A yard away from the tying touchdown late in the third quarter, a yard away from rekindling bowl hopes, Virginia crumbled on offense, defense and special teams in a baffling sequence that led to a 37-13 defeat.
“It’s a very quiet locker room in there,” coach Mike London said.
Don’t misunderstand. The better team won Thursday. The Tar Heels (7-4, 4-3) are the most productive team in program history, averaging 40 points per game, and their defense is far better than last week’s 68-50 loss to Georgia Tech showed.
Bernard is the ACC’s leading rusher and vying with Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd for conference player-of-the-year honors. Quarterback Bryn Renner has thrived in first-year coach Larry Fedora’s spread, and guard Jonathan Cooper is a legit first-team All-American.
Given the talent gap, Virginia couldn’t afford to help Carolina. But that is precisely what the Cavaliers did.
Start with coaching. As in recent victories over North Carolina State and Miami, London and offensive coordinator Bill Lazor juggled quarterbacks Michael Rocco and Phillip Sims. But this time, the nonsensical switching exacted its inevitable toll.
Sims had just thrown a touchdown pass, albeit of schoolyard variety, to Darius Jennings from 9 yards out to draw Virginia within 14-10. Sprinting to his right to avoid the rush, Sims uncorked a throw across his body just before tumbling into the Tar Heels’ bench area.
But after Carolina’s Thomas Moore missed a 40-yard field goal attempt, London/Lazor pulled Sims.
“The next series was up, and Mike was the guy,” London said.
The explanation didn’t wash when the random substitutions worked, and it certainly didn’t wash Thursday. Pulling a quarterback who’s just thrown a touchdown pass and led a 14-play, 67-yard drive is foolish. End of story.
On the very next snap, safety Tre Boston intercepted Rocco and raced 36 yards for a touchdown and a 20-10 lead – the Tar Heels’ 2-point conversion attempt failed.
“It was too low of a throw,” Rocco said. “I still think I would have made the same decision throwing the ball to Tim (Smith). I just didn’t put any touch on it … and the safety got under it. It was pretty open, I thought. … It didn’t come out of my hand great.”
Despite that coaching brain-cramp, the Cavaliers trailed only 20-13 when they drove inside the Tar Heels’ 5-yard-line in the waning moments of the third quarter.
On second-and-goal from the 3, tackle Sylvester Williams disrupted a handoff to Perry Jones, who somehow managed to gain a yard. Linebacker Curtis Campbell then stopped Kevin Parks a yard shy of the end zone, setting up fourth-and-goal from the 1.
Go for it? Absolutely.
“We have faith in our offensive line to get us a couple yards,” Rocco said. “They did some slanting and stuff to stop us.”
Parks had no chance running off left tackle, where end Kareem Martin and linebacker Kevin Reddick smothered him for a 2-yard loss.
Emboldened, the Tar Heels marched 97 yards for a dagger touchdown, the final 23 yards on Renner’s play-action pass to Bernard. Linebacker Steve Greer fell for the fake, and Bernard was wide open in the middle of the field.
Down 27-13, Virginia had one final chance to keep ESPN’s audience from switching to “Parks and Recreation.” But Jennings, running well behind the secondary, dropped what would have been an 81-yard touchdown pass from Sims.
Alec Vozenilek compounded the drop by shanking his subsequent punt 28 yards, and the Tar Heels took advantage of the short field to drive 47 yards for their final touchdown, a 20-yard Renner-to-Erik Highsmith connection.
And for those viewers still resisting the change to Leslie Knope, Khalek Shepherd fumbled away the ensuing kickoff.
“It seemed like the game kind of turned on that (fourth-and-1),” London said.
Kind of doesn’t begin to describe.
Now maybe it would have been fool’s gold. Maybe Virginia’s inability to defend freshman receiver Quinshad Davis (ACC record 16 catches for 178 yards) would have been impossible to overcome.
But at 20-all, who knows?
Playing a Thursday game gives the Cavaliers two extra days to prepare for Virginia Tech, also enduring a lean season at 4-6.
“Hopefully,” Parks said, “we can spoil their bowl opportunities.”
Not if they play and coach like this.
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