CAVS KEEP ON THE ASCENT
U.Va. topples UNC, enters November as class of the Coastal
CHARLOTTESVILLE — There is no doubt who played the ACC Coastal Division’s best football in October. Virginia did, and it’s not close.
The Cavaliers punctuated their perfect month Saturday with a 31-21 victory over North Carolina at Scott Stadium, earning bowl eligibility for the second straight season — that last happened in 2004 and ’05.
Feel free to call this assessment of Virginia damning with faint praise. After all, its six division colleagues have not, uh, distinguished themselves of late.
Even Georgia Tech, which decimated Louisville and Virginia Tech this month, had a home clunker against Duke.
Conversely, the Cavaliers passed, aced even, their three October tests, besting Coastal rivals Miami and Duke before Saturday.
“I’m thrilled that the new standard is being fulfilled, third-year Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall said, “and part of that, again, is that we expect to win football games, we expect to play in the postseason. It’s not something to marvel about or wonder about.”
The Cavaliers and their fans did marvel at bowl eligibility last year, celebrating wildly after a Nov. 4 home win over Georgia Tech clinched a postseason bid. And why not? Virginia had reached one bowl in the previous eight years.
There was no such revelry Saturday.
“They think that’s normal now,” Mendenhall said. “I think
the fans, the players, I think we all collectively, are acting different because the … program has moved to a different place than it was one year ago.”
The Cavaliers (6-2 overall) seized sole possession of first place in the Coastal with a 4-1 ACC record, their best league start since 2007, when their regular-season finale against Virginia Tech was a de facto division championship game — the Hokies prevailed 33-21.
Virginia's challenge now is to extend October's excellence into November, to ride quarterback Bryce Perkins and a stingy defense to the program's first Coastal title and ACC championship game appearance.
Perkins on Saturday passed for 217 yards and three touchdowns and rushed for 112 and another score. It was his third 100-yard rushing game this season, the first in which he also threw for 200plus.
Most of what Perkins does leaps at you, in-person or on television. To wit, the slick, 19yard option run that ignited Virginia's first-possession touchdown drive, and the 27-yard scoring pass to Joe Reed later in the first quarter.
But Perkins also has a subtle side. On a first-quarter thirdand-2, he made the wrong decision on the read option, kept the ball and ran left into the defense's teeth. But he somehow found an extra gear, turned the corner and gained just enough for the first down.
Three plays later, he found Reed for the touchdown that put the Cavaliers ahead to stay.
“He can really run,” North Carolina coach Larry Fedora said, “and it makes you do some things that can open some things in the passing game. … There were times when he got out on the edge, and we have some guys that can run, and he outran them.”
Complementing Perkins were tailback Jordan Ellis (64 yards rushing) and receiver Olamide Zaccheaus (10 catches, 108 yards). Zacchaeus became Virginia's career receptions leader, his 213 bypassing Billy McMullen's 210.
Meanwhile, a defense led by safety Juan Thornhill, cornerback Bryce Hall and linebackers Chris Peace and Charles Snowden limited the Tar Heels (1-6, 1-4) to 66 yards rushing. Before Saturday, their season-low was 161.
With linebacker Jordan Mack expected to return next week after missing four games with a shoulder injury, the defense should further elevate.
“I think we have one of the best defenses in the nation,” Thornhill said. “We're playing great right now. You can't take that away from us.”
The Cavaliers started last year 5-1, but few took them seriously. Sure enough, they lost six of their last seven.
Now, as the regular season's defining month beckons, they rate as the division favorite.
Remaining ACC games versus Pittsburgh, Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech, the latter two on the road, will push them as no other contests have, especially with the unfamiliar burdens of first place and expectations. But they embrace the challenge.
“We all say we want the throne,” Snowden said.
“You can feel it in the locker room,” Perkins said. “We're not satisfied. … We want the Coastal and we're not going to be satisfied until we get that. … We have a different type of swagger.”
Mendenhall welcomes such talk.
“I don't believe in setting limits,” he said. “I believe most of us accept limits from outsiders. I don't think any of us ever know what a human being, or person, is truly capable of, so I ask for everything. and that's what our players want. … For this season, why take anything off the table?”