Last Saturday, the Virginia Cavaliers took down North Carolina in what is considered one of the biggest upsets in the college football season. When a team wins as 23.5-point underdogs, there are usually a couple of explanations.
First off, you would think that the winning quarterback must have played the game of his life. You would also assume that a couple of bounces and fluky plays went in the direction of the underdog.
In the case Saturday night’s game, neither scenario came into fruition. Tony Muskett was a game manager, making key, timely plays, but only finishing with a mere 6.9 yards per throw. Furthermore, the turnover battle actually favored the Tar Heels. At the end of the first half, a Virginia first and goal opportunity turned into an interception. Late in the game, a clear path to a game-sealing touchdown became a fumble that bounced into the back of the end zone, giving the ball back to North Carolina.
So what was the difference maker?
Believe it or not, it was the exact unit that has been getting ripped to shreds since the opener at Tennessee: the offensive line.
Tony Muskett was pressured on just eight drop backs at a rate of 24.2%, an season low in FBS games. Additionally, UVA running backs compiled a season-high 155 yards on the ground. 0 of these yards were breakaway yards (runs of 15+), meaning that the line was constantly getting push and methodically moving the ball down field. The Cavaliers possessed the ball for 37.1 minutes, imposing their will throughout the game.
The addition of Blake Steen at the right tackle spot was clearly worthwhile. However, for the most part, the usual suspects simply decided to step up. Left tackle McKale Boley had a season-high 88.1 overall PFF grade, compared to a previous best of 65.1 against NC State. In the interior, Ty Furnish, Brian Stevens, and Noah Josey were responsible for 0 sacks for the first time since the Maryland game.
This is a completely shocking turn of events for the program. Based on the nature of football, the production for skill position groups will vary on a week-to-week basis but the lines of scrimmage are much more predictable. In other words, if you are not as big, strong, or quick as the man opposite you, technique can only take you so far. Considering UVA’s offensive line was overmatched against essentially every Power Five opponent this season, the same was expected against a particular strong UNC unit. However, the ‘Hoos were dialed in and made a bold statement.
What this means for the future
Offensive line coach Terry Heffernan was a well-renowned replacement for Garret Tujague this offseason, and we are starting to see why. This performance, especially while under a national spotlight, will be huge for recruiting purposes in the upcoming cycles.
At the same time, it gives the current product a foundation to build on. Most of the defensive fronts Virginia will face during the rest of their schedule will be at the caliber of North Carolina’s or worse. Therefore, there is proof that UVA’s offensive line is capable of winning in the trenches down the stretch. And if that is indeed the case, then Saturday’s win is the start of the turnaround that ‘Hoos fans have been awaiting.