CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Playing on the road and moving the football were Virginia’s two key areas of concern heading into Saturday’s pivotal ACC clash with North Carolina.
The Cavaliers slayed both those demons in a 38-31 win over UNC on Saturday night at Kenan Stadium.
“What a wild and exciting and great football game,” Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall said.
With an anemic rushing attack, UVa effectively said, “screw it” and put its divisional title hopes on the arm of Bryce Perkins.
The redshirt senior quarterback looked like he did against Notre Dame, completing quick passes to his speedy receivers and occasionally stretching the field on deeper passes to Hasise Dubois. His 378 passing yards were one shy of his career high.
The North Carolina secondary couldn’t keep up with Virginia’s attack, and UVa’s oft-criticized offensive line held strong and gave their banged-up quarterback protection.
“We came out to ball,” Dubois said of the wide receivers. “We prepared all week saying, ‘This game’s gonna be on us.’”
Terrell Jana excelled, setting up multiple touchdowns with his 13 receptions for 146 yards. When the Cavaliers needed a play, Jana made it. He even recovered a fumble with Virginia leading 24-17 in the fourth quarter. The Cavaliers scored a touchdown one play later.
“When you go in for a fumble, it’s not like it’s all fun and games down there,” Mendenhall said. “What happens at the bottom of the fumble pile stays at the bottom of the fumble pile, and it’s not an accident Jana was the one in there. He’s tough. Fitting that he was there.”
Saturday’s game felt like a battle for Big 12 supremacy rather than an ACC Coastal Division bout as both offenses traded blows.
UNC opened the scoring with a 37-yard field goal from Noah Ruggles. The kick was set up by a 57-yard slant pass from Howell to Dyami Brown, which would become a theme for the game.
Virginia responded with a magnificent drive of its own. The Cavaliers marched 70 yards on 13 plays and used a trick play to convert a fourth-and-short to keep the drive alive.
Virginia lined up in a field goal formation at UNC’s 33-yard line before shifting to a punt formation. Backup quarterback Brennan Armstrong received a snap and tossed it to Tanner Cowley, who picked up five yards and a first down. As the team shifted to a punt formation, the majority of the team slid to the right side of the field, bringing the North Carolina defense with them.
That allowed Armstrong to hit Cowley to the left side of the field. The drive was punctuated by a one-yard rushing touchdown from Perkins to give Virginia a 7-3 lead.
UNC drove down the field on its next possession before going for it on fourth-and-short around Virginia’s 20. Beau Corrales dropped a pass on the fourth down play, and the Tar Heels turned the ball over on downs.
Virginia capitalized on the momentum switch, using a 40-yard bomb down the right sideline to Dubois to move deep into North Carolina territory. Unfortunately for the Cavaliers, the lanes tightened up and they settled for a 37-yard Brian Delaney field goal to take a 10-3 lead.
UNC countered with a 47-yard touchdown on a quick curl route to Brown. After the catch, he broke a tackle from De’Vante Cross and finished in the end zone. Brown scored again on UNC’s next drive, this time on a 34-yard post route, as North Carolina took a 17-10 lead.
After taking a punch in the mouth, Virginia moved down the field for a game-tying touchdown drive that ended with a Dubois touchdown reception with 13 seconds remaining in the first half.
Once the second half started, the game became a true shootout. The third quarter featured five combined touchdowns.
Virginia started the scoring with a 65-yard touchdown rush from Perkins. He scrambled left, made a few jukes, got outside of everyone and tight roped the sideline to give Virginia a 24-17 lead.
The Cavaliers forced a stop and Perkins found Tanner Cowley on a nine-yard touchdown pass to give UVa a 31-17 lead. On the play, Perkins faked run, drew the defense in and easily lofted it to a wide-open Cowley.
Not to be outdone by Perkins, UNC quarterback Sam Howell hit Antoine Green on a perfectly thrown 50-yard touchdown pass to engage the crowd and get the Tar Heels back into the game.
The third quarter scoring was far from over.
Virginia drove down the field and used a 39-yard reception from Cowley to set up a 6-yard touchdown catch by fellow tight end Grant Misch. The catch was the first of Misch’s career and gave UVa a 38-24 lead.
Howell found his favorite target Brown for a 42-yard touchdown to cut the deficit to 38-31 with 43 seconds remaining in the third quarter.
The Cavaliers and Tar Heels continually traded jabs, as neither team could buy a defensive stop. Eventually, UNC forced a UVa punt in the fourth quarter, and the Tar Heels drove 88 yards, but their drive stalled. A 4th-and-4 pass fell incomplete, and Virginia took over with five minutes remaining.
The Cavaliers bled the clock and forced one final stop to secure the win. Virginia pitched a fourth-quarter shutout in a shootout for the ages.
“Our defensive culture is really strong, and we’ve played so well all year,” Mendenhall said. “There’s just a lot of pride in those kids, and it was bothering them, certainly, that they were getting scored on and struggling to make stops.”
Virginia turned that frustration into improved performance over the final minutes.
“They were just like, ‘This isn’t us and we want to do something about it,’” Mendenhall said. “And that doesn’t come from coaching. It was their decision.”
The defensive improvement was enough to capitalize on an offensive masterpiece.
The Cavaliers needed the offense to step up on the road, and it did. And because of it, Virginia controls the Coastal.