],” Simpson said. “We sucked the life out of the defense and made sure that they didn’t want to play [anymore].”
North Carolina responded once again, using a passing game that was dominant all night to pick apart a porous Cavalier secondary. Howell connected with Brown twice for 19 and 47 yards and Williams once again found the endzone, narrowing the score to 44-41.
The Tar Heel defense then put the pressure on the Virginia offense, forcing a fourth and 4 and what appeared to be a punt. However, the ball was snapped to Thompson instead of Griffin, and Thompson took the ball five yards for the first down, sealing the upset victory.
“If you don’t get that, they’re in great field position and that’s a game-winner and probably a game-loser,” Virginia Coach Bronco Mendenhall said. “I’ve seen it work in practice, and I trust [Thompson] who was doing it in.”
Beyond the stellar performances of Armstrong and Snowden, Virginia had numerous other players contribute. Simpson was outstanding, accumulating 70 rushing yards and 71 receiving yards along with a receiving touchdown. Beyond the fake punt, Thompson made key plays all night, using his speed and elusiveness to confuse an athletic North Carolina defense.
“So, so proud of my team and I watch them every single day work and believe,” Mendenhall said. “I’m so happy that they got a chance to have something tangible that comes out of all the work they put in and how fitting that it took every phase every way possible to scratch out a victory, I couldn’t be more pleased.”
Virginia welcomes a struggling Louisville squad to Charlottesville Saturday. The clash is set to kick off at 8 p.m. and will be broadcast on the ACC Network.