Virginia hosted No. 17 North Carolina at Scott Stadium Saturday afternoon for the 127th edition of The South’s Oldest Rivalry. Despite playing one of their most complete games so far under first-year Coach Tony Elliott, the Cavaliers (3-6, 1-5 ACC) couldn’t quite manage to topple the surging Tar Heels (8-1, 6-0 ACC), falling 31-28.
Senior quarterback Brennan Armstrong had a great day, contributing 296 total yards and two rushing touchdowns despite being down each of his top three receivers — junior wide receivers Lavel Davis and Dontayvion Wicks and graduate student wide receiver Keytaon Thompson. However, freshman Tar Heel quarterback Drake Maye and his top target, junior receiver Josh Downs, eventually broke a stout Virginia defense, coming back from a halftime deficit to score 21 points.
Virginia’s first drive of the game was as clinical as they come. Armstrong leaned on quick passing and his legs to drive the Cavaliers all the way to the North Carolina four yard line, before he followed his blockers in for an easy touchdown and a 7-0 lead less than five minutes into the contest.
The ACC’s best offense started just as effectively, with Maye finding his tight ends consistently before running the ball inside the Virginia 10 yard line. However, they stalled there, as a false start and a sack from senior linebacker Nick Jackson forced a Tar Heel field goal and a score of 7-3.
Virginia has struggled with turnovers all year, and that reared its head on the next drive. Armstrong drove the Cavaliers to the edge of field goal range, then had a pass tipped twice and picked by junior defensive back Storm Duck.
The Cavaliers pounded the rock on their next drive, with Armstrong either keeping or handing the ball to senior running back Ronnie Walker. Virginia rode the effective run game to the North Carolina 35 yard line, but the offense stalled there and Armstrong pooch punted for a touchback on fourth down.
The Tar Heel offense seemed to wake up on its first drive of the second quarter, as sophomore running back Elijah Green assisted Maye in moving the ball. North Carolina found the endzone with Maye scampering around the line-of-scrimmage and reversing the whole field, before walking into the endzone untouched for a six-yard score. The touchdown gave the Tar Heels their first lead of the game at 10-7 with less than seven minutes left in the half
The Cavaliers took the ball back and continued to run, with Armstrong picking up a pair of first downs on scything runs. North Carolina nearly reeled in their second tipped interception of the half, but the ball scraped the turf and the catch was waved off. The Cavaliers recovered nicely, and freshman running back Xavier Brown capped off a 13-play, 75-yard drive with a three-yard touchdown plunge to move Virginia ahead 14-10 with 2:04 left in the opening half.
The Virginia defense held to close the half, but the Tar Heels started the second half with the ball and Maye set to work quickly. A few beautiful passes and daring runs later, he had North Carolina sitting at the Virginia three-yard line, where Green punched it in.
Virginia did everything in its power to respond, and on a fourth down inside Tar Heel territory, Walker pushed the pile forward to pick up first down. On the next set of downs, freshman wide receiver Sean Wilson had to stretch to convert a third and long, setting up a junior tight end Sackett Wood catch-and-run to the goal line and a Walker score with under eight minutes left in the third quarter.
North Carolina took over with the Cavaliers back on top 21-17. Maye continued to power the Tar Heel offense, pulling the ball down and scrambling for positive yards on the rare occasions he didn’t connect on a pass. The freshman delivered a touchdown pass to Downs in the corner to reinstate the North Carolina lead.
Virginia punted after three straight passes bounced off Cavalier hands. Maye finally seemed to have figured out the opposing defense and shredded the defense up the field, converting a fourth down before Green took a swing pass for a score, putting the Tar Heels up 10 points with 14 minutes to play.
Following a string of punts and a failed North Carolina fourth down conversion, the Cavaliers put together a one-minute, 75-yard touchdown drive as the clock ticked down. Highlighting the possession was an Armstrong throw to junior receiver Demick Starling down the sideline for 40 yards followed by Armstrong’s second rushing touchdown of the afternoon.
With just over three minutes to play, Virginia attempted an onside kick, but failed to recover. Carolina only needed one first down to ice the game with the Cavaliers out of timeouts. Maye found Downs for his 15th catch of the day to move the chains. The Tar Heels kneeled out the clock to end the game, but not without excitement — Virginia refused to go down quietly and committed a couple personal fouls as tensions flared.
“Obviously, they scored more than we wanted them to score,” graduate student defensive end Paul Akere said. “But, that’s how it goes in the game. We didn’t play well enough, and have a few plays to clean up. Overall, we fought hard when it was time to fight, and we got some good timed stops and a lot of momentum to build on.”
Despite a difficult day on the defensive side, the Cavalier offense showed signs of promise despite missing several key pieces.
“When we’re missing our three biggest playmakers, we know we’ve got to come together as a group and really work to score,” Wood said postgame. “We haven’t been doing that well in the past. So, it was good to see that today by this group. Once we get those guys back, we’ll be able to get better.”
The Cavaliers will look to rebound when they play their third straight home game Saturday against Pitt (5-4, 2-3 ACC). The game will kickoff at noon and be broadcast on ACC Network.