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Chick-fil-A Bowl: Virginia football falls to Auburn after injuries on defense, special teams miscues

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ATLANTA — The Virginia football team gained entry into the Chick-fil-a-A Bowl on Saturday night in large part because it spent the fall listening to all the things it hadn’t accomplished in a long time and then accomplishing those very things. Next item on the list: The Cavaliers had not concluded a season with a victory since 2005.

But this was not a night for fitting endings. Depleted by injuries on defense and continuously flummoxed on special teams, Virginia did not possess enough offensive firepower to overcome a sizable hole. Despite totaling 435 total yards, the Cavaliers fell to Auburn, 43-24, at Georgia Dome and will have to resolve to finish next season on a higher note.

“They played better than we did; they made more plays than we did,” Virginia Coach Mike London said of Auburn. “So my hat goes off to them, and we just regroup, get ready and remember this experience. Because this is something we want to do, play in the postseason and have a chance to play teams like that.”

The final two minutes of the third quarter did a fine job of encapsulating the night. Auburn (8-5) had blocked a punt by Virginia (8-5) in the first quarter. So the Cavaliers tried a rugby-style punt out of their own end zone late in the third. The Tigers blocked that one, too, resulting in a safety.

“The second one was on me because I got nervous after we got the first one blocked,” Virginia special teams coordinator Anthony Poindexter said. “You really can’t do what we tried to do down there. . . . That was kind of an overreaction to getting the first one blocked.”

On the ensuing free kick, the Tigers returned the ball 62 yards to the Virginia 15-yard line. Two Auburn penalties turned an easy field goal attempt into a 45-yarder, but the Tigers converted anyway.

In the weeks leading up to Saturday, relatively little of the public discussion centered on either squad’s special teams units, but that proved to be a critical facet of the game. Two plays after Auburn’s first blocked punt, quarterback Kiehl Frazier scored on a three-yard touchdown run to tie the game at 7.

The Cavaliers began the second quarter by completing a 10-play, 73-yard drive with a six-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Michael Rocco to Kris Burd, his second scoring reception of the night. But as far as highlights go, that was about it for Virginia. Burd, a fifth-year senior who finished with six receptions for 103 yards, left the game early in the fourth quarter with what he later described as a collarbone injury.

“I thought we were blocking great up front,” Virginia offensive coordinator Bill Lazor said. “We knew we’d get better as the game went on. We knew we’d be stronger as it went, but we just couldn’t put enough points on the board to go with it.”

Meantime, the Virginia defense struggled increasingly as the game progressed. Defensive coordinator Jim Reid said that after Auburn’s first few offensive drives, “I thought we were going to shut ’em out.”

However, missed tackles and over-pursuit — “things we hadn’t done all year,” Reid said — made the Virginia defense susceptible to giving up big plays.

After holding Auburn to 37 yards in the first quarter, Virginia’s defense gave up plays of 22, 25, 28, 50 and 60 yards in the second quarter, during which the Tigers gained 237 total yards. That’s more yards than Auburn gained in losses to Georgia and Alabama this season.

But the Cavaliers’ defense was not at full strength Saturday. First team all-ACC cornerback Chase Minnifield sat out the final game of his collegiate career with a knee injury, as did redshirt junior middle linebacker Steve Greer, a second team all-ACC pick and Virginia’s leading tackler this season.

Greer suffered a partially torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee during practice two weeks ago and will undergo surgery Tuesday. 

“Getting a hold of their offense, they really came out with it seemed like just different kind of stuff, misdirections and what-not, that I didn’t pay attention to on film as much,” said redshirt freshman linebacker Henry Coley, who replaced Greer in the starting lineup. “I put myself in bad spaces.”

The Cavaliers gave up a season-high 455 total yards against the Tigers, though to point the finger at any one defensive player would be foolish.

In the midst of all those yards were more special teams miscues by the Cavaliers. Auburn also attempted an onside kick in the second quarter and converted.

The Tigers scored a touchdown five plays later to take a 21-14 lead.

Late in the first half, Virginia faked a 32-yard field goal attempt and had holder Jacob Hodges run the ball on fourth and six. He came up three yards short of the first down marker. Auburn scored a touchdown nine players later to go up 28-14.

“We hadn’t been to a bowl game around here since [2007]. That alone, I feel, launches the team forward,” Burd said. “Behind Coach London and the atmosphere he’s bringing, how the community is behind us and how people are really buying in, I feel like this was definitely a great launching point for the program, and I’m excited to see where it goes.”

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