Fresh off of its first win of 2023 against William and Mary, Virginia football looked to extend its winning streak to two Saturday night as it went toe-to-toe with North Carolina at Kenan Memorial Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C. In a legacy-defining game for Coach Tony Elliott, the Cavaliers (2-5, 1-2 ACC) bested the No. 10 Tar Heels (6-1, 3-1 ACC) off of a game-winning interception by junior linebacker James Jackson.
The so-called “Cardiac Cavaliers” were in a back-and-forth battle early, but consistently displayed poise and confidence against an elite conference foe. On the opening defensive drive, Virginia allowed North Carolina sophomore quarterback Drake Maye to complete just 25 percent of his passing attempts en route to an early punt.
Starting in prime field position at the 49-yard line, the Cavalier offense fought for multiple runs of 5-plus yards before senior tight end Sackett Wood Jr. pushed the offense to the Tar Heel 11-yard line with a 22-yard catch. On the ensuing play, graduate student running back Mike Hollins barreled in for his first touchdown of the evening to take a swift 7-0 lead.
On defense, Virginia struggled to keep up with junior wide receiver Devontez Walker as he tallied three catches for 32 yards and a touchdown to tie the game at 7-7. The offense then managed to march to midfield, but senior linebacker Kaimon Rucker registered three pressures for the Tar Heels and the Cavaliers offense was forced to punt.
Facing a pivotal defensive third down, junior wide receiver Nate McCollum’s 31-yard catch was overturned as he actually dropped the pass, resulting in another punt for North Carolina. Virginia would soon capitalize, as a trio of touches for sixth year running back Perris Jones combined for 18 yards and another 22-yard catch by Wood brought the offense to first-and-goal. Hollins rushed for three yards on his second touchdown of the game to take a 14-7 lead.
The Cavalier defense was able to overcome two penalties and force consecutive incompletions by Maye to get the ball back at the end of the first quarter. Virginia went three-and-out, but a booming 48-yard punt by senior punter Daniel Sparks flipped the field on the Tar Heels and pushed them back to their own 21-yard line. Maye then quickly tossed a touchdown that went for 62 yards to reload the tie at 14-14.
Both squads exchanged fruitless drives over the next six minutes of play, but senior quarterback Tony Muskett was able to bring the Cavaliers all the way down to North Carolina’s 10-yard line. However, a costly interception in the endzone delayed any chance of retaking the lead. Both teams exchanged three-and-outs before Maye led the Tar Heels into Virginia territory and capitalized on a 43-yard field goal to create a 14-17 Cavaliers deficit at halftime.
After stalling out on offense, the Virginia defense surrendered 44 rushing yards — including a 3-yard touchdown by Maye — to go down 14-24. In need of scoreboard action, Muskett led his unit down the field for yet another Hollins touchdown to cut the deficit to 21-24. Hollins is the first Cavalier running back to have three touchdowns in a single game since 2019.
Virginia then needed a crucial stop on defense to continue building momentum. On second down, senior defensive tackle Jahmeer Carter forced a massive sack to wreck North Carolina’s scoring hopes. A mediocre 16-yard punt by sophomore punter Tom Maginness helped the Cavaliers instantly get into ideal scoring position. A subsequent three-and-out did nothing to hurt the scoring drive though, as sophomore kicker Will Bettridge nailed a 45-yard field goal to tie the game at 24-24.
At the end of the third quarter, the Tar Heels picked up consecutive first downs to regain some momentum going into the final 15 minutes. Back-to-back incompletions doomed Maye once again, as North Carolina was forced to settle for a go-ahead field goal to lead 27-24. On the pivotal ensuing offensive drive, Virginia delivered.
Graduate student wide receiver Malik Washington recorded two catches for 44 yards, including a massive touchdown that retook the lead for good at 31-27. His reception streak has now grown to 32 consecutive games. The Cavaliers defense forced a three-and-out, and drew a punt interference penalty on the Tar Heels. The penalty gave Virginia a desirable field position at its 47-yard line. Elliott elected to just drain the clock and the Cavaliers punted the ball back to North Carolina with only five minutes remaining.
A clutch sack by fifth year defensive end Ben Smiley III coupled with three straight Maye incompletions — including a fourth down stop — were crucial. With the ball back, Virginia continued to pull seconds off of the game clock and left the Tar Heels with just over one minute left in the game. Maye quickly advanced to midfield, but Jackson etched his name in Cavalier history with his game-ending interception.
While some would say all wins are created equal, this triumphant victory is supremely historic. Virginia had previously never won on the road against a top-10 team. In fact, its most recent top-10 win came in a 2005 victory over No. 4 Florida State. Despite how rough Elliott’s tenure started, he is certainly turning the Cavalier program around for the better.
Three frustrating losses have come by three points or less, and many questioned the lack of discipline displayed by Elliott’s team. However, the offensive line had its best showing of the season. Muskett was only sacked two times in the game and was protected enough to complete a solid 66 percent of his passes. The offensive line also paved the way for a total of 228 rushing yards.
“Victory belongs to those who want to earn it,” Elliott said.
The victory was Virginia’s first over a Power Five program in 2023, and its first in 366 days. Its last major conference win was Oct. 20, 2022, a 16-9 triumph at Georgia Tech. The Cavaliers have been agonizingly close to winning in almost every game they have played, and have finally closed out their second win with a massive upset. Elliott’s team is clearly in high spirits as they celebrate an unprecedented win.
Up next, Virginia will have the opportunity to continue shocking the world as they travel to Miami Saturday. The game will be broadcast on ACC Network at 3:30 p.m.