Before Virginia’s defense went onto the field for the final series of Saturday night’s home game against Florida State, cornerback Bryce Hall had a message for his teammates.
“I was telling my brothers ‘This is what we came here for. This is why we play this game,’” Hall said.
History repeated itself Saturday night at Scott Stadium.
In much the same way as Warrick Dunn in 1995 and in almost as dramatic a fashion, Florida State running back Cam Akers took a direct snap as time expired and tried to get around the right side of the line for a game-tying touchdown, but he was met at the four yard line by Hall and De’Vante Cross.
Whether it was Dunn fighting for the goal line or Akers struggling to simply find space, both stands by the defense had similar results. Waves of fans flowed off the hill, nearly filling the field in a matter of minutes.
“I think they’ve worked really hard and have earned the chance to have that kind of support, so it was gratifying to see and feel it and to recognize it,” Virginia head coach Bronco Mendenhall said. “It had an impact on the game. It helped us win. I’m appreciative of that.”
Hall called the scene on the field after the game crazy and chaotic. When the clock hit zero and the hill began to empty, Virginia co-defensive coordinator Nick Howell sprinted onto the field headset in hand, while some of his players ran for cover.
“I was trying to run at Coach Howell, and the next thing I know I look to the hill and people are running at me,” said cornerback Nick Grant, who also watched the fans rush the field after last season’s win over Miami and two years ago when Virginia beat Georgia Tech to become bowl eligible for the first time since 2011. Although he admits there weren’t many fans at that game. “I mean it was pretty nice, but it was nicer to get the win.”
The final play on Saturday, perhaps even more so than the win, will be remembered in Charlottesville for many years to come. But it was preceded by what — at least for that night — may have been a defensive series that was just as monumental.
With a little more than six minutes to play, Wayne Taulapapa dove into the end zone for the second of his three rushing touchdowns. The simple power play should have led to a tied game, but kicker Brian Delaney — who, at that point, was 11-for-11 on extra points this season — missed, leaving the Cavaliers a point shy of at least forcing overtime.
“Brian will make those every day in practice,” safety Joey Blount said. “That was just how the game was supposed to play out, for the defense to come in, make a stop and get the ball back to the offense.”
With the momentum waning in what could be Virginia’s fourth all-time win over Florida State, the defense went out onto the field with a mission.
“After Delaney’s touchback [on the ensuing kickoff], I ran onto the field and was like ‘We got you,’” Grant said. “No matter what, we were going to get a stop. It was our turn to make a play. We didn’t have a choice.”
The Seminoles went three and out and Virginia’s offense proceeded to march down the field on a six-play scoring drive, which put the Wahoos ahead for good.
“Our team was given the task that it had to play harder and longer than this particular team,” Mendenhall said. “Our culture is built for that and our players are built to do that, and to see them actually accomplish exactly that is extremely gratifying.”
The missed extra point left many scarred Virginia fans thinking that would be the most UVa way ever to lose a game with so much significance. But the fact that the defense stood tall in the face of pressure that would have overwhelmed many of the Virginia teams of the last decade just added to it.
Blount echoed Mendenhall’s sentiments about it coming down to culture.
“I feel like that game was their culture versus our culture, and we talked about that all week,” Blount said. “We have a culture of discipline and working hard when it’s hard to work, and our discipline showed and our culture showed.”
Virginia is 3-0 to open the season for the first time since 2005.