Kurt Benkert and Smoke Mizzell paused briefly to look at each other, the Virginia quarterback as puzzled as his running back.
If Saturday’s 35-14 loss to North Carolina at Scott Stadium needed a defining image, this was a prime candidate. The Cavaliers once had the feel of a promising offense in 2016. Now, after a couple sputtering efforts in a row, Robert Anae’s unit has regressed.
“Another week where our offense has faced a really good defense,” Anae said. “This challenge was steeper, bigger for us.”
Stemming from a lifeless second half in last week’s 45-31 loss to Pitt, the Wahoos had a chance to get right against the Tar Heels.
UNC came to Charlottesville with a No. 22 national ranking mostly because of quarterback Mitch Trubisky, receiver Ryan Switzer and an explosive offense. Its defense, however, had its flaws. It was giving up 216 rushing yards a game. The Cavs finished with 110. It was allowing 29 points a game. The Cavs managed just two touchdowns. It was allowing a 38 percent conversion rate on third down. The Cavs went 3 for 19.
“Third down was one of the telling stories of the game today,” said UVa head coach Bronco Mendenhall.
Benkert was replaced by Connor Brewer after three quarters as UVa fell to 2-5 and 1-2 in the ACC. Benkert, who starred in consecutive wins over Central Michigan and Duke, finished 19 of 32 for 126 yards. He lost a fumble while trying an exchange with Mizzell late in the third quarter, the reason for confused glances at one another.
“That’s on me,” Benkert said. “Smoke had nothing to do with it.”
Said Mizzell, “It is a run-pass [option] where you can throw it, and I think he decided he wanted to throw it from the jump, but in the last minute he wanted to hurry up, get it in there. So it was just a mistake.”
The turnover led to a UNC score and 28-7 Tar Heel lead.
Brewer, Benkert’s backup, was the QB for the final four Virginia possessions, including a 53-yard march that ended with a short Mizzell TD run.
Brewer completed 2 of 12 passes for six yards.
“We made the call together, Bronco and myself,” Anae said, “that Kurt was not on point, he was not right. The fit was not going good, so that’s why we made the change. I am not interested in making a quarterback change [in the future]. We’re going to sit down and be methodical about it and go through the week.”
Carolina (6-2, 4-1 ACC) out-gained UVa, 488-253.
Trubisky completed 24 of 31 passes for 310 yards and three scores. Tar Heel running back Elijah Hood went for 107 yards and a TD.
“We had trouble stopping the stretch play,” said linebacker Micah Kiser, nodding to Hood’s success. “That was a really big play for them. I think Hood probably had 100 yards just on the stretch play alone.”
UNC never trailed and was only tied once, when Matt Johns, last season’s starting QB, threw an 11-yard touchdown pass to Evan Butts on a fake field goal. That made it 7-7 with 5:27 to go in the second quarter.
It was all Heels from there.
“I am proud of the way our guys played,” said UNC head coach Larry Fedora. “I think we played with a lot of energy and excitement throughout the entire game.”
Since halftime of the Pitt game, UVa has only managed 17 points and 361 yards over 115 plays. Benkert hasn’t been nearly as effective since tossing a pick-6 at the end of last week’s second quarter.
“I can’t speak in terms of a lingering effect,” Mendenhall said. “But simply there has been an effect by playing better football teams. Between now and moving toward Pitt and moving toward North Carolina and getting to ACC play, we are getting a clearer idea of where we are, and each player is and Kurt is really visible.
“I think the combination maybe of the second half a week ago and then some of the pressure he was getting early, I can’t speak for him, but it looks like he isn’t quite as confident and poised, but that by no means rejected or dejected, it just simply means it’s time to regroup.”
The offense twice missed on big opportunities Saturday.
After a tricky Trubisky to Bug Howard 40-yard TD late that made it 14-7 UNC late in the first half, Joe Reed returned the ensuing kickoff 50 yards before stumbling to the Carolina 41. The Cavs failed to score with the ideal field position as Sam Hayward was wide left on a 46-yard field goal try.
UNC’s opening drive of the second half ended when Micah Kiser forced and recovered a Switzer fumble at the UVa 45. The Cavaliers did little with the takeaway, gaining 12 yards before Nicholas Conte punted.
“I kind of thought that was going to be the game-changer, momentum play,” Kiser said. “ ... But it didn’t work out that way.”
UVa hosts No. 7 Louisville next week.
“We need to continue to mature, continue to grow,” Mendenhall said.