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Virginia football falls to No. 21 North Carolina on the road 59-39

The Tar Heels gashed the Cavaliers’ defense all night, totaling nearly 700 total yards of offense

<p>Virginia junior quarterback Brennan Armstrong set a school record against North Carolina with over 550 passing yards.</p>

Virginia junior quarterback Brennan Armstrong set a school record against North Carolina with over 550 passing yards.

Virginia football took to the road Saturday night, losing in a shootout to No. 21 North Carolina 59-39. In their first significant test of the season, the Cavaliers’ (2-1, 0-1 ACC) defense simply could not stop the Tar Heels’ (2-1, 1-1 ACC) offense despite a record-setting night from Virginia junior quarterback Brennan Armstrong.

Virginia opened the game with the ball, and after a promising start to the drive with two completions from Armstrong to senior wide receiver Keytaon Thompson, the Cavaliers stalled as a result of two consecutive false starts inside the North Carolina 40-yard line. 

The Tar Heels took advantage by quickly putting points on the board courtesy of a 59-yard touchdown catch and run from sophomore wide receiver Josh Downs on a pass from junior quarterback Sam Howell. Virginia seemed to find a response after a 49-yard catch from sophomore wide receiver Dontayvion Wicks, but a turnover on a mishandled hand-off from Armstrong to Thompson once again spoiled the Cavaliers’ hopes of getting on the scoreboard. 

North Carolina continued to slice through Virginia’s defense, and in just over a minute, it found the endzone again on a diving 37-yard catch from Downs. This time, the Cavaliers answered by marching down the field and finally reaching the endzone on a one-yard run by senior running back Wayne Taulapapa.

However, Virginia proved to show little resistance on defense, as Howell found sophomore wide receiver Khafre Brown on a 75-yard touchdown strike on the drive’s first play. The Tar Heels found a stop on defense and got a short field goal from graduate student kicker Grayson Atkins to push the score to 24-7.

The Cavaliers finally turned the tide of the game as Armstrong hit senior wide receiver Billy Kemp for 32 yards before sending a beautiful 40-yard lofted pass towards Wicks, who made the diving catch in the endzone. It appeared as if North Carolina would once again put seven on the board, but sophomore cornerback Fentrell Cypress intercepted Howell in the endzone and returned the ball into Tar Heel territory. Virginia took advantage as Armstrong hit senior tight end Jelani Woods for a one-yard touchdown pass, pulling the Cavaliers within three points.

Virginia made it a full-on tear when Kemp made a spectacular 21-yard touchdown catch with only six seconds left in the half to give the Cavaliers the halftime lead. Armstrong threw for an impressive 364 yards and three touchdowns in the first half, and without a couple of slip-ups, Virginia would have had a near-perfect half of offensive football.

“[North Carolina] was on the verge of pulling away and then we went into halftime ahead,” Coach Bronco Mendenhall said of Cypress’s interception. “That was a giant play.”

The Tar Heels recaptured the momentum to open the second half, scoring touchdowns on back-to-back drives — with graduate student tight end Garrett Walston and freshman running back Caleb Hood finding the endzone — to open up a 38-28 lead. Despite the Cavaliers ending a long drive with a 34-yard field goal from sophomore kicker Justin Duenkel, Virginia simply could not stop Howell and the North Carolina offense. Graduate student running back Ty Chandler capitalized an eight-play-75-yard drive with a five-yard touchdown rush, giving the Tar Heels a 45-31 advantage.

North Carolina seemingly closed the door on a Cavalier comeback with an interception of Armstrong with 33 seconds left in the third quarter. Making use of the good field position, the Tar Heels extended the lead to 21 points with another Howell touchdown pass. Armstrong connected with Kemp for a nine-yard score with just over seven minutes remaining to cap off the game’s most time-consuming drive, but the Tar Heels answered with a long touchdown drive of their own to finish the scoring for the night, bringing the final score to 59-39.

Despite the loss, Armstrong certainly made his case for being the best quarterback in the ACC, smashing a program record with 554 passing yards. Kemp and Wicks both recorded over 100 yards receiving, and even without a significant run game, it is clear that Virginia’s offense will be able to hold their own this year and keep the team in games even when the defense is struggling.

“I don’t really think about the record,” Armstrong said of his performance. “I think about the loss.”

It was the poor defensive play that ultimately spoiled the Cavaliers’ chances of picking up a signature road win against a ranked opponent. North Carolina gashed Virginia’s defense with ease all night, amassing nearly 700 yards of total offense — 392 of which came on the ground. 

“The difference today was [North Carolina’s] offense, the physical play, the execution, the big plays from beginning to end, and our defense’s inability to stop them,” Mendenhall said.

Not including a one-play drive that concluded the first half, the Tar Heels ended all but one of their drives inside the Cavaliers’ 20-yard line. If not for Howell’s interception in the endzone, the final score may have appeared even more lopsided.

After a promising start to the season for Virginia’s defense, North Carolina exposed significant weaknesses, forcing the Cavaliers to take a hard look at potential adjustments heading into the heart of ACC action. Improved defensive play will give Virginia a legitimate shot at capturing the ACC Coastal crown, but the Cavaliers undoubtedly have work to do on that end of the ball if they are going to compete against good teams.

Virginia returns to the comfort of Scott Stadium on a short week as it prepares to face Wake Forest under the Friday night lights. Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. and the game will be televised on ESPN2.

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