CHARLOTTESVILLE — For two weeks, Virginia Coach Mike London had succeeded by going against the old football adage that says using two quarterbacks is the same as having none. The rest of the Cavaliers, meanwhile, seemed to catch every break they hadn’t during a six-game losing streak earlier in the season.
Even worse: Those postseason dreams disintegrated in a matter of moments.
The Cavaliers looked to be on the verge of tying the game at 20 late in the third quarter when London decided to go for it on fourth and goal from the 1-yard-line after converting a fourth down earlier on the 13-play drive. But running back Kevin Parks was stopped for a one-yard loss, capping a dominant sequence for the Tar Heels’ defensive line.
“It seemed like the game kind of turned on that,” London said afterward.
North Carolina proceeded to march down the field on a 97-yard drive, with running back Gio Bernard, the ACC’s leading rusher, finishing it off with a 23-yard touchdown reception after being held in check for most of the night by the Cavaliers’ defense. He finished with just 57 rushing yards, his second-lowest total of the season.
Virginia’s senior night unraveled from there.
The Cavaliers had one more chance to get back in the game on their next possession, but wide receiver Darius Jennings dropped what would have been an 81-yard touchdown pass from redshirt sophomore Phillip Sims after streaking past North Carolina’s secondary with about 11 minutes remaining.
It wasn’t long before North Carolina wide receiver Erik Highsmith caught his second touchdown of the night from quarterback Bryn Renner, a score that sent many in the crowd of 45,760 that showed up for Virginia’s first Thursday night home game in six years heading for the exits.
The loss leaves Virginia (4-7 overall, 2-5 ACC) with nothing but pride to play for when it tries to snap an eight-year losing streak to rival Virginia Tech next week in Blacksburg.
“I can’t point to the one thing to say, ‘This is why it went downhill.’ It just did, and it happened in a hurry,” Sims said. “You looked up and the score was out of hand. It’s just one of those things where you’re like, ‘How did this happen like that?’ I think that’s what a lot of guys were thinking. Not the way we pictured tonight going.”
With Bernard stymied, North Carolina turned to Renner. The former All-Met from West Springfield finished 29 of 36 for 315 yards and three touchdowns. His favorite target was wide receiver Quinshad Davis, who set a school record for a freshman with 16 catches for 178 yards, mostly on short passing routes that confused Virginia’s young secondary.
Early on, it appeared the Cavaliers wouldn’t go down so easily. After falling behind 14-3, Sims entered the game for the first time and led Virginia on a 13-play, 67-yard drive in which most of its yardage came on the ground. But on third and goal from the 9-yard-line, Sims scrambled right and threw across his body to a wide-open Darius Jennings in the end zone to cut Virginia’s deficit to 14-10 midway through the second quarter.
For Virginia’s next possession, London turned to junior quarterback Michael Rocco. The quick switch proved costly. On the first play from scrimmage, Rocco delivered an underthrown pass intended for wide receiver Tim Smith, and North Carolina safety Tre Boston returned the ensuing interception 36 yards for a touchdown.
“It wasn’t my best throw,” Rocco said. “The ball was too low.”
Asked about the switch, London simply said, “the next series was up and Mike was the guy.” Rocco said the decision for him to go into the game wasn’t predetermined. He said he was told after Sims’s scoring throw that he would enter the game.
The two signal callers finished the game a combined 19 of 33 for 205 yards, one touchdown and one interception.
The Tar Heels (7-4, 4-3) weren’t able to convert a two-point conversion after Boston’s touchdown, but the damage had been done. The Cavaliers entered halftime trailing 20-10 even though their defense held Bernard to just 18 first-half yards.
It just made the fourth-quarter collapse that cost them a bowl game that much harder to swallow.
“Football is like that sometimes,” Rocco said. “It can change so quickly and it happened for us today.”