North Carolina State 29, Virginia 24

With a Chance to Take Control of the ACC's Coastal Division, Cavaliers Fall Flat

Virginia receiver Dontrelle Inman, center, is swallowed up by Wolfpack defenders. (Streeter Lecka - Getty Images)
By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 28, 2007

RALEIGH, N.C., Oct. 27 -- The offense huddled close to the sideline, nearly a full field ahead, the clock as much an opponent as the 11 desperate defenders awaiting. How else could it end for Virginia, a football team that doesn't know how to play without raising pulses?

This time, though, there was a cruel twist. Jameel Sewell, the sophomore quarterback who had led Virginia to three consecutive victories in the waning moments, sat on a metal bench with cramps firing up and down his leg, too painful and too numerous for a trainer to stop. Peter Lalich, a freshman who had no history of such moments, jogged onto the field, his uniform the pristine white of a player who watches, not plays.

After weeks of living on the edge, the No. 21 Cavaliers finally fell off Saturday in a 29-24 loss against North Carolina State, a team that entered winless against ACC opponents. The Wolfpack had lost nine straight against ACC teams, in fact, and Virginia had won four straight in the league, seven overall. Neither streak exists any more, and Virginia missed its chance to control the ACC Coastal Division after Virginia Tech's loss Thursday. The defeat came with a lesson: Waiting until the end of games to win can work for only so long.

"Right at the end, we thought we could win," defensive end Chris Long said. "But we got to stop putting ourselves in those positions. As much as we feel confident in those positions, I think we made mistakes that get us in those situations where we have to be the only ones in the stadium that believe we can win the game."

And the Cavaliers, again, did believe. They had been here before, winning the previous three games by margins of two, one and one. When Lalich took command of the huddle, the ball at Virginia's 16 with 1 minute 24 second left, he told his teammates, "Guys, we got to go down and win."

"He was pretty chill," center Jordy Lipsey said.

But Virginia (7-2, 4-1) lost its hammerlock on the ACC long before the final drive arrived. It allowed wide receiver Donald Bowens to gain a career-high 202 yards, including a 40-yard touchdown on N.C. State's first drive, the game-winning, 30-yard score with 7:37 remaining and a 28-yarder that helped seal the Wolfpack victory with less than three minutes left. It lost because Sewell threw two interceptions in the first half. It lost because the defense surrendered 431 yards, its worst total in nearly two months.

But, perhaps more than any other factor, it lost because Sewell sat on the sidelines while Lalich experienced his first chance to lead a college football team to a last-second victory. Sewell had been nearly perfect in the clutch over the past three games, going 14 for 15 for 167 yards. But he could only tell Lalich, "Go win it for your brothers," and then watch for the final seven minutes.

"It was as frustrated as I've ever been," Sewell said later.

Lalich had made a cameo against Maryland when Sewell needed to come out briefly on the deciding drive, but his inexperience showed. With 4:30 left, he went three and out. On the final drive, he bobbled the first snap, scooped it up, scrambled to the right and took a sack falling out of bounds. He made one first-down pass, a short out to Cary Koch, but that was it. He was sacked on Virginia's final play of the game at his 17. There would be no miracle this time.

"I didn't shy away from it all," Lalich said afterward, ice bags wrapped around his left wrist and right shoulder. "It was definitely one of the toughest situations I've been in playing football. But it's where you want to be. Hopefully, one day, I can be making the plays to help us win in that situation."

North Carolina State charged back on the arm of Daniel Evans, who threw for 347 yards and three touchdowns. He heaved two consecutive 30-yard passes, both of the coming despite blanket coverage from Ras I-Dowling.

The second went to Bowens in the right corner of the end zone. Dowling, a freshman playing because Mike Parker had been beaten repeatedly, had stayed with Bowens step-for-step, but a perfect pass made that irrelevant. With sudden precision, N.C. State took a 29-24 lead as the Wolfpack sideline exploded.

"It was good coverage," Dowling said. "He just made a couple good plays."

Virginia still had seven minutes left to win, and, in Sewell, a quarterback who had proven he is at his best when pressure mounts the most. Two plays later, Sewell became a pained spectator. On this day, he never had the chance.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company