ESPN’s College GameDay Doesn’t Know Jack…or UVa Football

Bryce Hall’s touchdown-saving tackle on the 7 yard-line is all you need to know about the Virginia football team and how they upset No. 16 Miami in Charlottesville. Miami’s Travis Homer was on his way to a 77-yard touchdown run when Bryce Hall came streaking across the field to knock Homer out of bounds at the Virginia 7. Instead of a 77-yard touchdown run, Miami settled for a 28-yard field goal. Hall kept 4 points off the board, Virginia won by 3. While not quite that simple, this play was emblematic of how and why Virginia won. 

The ESPN College GameDay crew gave Virginia no chance to win this game. They unanimously predicted Miami win and to cover the spread. It was then that I knew Virginia had a chance. 

On paper, this game isn’t close. The average rank of Miami’s last 4 recruiting classes is 17th in the nation. Virginia’s is in the upper 50’s. Miami’s coach is a proven winner and after getting drilled by LSU to open the season, Miami won a couple of blow-out scrimmages and looked to be getting their mojo after an incredible comeback win against arch-rival Florida State. Did Miami look past Virginia? Probably. Virginia football does not strike fear into the hearts of many opponents given their track record over the past 10 years, but that might be starting to change. 

Let’s not get ahead ourselves. Virginia is not a Top 25 program this year, but they play like it sometimes. They are playing like it more often as the season rolls on. Virginia football is still a work-in-progress. However, what has changed since the arrival of Bronco Mendenhall and is becoming evident this season is that Virginia does not give up. They no longer fold the tents at the first sign of rain.

Virginia is frequently out-matched by raw talent. Miami was the biggest mismatch of the season. Virginia will likely never have a cupboard as well stocked as the ‘Canes. However, in a very bright and encouraging change for Virginia football, the coaches and team are getting very good at controlling the variables they own, and for a team on the cusp of returning to respectability but with a razor-thin margin for error, those are often the differences between winning and losing. 

For instance, coming into the Miami game, UVa was one of the least penalized teams in the nation in both penalties per game and yards penalized per game. Virginia has been on the opposite end of this ranking for most of the past 10 seasons. Twice this year, Virginia has made desperation tackles, inside the 10-yard line that turned sure-fire touchdowns into benign field goals. Virginia has forced 4 turnovers on downs (5 if you count the blown call at NC State) against ACC opponents. Effort, discipline, and drive are the keys to these variables for Virginia and they were what separated Virginia from a more talented Miami team. 

Situational execution doesn’t hurt either. Virginia does not have the depth or quality of talent to impose its will on opponents throughout an entire game. However, like Muhammed Ali’s rope-a-dope, they are getting good at taking opponents best shots, keeping themselves in the game, wearing down their opponents, and then executing at critical times that give Virginia a chance to win.

Against Miami, Virginia stuffed the Canes twice on 4th down. When Virginia had been stymied all night running between the tackles, Jordan Ellis jammed a 7-yard run into the end zone for UVA’s only touchdown. Bryce Perkins, having been bottled-up and sacked much of the game, turned 2 semi-broken plays into first downs with his speed and elusiveness supported by effective downfield blocking keeping drives alive that turned into Virginia points and ate up a waning clock. Virginia couldn’t execute consistently all night. Miami was too good. However, they made plays when they needed them, kept themselves in a position to win, and did not make silly mistakes that often cost over-achieving teams a chance to win a game no one thought they could. 

Hats off to the Virginia coaching staff and team on an outstanding win against a talented opponent. The good news is UVa is 2 games away from a second bowl appearance with 6 games left to play. The never-ending challenge for Virginia is that there are no “gimmies’ on the schedule of a program like theirs. The ‘Hoos have to overachieve pretty much every weekend while the reconstruction of the program continues. This is not unlike fixing your race car while going 100 mph around a short track. It’s not easy, it is uncomfortable at times, but when it works, it sure if fun to watch. 

A few quick comments and notes:

Virginia fans may have forgotten what a 40-yard field goal looked like because The Hoos had not kicked one since 2015. That’s what struggling programs look like. 

Holding a team like Miami under 400 yards of total offense is an impressive defensive performance. Winning the game when your offense produces less than 300 yards of total offense shows that Virginia is learning how to win…like a golfer grinding out a solid round when the A-game is sitting in the locker room. There were a dozen ways Virginia could have lost this game, but they threaded the needle and found a way to win…which is probably the most likable change in the Virginia program. 

Kudos to the Virginia fans who made it to the game. However, a crowd of under 43,000 for a night game against a ranked opponent is a pathetic showing by the Virginia faithful. This team has earned better support than they are getting from their fans, especially the students.

Virginia’s defense played a fantastic game while two of its best players on the front 7 are battling injuries. Jordon Mack remains on the sidelines while Malcolm Cook is getting his first action in several weeks. Zane Zandier and Robert Snyder have been more than solid replacements, but getting additional experience and depth back on the field can’t come soon enough. 

If Virginia can pull off another upset win on the road against Duke this weekend, is it unrealistic to expect a crowd of 50,000 for the UNC game?  

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