Virginia football faced a 16-0 halftime deficit Friday night in New York, but fought back valiantly to take a 20-19 lead into the final two minutes before Syracuse senior kicker Andre Smyzt kicked the game winner to pull out the victory 22-20. The Cavaliers (2-2, 0-1 ACC) nearly weathered three missed kicks from two different kickers and a poor performance from senior quarterback Brennan Armstrong, but the Orange (4-0, 2-0 ACC) proved too strong.
The game started inauspiciously for the Cavaliers, with junior kicker Brendan Farrell’s opening kickoff being returned past midfield by Syracuse sophomore return man Terbor Pena. From there, Orange junior quarterback Garrett Shrader made quick work of the Virginia defense with a pair of long completions and a 17-yard touchdown run.
The Cavalier offense looked promising on its first drive, setting up short passes to compensate for what has proven to be a weak offensive line this season. A pair of first downs and a pass interference call drawn by junior wideout Lavel Davis put Virginia in scoring position, but a false start and a third-down incompletion forced a 51-yard field goal attempt that Farrell pushed wide right.
The very next play, graduate student edge rusher Kam Butler forced a fumble that was recovered by sophomore safety Jonas Sanker, giving Virginia the ball back again in scoring position. Again, the Cavaliers stalled and Farrell missed a 49-yarder.
The Orange took back the ball and marched steadily down the field thanks to Shrader connecting with sophomore receiver Oronde Gadsden II for a few key first downs. A couple more chunk rushes by sophomore tailback Sean Tucker put Syracuse deep in the red zone, but it stalled there, settling for a field goal.
The Cavaliers immediately ceded possession, with the ball being punched out of Armstrong’s hands and straight into the orange-clad arms. Even with great field position, though, Syracuse went three-and-out and settled for another field goal.
The next few drives for both teams yielded no points, with the Cavaliers punting before Bennett intercepted Shrader. The Cavaliers wasted that chance, turning the ball over on downs after going for it on fourth down instead of trusting Farrell to make another long field goal.
Both teams traded punts again before Syracuse started a big drive with halftime approaching. A few big plays from Gadsden and Pena put the Orange in scoring range, but finally the Cavalier defense held.
Virginia’s offense came out of halftime a different beast, with Armstrong relying on senior wide receiver Keytaon Thompson and senior tight end Grant Misch for rhythm and picking up a few key first downs with his legs. Eventually, the Cavaliers ran a sweep to Thompson from inside the five and he walked into the endzone untouched to cap a ten-play, 75-yard touchdown drive. Freshman kicker Will Bettridge stepped in to make his first career extra point.
On the very next kickoff, Pena fumbled a kickoff and Virginia recovered, giving it a short field with the ball on the Syracuse 13 yard line. Armstrong dumped the ball off to Thompson for a handful, but a late hit penalty against the Orange gave the Cavaliers a first down on the four yard line. Senior running back Perris Jones cut a run back to the left and scored Virginia’s second touchdown of the young half. Bettridge’s extra point was blocked, however, leaving Syracuse’s lead atc three.
The teams once again traded three-and-outs before Syracuse managed to put together a solid drive. Senior linebacker Nick Jackson was called for targeting against Shrader, extending the drive, and Shrader converted a few key third downs before the Orange finally stalled out in the red zone. Smyzt kicked to put Syracuse 19-13 as the third quarter came to a close.
After another Virginia punt, Syracuse took over the ball before once again turning it over on another fumble recovered by Bennett. From good field position on the Orange 36-yard line, Armstrong dropped back on the first play of the drive and overthrew Misch and was intercepted.
Syracuse ran five plays then punted, and Virginia took the ball from its own 25 and leaned on Jones, who ran for 59 yards on the drive. Following three unsuccessful plays inside the Syracuse 10 yard line, Coach Tony Elliott chose to keep the offense on the field on fourth down, and a nifty playcall got the ball to Davis in the end zone to give Virginia the lead with five minutes to play.
On the ensuing drive, the Orange looked to be finished when Shrader was sacked on third down, but the play was negated for a face mask penalty. Revitalized, Tucker took over and gained 29 yards over a handful of plays. Again, Syracuse stalled inside the redzone, and Smyzt came on to convert his fifth and final field goal of the night, giving Virginia the ball back down two points with 1:14 to play.
Armstrong picked up a down with his legs right away, but two incompletions and an Armstrong scramble set up a fourth down with the game on the line. Armstrong rolled right and tried to force a pass to Davis that fell incomplete, endingc the game and leaving the Cavalier comeback short.
“We can’t continue to lose to ourselves,” Elliott said. “We got 12 penalties. We got some critical mistakes from some of our older guys.”
Virginia’s next game is on the road at Duke at 7:30 p.m. next Saturday. The game will be televised on ACC Network.