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Five takeaways from UVA football’s tough loss to #17 North Carolina

‘Hoos can’t hold a first half lead and fall to #17 UNC, 31-28.

NCAA Football: North Carolina at Virginia Scott Taetsch-USA TODAY Sports

In a back and forth shootout, the Virginia Cavaliers fell at the hands of the 17th ranked North Carolina Tar Heels, 31-28. UVA now falls to 3-6 on the season and 1-5 in the ACC and is one loss away from missing bowl eligibility for the first time since 2016.

Virginia drops its best chance for a season turnaround

Sigh. A four-point halftime lead and Virginia’s best half of football yet brought out the optimist in me and probably the rest of the Wahoo fanbase. The UVA offense seemed to be clicking despite a few costly mistakes as the running game was dominating. The defense’s containment of Drake Maye and the high powered Tar Heel offense to just 10 points was another positive sign.

Yet, eventually, the better team won out. North Carolina scored 21 second half points compared to Virginia’s 14 and won how the team is built to do so — in a shootout. And that’s a shame because winning this game would’ve meant the world to this Virginia team and this program. It could’ve been a stepping stone for a run at bowl eligibility and, while such a push is still technically possible, it’s hard to imagine UVA finishing the season 3-0.

UVA’s resilient offensive performance not enough

Beating UNC in a shootout was always an unlikely scenario. Beating UNC in a shootout without Keytaon Thompson, Dontayvion Wicks, Lavel Davis Jr., and Perris Jones seemed impossible for the ‘Hoos.

After not reaching the end-zone once versus Miami, Brennan Armstrong and company punched the ball in for a touchdown on all four of their trips to scoring territory. Four rushing touchdowns including two from Armstrong, one from Xavier Brown, and another from Ronnie Walker Jr. were evidence of how the Wahoo offensive line dominated in the trenches against the Tar Heels.

Virginia’s backs rushed for 122 yards on 27 carries (4.5 yards per carry). Brennan Armstrong had an overall decent performance with 232 yards through the air despite just a 49% completion rate as he added 64 net-yards on the ground and made big-boy runs throughout the game to keep UVA in it. His two touchdown runs in particular highlighted his willingness to take big hits for his team.

Sean Wilson Jr. and Sackett Wood also had breakout games. The freshman Wilson Jr. had five receptions for 61 yards including a number of big third-down conversions. The junior Wood led the ‘Hoos in receiving as he caught six balls for a whopping 94 yards and was inches away from his first career touchdown after being ruled out of bounds inside the one-yard line on a 34-yard reception.

Yet, unfortunately, for seemingly the first time this season, the defense didn’t do enough while the offense did.

Drake Maye is too good

The UVA defense has been the strength of this roster through eight games. The outside corners have been two of the best in the country, the linebackers have made plenty of plays, and the defensive line has improved as the season has progressed. But, after only allowing Georgia Tech and Miami’s offenses to combine for 25 points scored, the elastic broke for the ‘Hoos against Drake Maye after better showings against backup QBs in the last few weeks.

Against Maye and wideout Josh Downs in particular, the UVA defense couldn’t keep up. Maye burned the ‘Hoos for 293 yards and a pair of scores through the air along with 74 yards on the ground and another TD. Downs went for 166 yards and a touchdown in a sign of how UVA has benefitted from playing inferior quarterbacks and receivers.

Poor situational decisions cost UVA

This would’ve been nit-picky in a Virginia win, but in the loss all the little things are highlighted. There were a number of opportunities for the Virginia offense to go for it on fourth down which the coaching staff ignored.

One that immediately comes to mind is the 4th-and-five on the UNC 32-yard line when the ‘Hoos elected to have Brennan Armstrong punt for the second time this season. His punt proceeded to roll into the end-zone and only garner Virginia a 12-yard net gain. North Carolina proceeded to drive 80 yards down the field and score a touchdown to go up 10-7.

The second is a slightly more understandable decision. Early in the fourth quarter with UVA down 31-21, the ‘Hoos passed up a fourth-and-two at their own 23-yard line and instead decided to punt the ball back to the Tar Heels. Fortunately for Virginia, a James Jackson sack on second down forced a punt, but the decision to punt drained nearly four minutes off the clock; time which proved costly late in the game. Especially considering UVA’s success running the ball in short-yardage situations in this game and how the running game (which takes time) was driving the offense, that felt like a missed opportunity.

Also, the two timeouts used to avoid five-yard delay of game penalties when in punting formation in the fourth quarter would’ve been pretty valuable for Virginia when North Carolina was burning the clock in the final minutes. Having those in the bank also would’ve allowed UVA to avoid kicking the onsides kick with 3:24 left in the game as they could’ve tried to get a real stop in order to set up a game-tying or game-winning drive.

Mediocre opponents provide opportunities for late season wins

Yeah, being 3-6 right now stinks. Not capitalizing on the opportunity to upset the #17 team in the nation is a bummer. But with games at home against Pitt and Coastal Carolina and a road contest with Virginia Tech, there are still opportunities for UVA to get some late season good vibes heading into Elliott’s first full offseason at the helm.

Up first are the 4-4 Pittsburgh Panthers who have been up and down this season but have lost three of their last four including a five-point defeat at home against Georgia Tech, a 24-10 loss at Louisville, and a 42-24 loss against this very North Carolina squad on the road last week. After almost beating UNC, hosting Pitt is at least theoretically a winnable game.

After that, 8-1 Coastal Carolina comes to town. While that record is daunting, the Chanticleers are yet to play a power-five team and their sole loss came at home against the Old Dominion Monarchs 49-21!!! Starting the season 8-1 is impressive, but don’t tell me that UVA can’t beat a team that allowed 49 points to Old Freaking Dominion.

Then, of course, UVA hits the road to play the 2-7 Virginia Tech Hokies. Look, I’m not crazy. Banking on a win in Blacksburg would be foolish. BUT, VT is straight up bad. I’ll leave it at that.

This is by no means ideal, but there is still merit to finishing this season on a positive note for the Wahoos. Going 3-0 seems unlikely, but you never know.