Tim Smith raced across the back of the end zone, appealing to the few fans on the hillside. The rest of the sparse Scott Stadium crowd cheered loudly as it appeared the home team had finally gained that desperate burst of momentum in this swing game on Virginia’s schedule.
David Watford had just completed the most perfect pass of his career, a 79-yard in-stride bomb to Smith, who raced untouched for a touchdown.
For UVa, it was a great moment.
And then it was a fitting moment.
Back near the line of scrimmage sat a flag. Ineligible receiver downfield on the Cavaliers. Loss of five yards.
The Watford-to-Smith connection officially never happened.
Eventually, a win never happened.
Virginia fell to 2-3 on the season with a crushing 48-27 loss to Ball State before 38,228 frustrated spectators on Saturday afternoon.
There were turnovers, defensive breakdowns and penalties — plenty of penalties.
Added together, UVa is reeling heading into ACC play and a trip to Maryland next week.
“Obviously, today we didn’t play well,” Virginia coach Mike London said. “It was embarrassing to have that happen here at home.”
Entering Saturday, this matchup had the feel of UVa’s late September 2012 game with Louisiana Tech.
There was a formidable non-conference opponent in Charlottesville — the MAC’s Ball State was 4-1 like the WAC’s Louisiana Tech was 3-0 — and there was a Virginia team in need of a breakout performance before league action kicked in.
Last September, the Cavs lost to the Bulldogs, 44-38, after holding an early 24-10 lead. Virginia committed 16 penalties for 145 yards and committed three turnovers.
Saturday, the Wahoos lost to the Cardinals, 48-27, after holding an early 17-7 lead. UVa committed 13 penalties for 93 yards and committed four turnovers.
At the 14:41 mark of the second quarter, Watford completed a highlight-reel touchdown run of 27 yards with a flying reach for the pylon. It gave the Wahoos their 17-7 advantage as well as hope for an encouraging final result.
But then the Virginia defense, a unit that had a dominant effort wasted in last week’s 14-3 loss at Pitt, began its surprising breakdown.
The Cardinals, behind the explosive pitch-and-catch ability of quarterback Keith Wenning and receiver Willie Snead combined with the tough running of back Jahwan Edwards, scored on two of three second quarter possessions to make it 17-all at halftime.
Ball State had 256 yards at the break. Against Pitt, UVa allowed all of 199 for the entire game.
The Cardinals finished with 506 yards.
“Just bouncing back from big plays,” Virginia defensive tackle Brent Urban said of the differences in consecutive performances. “When Pitt would score a touchdown on us, we kind of really didn’t care. We just put our chinstrap on and just fought.
“This game, they were just able to keep hitting us with play after play. We weren’t able to really anchor down and stop them.”
The third quarter proved to all but write the ending for the Cavaliers.
After stopping the Cardinals on their first second half possession, UVa took over at its own 12. On a second-and-15 from the 7, Kevin Parks ran up the middle for 32 yards only to lose the football and have Ball State’s Dae’Shaun Hurley recover at the 39.
Six plays later, Wenning pushed in from 1-yard out to give the Cardinals a 24-17 lead.
Virginia responded with an 11-play, 85-yard drive that ended in a Parks 2-yard touchdown, but that would be the last time they’d even have a share of the lead.
Watford threw an interception on UVa’s next possession, which led to an Edwards 32-yard scoring run. Jake McGee fumbled on the following Wahoo possession, which led to a Scot Secor 45-yard field goal.
With 14:52 to go in the fourth quarter, the Cavaliers trailed, 34-24.
Ball State scored 17 points off Virginia turnovers.
“That kind of stuff gets you beat,” Watford said. “We can’t have that kind of stuff if we want to win games, especially against a Ball State team like that, that can put points on the board whenever they want.”
The Watford-to-Smith touchdown that wasn’t started Virginia’s first possession of the fourth quarter.
“It was a tough one,” said Watford, who completed 21 of 36 passes for 209 yards and ran for 47 yards. “We really needed that at that point to just get us back in the game and get the energy up, get the crowd involved.
“It was a tough one to have called back.”
UVa would go on to score during that drive, but it was a 38-yard field goal from Alec Vozenilek. That made it a one-possession game, but the gap quickly widened on the second play of Ball State’s next drive when Wenning hit Jordan Williams for a 72-yard touchdown down the right sideline, leaving Maurice Canady in the dust.
“It was disappointing,” London said. “It was an explosive play. It led to points. But if that does happen, you have to turn around, you have to be resilient.
“You’ve got to bounce back from that and we didn’t do a very good job of bouncing back today.”
For good measure, the Cardinals scored once more — an Edwards 17-yard run with 5:15 to play.
Edwards finished with 155 yards on 24 carries. Wenning became Ball State’s all-time leader in passing yards with a 23-of-41, 346-yard performance. Snead made six grabs for 104 yards.
Virginia had a 100-yard rusher in Parks — 16 carries, 104 yards — but it also had a tough-to-swallow loss.
“They outplayed us in every aspect and deserved to win,” London said.