With North Carolina State leading by nine points at halftime today and a winning season likely hanging in the balance, the Virginia Cavaliers responded and ended a two-game losing streak by overwhelming the Wolfpack, 47-26, before a crowd of 49,507 at Carter-Finley Stadium.
In quick succession during a nine-minute stretch of the third quarter, Virginia forced three turnovers and a punt. They were converted into a 30-point barrage that turned the 19-10 halftime deficit into a 40-19 lead with 1 minute 37 seconds left in the period.
After playing one of the worst quarters of his career in the second period, Virginia junior quarterback Dan Ellis played perhaps his best in the third. He completed 5 of 7 passes for 129 yards and two touchdowns.
As always, senior tailback Thomas Jones was in the middle of things. He scored two touchdowns during the third-quarter rally en route to 221 yards rushing on a school-record 38 carries and three touchdowns. It was the fourth 200-yard game of his career, setting an Atlantic Coast Conference record, and he came within three yards of Virginia's 51-year-old single-game rushing mark, set by John Papit against Washington and Lee. Jones's efforts put him over 1,000 yards rushing for the season and 81 yards from breaking Tiki Barber's career school record.
And today he got some help. Freshman wide receiver Billy McMullen caught four passes for 109 yards and two touchdowns, one in the third quarter. Wide receiver Ahmad Hawkins caught one touchdown pass and a pair of two-point conversions during the third quarter.
"This shows we do have an offense," Hawkins said. "It was just a matter of time for us to click."
The burst not only prevented Virginia's first three-game losing streak since 1988, it also kept Virginia's postseason hopes alive. The Cavaliers (4-3, 3-2) are off next weekend, then host No. 1 Florida State and No. 8 Georgia Tech on consecutive Saturdays. They finish the regular season with a home game against Buffalo and a road game against Maryland.
"Some days you do things well, some days you don't," Cavaliers offensive coordinator Gary Tranquill said. "We had a couple weeks where we didn't do anything well [in losses to Virginia Tech and Duke in which Virginia scored a total of 24 points]. So we finally got on track."
The Cavaliers ended with a season-high 514 yards, but they began with several dropped and underthrown passes at crucial moments in the first half. In the second quarter, Ellis completed 3 of 7 passes for 42 yards and one interception.
"We were upbeat and felt we could come back," Ellis said. "We didn't feel like we were out of it at all. The offense felt really good, we were moving the ball. Penalties hurt us in the first half. We just held together; we had the ability to put the ball in the end zone."
The Cavaliers held off N.C. State (4-3, 2-2) in the fourth quarter, after a four-yard run by Wolfpack quarterback Jamie Barnette cut Virginia's lead to 40-26 five seconds into the final period.
Virginia controlled the clock primarily behind Jones, who increased his season rushing total to 1,109 yards on 209 attempts, and is closing fast on Barber's school career mark of 3,389 yards. He entered the game fourth in the nation and first in the ACC at 148 yards per game.
A pair of fumbles caused by Cavaliers defensive end Ljubomir Stamenich and an interception by middle linebacker Yubrenal Isabelle sparked the third-quarter eruption that reversed Barnette's almost unstoppable first-half success. The senior racked up 181 yards and two touchdowns on just eight completions, regularly splitting the Cavaliers' secondary on third-and-long plays to build the 19-10 lead.
"We had the momentum and turned it over, and they scored," N.C. State Coach Mike O'Cain said. "It changed the complexion of the game and we had a hard time getting it back. Those things kill us--not only did we give them field position, but it just breaks your back. Give Virginia credit, they turned our turnovers into touchdowns and did the things they needed to do."
Four minutes into the second half, Stamenich popped the ball out of N.C. State tailback Rahshon Spikes's hands, giving the ball to the Cavaliers at the 48. Ellis found McMullen for a 25-yard gain, setting up a one-yard run by Jones with 8:25 left, cutting the Wolfpack lead to two. Isabelle intercepted Barnette's next pass, and Jones scored 12 seconds later from seven yards out. An N.C. State punt and another forced fumble by Stamenich, this time by Barnette, were converted by a 41-yard pass to McMullen and a 12-yard pass to Hawkins.