CHARLOTTESVILLE — Just when it seemed that Virginia might have finally put an end to its losing skid Saturday, the Cavaliers seemed instead to find another way to keep it going.
After coming up with an important defensive stop with just over two minutes remaining in regulation against visiting Wake Forest, Virginia was out of timeouts, down by six and had a chance to capitalize with a potential game-winning march.
However, Cavalier punt returner Khalek Shepherd called for a fair catch at the Virginia 41-yard line, but the ball bounced off of his helmet and into the hands of a Demon Deacon player to seal the 16-10 win at Scott Stadium, just the second Wake victory in the team's last 13 trips to Charlottesville.
"We didn't score enough points obviously," said Virginia coach Mike London when asked about his team's struggles. "(The Deacons) scored 16 and we scored 10, so we gave up too many points and didn't score enough."
London also pointed to two costly turnovers in Wake territory and struggles in the special teams department, as well as penalties. Virginia's losing streak moved to six straight games after beginning the season 2-0, and the Cavaliers now sit at 0-4 in Atlantic Coast Conference play. Wake (4-3, 2-3) snapped a two-game skid with the win.
It only took the Deacons one offensive play — in six seconds — to take an early lead, a 16-yard Josh Harris touchdown run on a direct snap after a big 60-yard punt return by Lovell Jackson. Just like that, U.Va. found itself in a 7-0 hole with 12:02 left in the opening quarter.
Six of Virginia's first seven drives ended with a punt, as quarterback Phillip Sims' 56-yard pass to receiver Tim Smith finally got the offense across midfield on its fourth drive. However, the march ended with Ian Frye missed field-goal attempt. Wake Forest punted on six straight drives after the early score.
Virginia got on the board just before the half on a 13-play, 72-yard drive that took a little less than three minutes, as Sims found Smith for 13 yards to tie it up at 7 with 20 seconds left in the half. Sims was 7-for-11 for 59 yards on the drive, and he also ran twice for 14 yards. The former Oscar Smith star finished the game 22-for-39 for 253 yards to go with 17 rushing yards, taking every snap from center for the first time all season.
Wake spoiled the momentum, benefiting from a Virginia late-hit penalty out of bounds on the ensuing 20-yard kickoff return, taking over at the Cavaliers' 45-yard line with 13 seconds left in the half. Wake quarterback Tanner Price went deep to redshirt sophomore wideout Brandon Terry for 41 yards on next play, setting up a Chad Hedlund 22-yard field goal with three ticks remaining to make it 10-7 Deacons at the break. It was the redshirt-freshman kicker's first career attempt.
"We were thinking, if we can kick a field goal, we could have a little momentum going into the locker room and we felt really good about that," said Wake coach Jim Grobe, who is now 3-3 against his alma mater. "I thought we would at least take a shot at it. We needed that energy going into the half."
The Wahoos out-gained Wake 164-114 in the opening 30 minutes and ran 17 more plays, holding the Deacs to just five first downs. For the game, the Hoos held the Deacons to 213 total yards while going for 301, but also committed five crucial penalties for a total of 40 yards.
The Virginia defense registered its seventh consecutive third-down stop on the opening drive of the third quarter, but Hedlund still managed to connect on a 44-yard boot to push his team's lead to 13-7.
"We're playing well and we have to continue to build off it, keep practicing well and keep giving ourselves a chance to win," said U.Va. linebacker Steve Greer of the defense's performance.
After each team went three-and-out, a Kevin Parks fumble led to another Hedlund field goal to increase the Wake advantage to nine, 16-7, with 4:15 left in the third period. The Deacons' offense failed on third down for the ninth straight time (out of nine tries) prior to the kick, and finished the game 1-for-15 on third down conversions.
The Cavaliers answered with a 30-yard field goal by Frye toward the end of the quarter, making it 16-10.
"We moved the ball pretty well throughout the second half," Sims admitted, "but we just didn't finish drives (with touchdowns) and it hurt us in the end."
After another Wake punt, Sims was picked off on an up-for-grabs floater inside the Wake 10-yard line, killing an otherwise-successful Cavalier drive. The Deacons finally converted a third-down try on the ensuing drive (their first of 12), but faced a 3rd-and-9 on the same possession from their own 24-yard line with just under eight minutes to play.
U.Va. came up with another big defensive stop, as fourth-year linebacker and Norfolk native LaRoy Reynolds combined with defensive tackle Chris Brathwaite, bringing down Price behind the line of scrimmage and forcing the Deacons to punt yet again.
"We're going to fight no matter what the score is, we just have to keep fighting every week," Brathwaite said.
Virginia started the ensuing possession at its own 34 with 7:02 to go. On 4th-and-inches from the U.Va. 43, the Deacons committed a delay-of-game penalty to keep the chains moving. The Cavaliers then crossed over into Wake territory, but a pair of untimely losses (a Clifton Richardson six-yard loss and a Tylor Harris sack of Sims) led to a punt with less than three minutes to play.
On the biggest play of the game up to that point, a 3rd-and-6 from the Wake 22, Price scrambled short of the first-down marker and Virginia called its final timeout with 2:08 to go prior to Wake's 10th punt of the afternoon, but Shepherd's miscue gave the ball right back and the visitors proceeded to run out the clock.
"When you play you know things like that can happen and it was just magnified because it was the last play of the game," said Virginia special-teams coordinator Anthony Poindexter. "(Shepherd) didn't cost us the game because there were 80 plays before it in the game that affected it."
The Cavaliers will get a much-needed week off before traveling to North Carolina State on Nov. 3.
"That losing taste lingers in your mouth for a while and the only way you can get rid of it is to play another game," said London. "Obviously we don't play for a while, but you can go back and do things while you wait. We can dedicate time toward improving our fundamentals in blocking, throwing, catching and all those things. … That's what the open week will be dedicated to, is fixing ourselves. We'll be coaching and teaching and getting the players to understand what we need to get done."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun