Virginia opened ACC play at home Friday night, taking on NC State in a primetime matchup. The Cavaliers (0-4, 0-1 ACC) needed to change the direction of their season after three tough losses. The Wolfpack (3-1, 1-0 ACC) were coming off a commanding 45-7 win against the Virginia Military Institute and were hoping to continue that momentum into conference play. Unfortunately, Virginia continued its disappointing start to the season with a 24-21 loss.
As the NC State offense walked onto the field for the opening drive of the game, a familiar face was met with boos from the home fans. Senior quarterback Brennan Armstrong, the all-time Virginia passing leader, was not wearing orange and blue for the first time in Scott Stadium. After a pair of first downs, the Cavalier defense picked up a huge third down stop as Armstrong underthrew his target.
Virginia’s first opportunity of the game had all the makings of a successful scoring drive, but they were held back by preventable mistakes. The passing game looked strong in the opening drive as freshman quarterback Anthony Colandrea executed a trick play and found senior tight end Sackett Wood Jr. for a gain of 28, his first reception of the season. However, a pair of false starts kept the Cavaliers from threatening the endzone.
After a three-and-out by the Wolfpack, the Virginia offense was moving efficiently yet again, and quickly made its way to the middle of the field following a 16-yard reception by graduate student receiver Malik Washington. However, the NC State defensive front held strong and forced a short fourth and one. Coach Tony Elliott decided to go for it and called a shotgun run. Graduate student running back Mike Hollins was unable to pick up the yard, forcing a turnover on downs.
The Wolfpack made the most of the good field position as Armstrong confused the Cavalier defensive backs, completing three consecutive passes to bring NC State to the 12-yard line. He then found freshman wide receiver Kevin Concepcion in the back left corner of the end zone to give the Wolfpack the early lead.
Virginia, however, responded in a big way. On the third play of the drive, Colandrea dropped back and found Washington sprinting down the right side of the field for a huge gain of 42 yards.
After getting within the 10-yard line, Colandrea was met with strong pressure from the NC State defensive front, but kept the play alive by scrambling to the right. This allowed him to find Washington again, who had escaped his defender and was wide open for the easy touchdown. Midway through the second quarter, the game was tied 7-7.
The Wolfpack were yet again making their way down the field and it looked as if they might score again, however, junior cornerback Micah Gaffney had other thoughts. As Armstrong dropped back for a pass, he tried to get the ball to his receiver on the right side of the field. Instead, the ball landed in the hands of Gaffney for his first career interception and Virginia’s first defensive takeaway since Oct. 29 of last year.
Unfortunately, the Cavalier offense could not muster up much and NC State found themselves back on the field. It seemed as though Virginia would maintain the momentum, forcing a third and 14 deep into Wolfpack territory. But Armstrong found Concepcion for a pickup of 30 yards. NC State kept pushing and with just under 30 seconds left in the half, junior running back Delbert Mimms III pushed his way into the end zone to give the Wolfpack the 14-7 lead entering halftime.
Although their first drive of the second half didn’t amount to anything, the Cavalier defense held strong and junior linebacker James Jackson got to Armstrong for Virginia’s second sack of the night, forcing a three-and-out.
This set the Cavaliers up with good field position and on the first play of the drive, Elliott called a screenplay for Colandrea’s favorite target. Washington caught the ball, broke a tackle, and proceeded to run 59 yards to the four-yard line. This put Washington in the triple digits for receiving yards for the third straight game, only the third Virginia wide receiver to achieve that feat. Unfortunately, the Cavaliers could not punch the ball into the endzone and settled for a field goal, tightening the lead to 14-10.
The Virginia offense continued to push down the field but once again struggled to finish. On their next drive, they managed to get the ball into the red zone, but could not pick up the first down on another third-and-one attempt. To the dismay of the Cavalier fans, Elliott, once again, settled for the field goal. Virginia had narrowed the lead to just one point.
Unfortunately, this would last just two and a half minutes as Armstrong returned to the field and swiftly found Concepcion for another touchdown, this one for 48 yards.
The fourth quarter struggles continued for Colandrea. With just over nine minutes remaining, and the Cavaliers still very much in the game, he sailed the ball downfield and after a deflection, sophomore safety Sean Brown dove to complete a spectacular interception.
Colandrea got the ball back again after the defense held strong. After pushing the ball down the field quickly, Colandrea threw yet another interception.
Fortunately, the defense did its job yet again and Collandrea and the rest of the Virginia offense had one more opportunity to tie the game. This time, Colandrea did not disappoint.
After quickly pushing the ball down the field, the Cavaliers were in the red zone with just over a minute left. After converting a fourth down, Colandrea found the man of the night, Washington, for another touchdown. Their job was not over, however, as they needed a two-point conversion to tie the game, and to make it even more difficult, junior center Ty Furnish was called for unsportsmanlike conduct, making the conversion attempt 15 yards longer.
That did not matter for Colandrea, however, as he still managed to connect with junior wide receiver Malachi Fields for the conversion, tying the game with 36 seconds on the clock. However, Colandrea had taken his helmet off on the play and was thus penalized with another Virginia unsportsmanlike conduct call, giving NC State good field position with under a minute to play. The Wolfpack managed to march down to the Cavalier 30-yard line, setting up a field goal for graduate student kicker Brayden Narveson to try and win the game.
As the ball was snapped, Jackson leaped over the offensive line and got his hands on the ball to block the field goal. As the Virginia fans cheered, the yellow flag landed on the ground. Jackson was called for a leaping penalty, which gave NC State another chance, from 15 yards closer. This time, Narveson had little trouble in getting the ball through the uprights and the Wolfpack won the game.
“In the final moments of the game, that’s when we got to be at our sharpest,” Elliott said, “and we just didn’t have the discipline down the stretch to win the football game.”
Once again the Cavaliers had a real opportunity to win a game but were hurt by preventable mistakes. With the defense playing as well as it did, Virginia cannot afford to pick up unsportsmanlike conduct penalties on back-to-back plays with the game on the line. If the Cavaliers are to turn their season around, they will need to clean up the little things.
Virginia hits the road next Saturday at 2 p.m. against Boston College — you can catch the game on the CW Network.