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Virginia football suffers second straight loss, falling to Wake Forest 37-17

The Cavaliers fell behind early and never found their footing as they remain winless in ACC play

Virginia football lost to Wake Forest 37-17 under the Friday night lights in front of a crowd of nearly 40,000 at Scott Stadium. The Cavaliers’ (2-2, 0-2 ACC) defensive struggles continued, and the offense failed to capitalize on early opportunities, as the Demon Deacons (4-0, 2-0 ACC) pulled off a strong road win in Charlottesville, which has become a difficult place to play for opponents.

Wake Forest executed a flawless opening drive, marching down the field in nine plays with sophomore quarterback Sam Hartman finding redshirt freshman wide receiver Taylor Morin on a wide-open 39-yard touchdown strike to put the Demon Deacons up a score early. After being shredded by North Carolina’s high-octane offense a week prior, the opening sequence was certainly not a welcome sight for Virginia fans.

The Cavaliers answered by driving all the way down the field inside the Wake Forest 10-yard line. However, Virginia could not capitalize — even with the benefit of a defensive holding call close to the endzone — and turned the ball over on downs. The first two series displayed a striking resemblance to last week’s contest against the Tar Heels with the Cavaliers being able to move the ball with ease yet not putting points on the scoreboard.

After the Demon Deacons added a field goal courtesy of junior kicker Nick Sciba, Virginia once again drove to inside the Wake Forest 10-yard line, but once again, the Cavaliers stalled out and could not find the endzone. Virginia entered the score column though with a short field goal from sophomore kicker Justin Duenkel, trimming the deficit to 10-3 with 12:07 left in the second quarter.

The Cavaliers could not find the answer on defense as the Demon Deacons drove 75 yards in just under three minutes to tack on another seven points with a one-yard touchdown run from freshman running back Justice Ellison. After a quick punt from Virginia, Wake Forest added a field goal from Sciba with under two minutes to play in the half, sending the Demon Deacons into the break with a 20-3 advantage.

While junior quarterback Brennan Armstrong put together a solid half passing for the Cavaliers, it was the running game where Virginia fell behind. Through 30 minutes of action Wake Forest racked up 156 rushing yards while Virginia had negative one yards on the ground. The Demon Deacons were simply having their way in the trenches.

Furthermore, Wake Forest allowed little breathing room for Armstrong in the backfield, sacking him four times in the first half and forcing him to move out of the pocket on many occasions. Through three full games, the Cavaliers had only given up six sacks, so it was clear that the Demon Deacons were presenting a much stronger challenge than Virginia has faced so far this season.

The Cavaliers received the ball to open the second half and got just what they needed. Highlighted by a 31-yard run from Armstrong and 17-yard touchdown pass to graduate student tight end Jelani Woods, Virginia reached the endzone for the first time in the game.

From there, the scoring picked up, and the Cavaliers continued to struggle on the defensive end. Despite Armstong connecting with sophomore wide receiver Dontayvion Wicks for a 22-yard touchdown later in the third quarter, Virginia entered the final quarter with the same 17-point deficit with which they came out of the half. Wake Forest sliced through the Cavaliers’ defense with ease, as each drive seemed to have an almost inevitable fate — a Demon Deacon touchdown.

The back-breaker came late in the third quarter when Hartman found sophomore wide receiver A.T. Perry for a 12-yard touchdown catch on third-and-goal. A stop for Virginia would have kept the game within two scores and maintained the energy that had built up in Scott Stadium. Outside of Sciba’s third field goal of the game, the fourth quarter was relatively uneventful with both offenses slowing down, bringing the final score to 37-17 in favor of Wake Forest.

“We had chances all the way through the middle of the third quarter,” Mendenhall said. “I still thought we had a great chance to possibly regain momentum and execute our way in, but we didn’t through inconsistencies.”

It marks the second game in a row that the Cavaliers have had severe struggles on defense after what was a promising start to the season. Virginia has given up 96 points over the last two games, and it took until the fourth quarter against the Demon Deacons for the Cavaliers to force their first punt against an ACC foe. Aside from the point totals, North Carolina and Wake Forest simply had their way, seemingly picking up significant chunks of yards on every play.

Virginia had several chances to make game-changing plays, but the Demon Deacons stepped up in every one of these moments. Whether it was a short yardage push for a first down or a dropped interception, the Cavaliers simply could not find the momentum.

“I actually thought we played better defense than we did last week,” Coach Mendenhall said. “But we still had mistakes at critical times … there’s key third downs, key fourth downs, things like that where you have to make those plays to get enough opportunities for your offense to score.”

While the defense may have been the primary culprit in the loss, the offense’s lack of execution early near the endzone contributed to the large deficit. In fact, Virginia held the advantage both  in total yards — 506 to 473 — and time of possession yet still lost by 20. If the Cavaliers are going to compete against ACC opponents, the offense will need to capitalize on scoring opportunities. This will become especially important in more closely contested matchups.

Virginia hopes to get both sides of the ball back on track Thursday as it travels to Miami. Kick-off against the Hurricanes is set for 7:30 p.m. and will be televised on ESPN.

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