Virginia needed an offensive explosion Saturday to keep up with Sam Howell and North Carolina’s high-powered attack. A depleted secondary left UVa in a tough position, but the Cavaliers won a shootout against Howell and the Tar Heels.
Bronco Mendenhall’s group fought extremely hard, gutting out a 44-41 victory to vanquish its four-game losing streak. It was a gritty performance from a team desperate for a victory.
“It’s just more fun,” Mendenhall said of winning. “Let’s just face it, it’s just more fun. I like to see our players when they work so hard have fun, and I love to see them smile, and I love to see them carry themselves in a way that they’re proud of the outcome. There have been so many really cool plays that I can celebrate with them in team meetings, but it’s not the same when the world doesn’t see them.”
Transfers made plays all over the field for Virginia in its upset over the Tar Heels.
Offensively, Keytaon Thompson carried the ball 10 times for 43 yards and a touchdown. He also converted the critical fourth-and-short on a fake punt late in the contest to clinch UVa’s win.
“He’s becoming one of the cultural examples that we can present when a player comes into our program,” Mendenhall said.
Thompson did a little bit of everything Saturday. He lined up at wide receiver, running back and quarterback and even on special teams.
He motioned under center at times, creating a surprise quarterback sneak setup. UVa used him creatively, and Thompson is clearly embracing the role.
“When you list the position, it’d be smart just to put football underneath,” Mendenhall said. “He might be setting a record for the most different positions played in a game each and every week. We’re so thankful he’s here because we need him.”
Shane Simpson, a Towson transfer, finished the game as UVa’s leading rusher and receiver. He tallied 71 yards receiving on one touchdown reception, and he added eight carries for 70 yards on the ground.
Despite only receiving nine touches, Simpson made his chances count.
“I actually have a tattoo on my hand, that says ‘patience,’” Simpson said. “Just waiting for my moment, and I have the guys around me to help me do it.”
He took advantage when his number was called.
Transfer tight end Tony Poljan also found the end zone on a reception, and Ra’Shaun Henry snagged one pass for an 18-yard touchdown to give him touchdowns in consecutive weeks. Both of Henry’s receptions this fall went for touchdowns.
Defensively, James Madison transfers D’Angelo Amos and Adeeb Atariwa combined for 11 tackles.
Controlling the clock
While UNC finished the contest with more total yards, Virginia won the time of possession battle by nearly 10 minutes. The Cavaliers held onto the ball for 34 minutes and 34 seconds, running 73 plays to UNC’s 61.
“The offense was the primary reason or the driver of our win tonight because of not only the points we scored, but the time of possession and the consistency through the whole game,” Mendenhall said. “While UNC was launching rockets over and over again and scoring so fast, we were fairly methodically but effectively moving the ball, moving the ball, moving the ball and then scoring.”
The strategy kept UNC’s rushing attack at bay, limiting the Tar Heels to just 93 yards on the ground when including sacks. Without sacks, North Carolina still only recorded 126 rushing yards.
Howell threw for 443 yards and four touchdowns, but it wasn’t enough.
UVa possessed the ball for 11 minutes and 58 seconds in the fourth quarter, ensuring Howell wouldn’t touch the ball last.
Player and coach availability
After four consecutive games with at least one player unavailable for competition due to COVID-19, no UVa student-athletes missed Saturday’s game because of the virus. One full-time coach did miss the game, however.
The coach recently tested positive for COVID-19 and is in isolation.
Outside of COVID-19, UVa played without a few athletes due to injury or undisclosed reasons. Quarterback Ira Armstead missed the contest, joining cornerback Darrius Bratton, safeties Joey Blount and Brenton Nelson as well as wide receiver Lavel Davis Jr. as UVa contributors unavailable Saturday night.
Defensive end Richard Burney also missed the contest.
Starting quarterback Brennan Armstrong left the game with an injury, but no update was given on his status after the game.