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Virginia turns Armstrong's remarkable season into 'sour' lemonade

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Virginia quarterback Brennan Armstrong walks off the field after the Commonwealth Cup against the Virginia Tech Hokies on Saturday at Scott Stadium.

As dejected Virginia football fans filed out of Scott Stadium on Saturday night, while many of their Virginia Tech counterparts still milled around the field, a young boy turned to his parents and complained, “That was the worst ending ever.”

He was bemoaning the finish to UVa’s 29-24 loss to the rival Hokies, one that saw the visitors score the final 12 points and deny Cavaliers star quarterback Brennan Armstrong on back-to-back possessions in the final four minutes with the game on the line.

But he could have been lamenting a lost year for Virginia, one that saw the program take a record-setting year by Armstrong and the offense and spin it into an uninspired .500 season, topped off with yet another painful loss in the commonwealth’s fiercest rivalry.

“It’s too sour right now,” said Armstrong. “I’m proud of the offense. The steps we took, everyone, not just me. … We were soaring.”

In Armstrong and the emergence of Dontayvion Wicks, the addition of Jelani Woods, the steady production of Billy Kemp IV and the timely playmaking of Ra’Shaun Henry, and don’t forget the most experienced offensive line of the Bronco Mendenhall era, UVa (6-6, 4-4 ACC) had something special on offense this year.

Life gave the Cavaliers caviar and they, inexplicably, still made lemonade.

A four-game losing streak to end this regular season saw UVa lose any national luster Armstrong’s gaudy statistics had brought it, its shot at defending its ACC Coastal Division title, and its hopes of beating the Hokies.

“I think Brennan had a remarkable season and we’re looking to win one more game,” said Mendenhall, whose team will end the year in a bowl game. “Whether that’s squandered or not, I’m not sure I’d put it in that category.”

Saturday night, it was a resilient Virginia Tech squad, less than two weeks removed from the firing of coach Justin Fuente, that squeezed UVa. After a first half that appeared to have the game destined for a high-scoring stratosphere, the Hokies (6-6, 4-4) — playing under interim coach J.C. Price — held the Cavaliers without a touchdown in the final two quarters.

Virginia’s lone score after the break was a 34-yard field goal 2:30 into the third quarter. It led 24-17 at that point, then spent the final 17:30 of the game looking like it was trying to catch that lemonade in a colander.

The win was always right there, but the Cavaliers had no way to grab it.

Armstrong threw for 405 yards — the most ever in this rivalry for either side — and a score, and ran for a pair of touchdowns. But, as has been the case for much of this season, anything Armstrong could do, UVa’s defense could undo.

Saturday, it gave up 320 rushing yards to the Hokies, including 169 and a score to running back Raheem Blackshear. He had a 50-yard run, one of three plays at least that long the Cavaliers surrendered. Quarterback Braxton Burmeister had a 71-yard run and Tayvion Robinson hauled in a 61-yard touchdown pass, both in the first quarter.

Despite being a touchdown favorite, Mendenhall’s team felt like it played the game as if it were trying to steal a win it had no business winning. Never was that more evident than on his team’s penultimate snap. On third-and-8 at the Hokies’ 9-yard line, UVa appeared positioned to go ahead.

“Any time the ball’s in Brennan’s hands, all the way to the very last play today, I felt good that we had a great chance,” said Mendenhall.

After all, where else would Virginia want to be then knocking on the gates of the game-winning touchdown, the ball in the hands of Armstrong, the nation’s leader in total offense who had elevated the offense from ordinary a year ago to explosive this season.

The answer, it turned out, was in the hands of 295-pound offensive tackle Bobby Haskins. Because on that third down play, offensive coordinator Robert Anae dialed a throwback screen to Haskins, a play Virginia Tech’s defense snuffed out for a 3-yard gain.

On the next play, Armstrong threw incomplete over the middle for Henry. All that remained was a pair of kneel downs by Burmeister, the backflip by Blackshear, some cigar smoking for Price and a field-storming by the Tech fans who had made themselves heard all night long at Scott Stadium.

“None of the scenarios in my head we were losing that game,” said Armstrong, whose team will still play in a bowl game to end this season. “And it happened.”

A week after walking off the turf at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh dejected as the Panthers celebrated clinching the Coastal, Virginia suffered a more personal slight as the Hokies flooded onto the field as the final seconds ticked off the clock, a “terrible feeling,” said senior linebacker Elliott Brown.

“I didn’t like them storming the field, but it is what it is,” said Armstrong. “Shoot, they won. It was an exciting game. I bet we’d storm the field if we won that game.”

First a few, then a few hundred, maybe a thousand. They ran down the hill where UVa students sit behind the end zone. They poured down the stairs from the stands where the visiting team gets its ticket allotment.

They swallowed up the V-sabre logo at midfield, obscuring it the way a 6-6 record largely obscured a magical year from Armstrong.

Mike Barber reports for the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

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