CHARLOTTESVILLE — Virginia quarterback Kurt Benkert looked spent as he slogged off the field at the end of the third quarter Saturday at Scott Stadium. He had just thrown a deep ball into the sideline, one possession after a botched handoff to running back Taquan Mizzell led to North Carolina’s fourth touchdown and an insurmountable lead.
Benkert seemed as though he had been through many emotional stages by late afternoon. He looked frazzled at first by an effective Tar Heels pass rush, then frustrated by missed opportunities and finally dejected as he earned half-hearted pats on the helmet from teammates as he walked slowly off the field. Backup quarterbacks Connor Brewer and Matt Johns, the latter responsible for the Cavaliers’ only touchdown of the day to that point, warmed up on the sideline.
Brewer started Virginia’s next series and finished the game for the Cavaliers. But it didn’t change the final outcome, as No. 22 North Carolina sealed a 35-14 win, its seventh straight against Virginia.
“In general, they moved the ball and executed on all three sides of the ball longer and more consistently than we did, which is reflective of their program,” Virginia Coach Bronco Mendenhall said. “I’m not sure where they’ll finish in the polls, but I think it’s a good football team. Still too early to say how good, but probably worthy of their ranking.”
It was Virginia’s first game after a former player had filed a federal lawsuit alleging hazing in the program.
Mendenhall publicly addressed the lawsuit for the first time at the postgame news conference.
“The investigation is ongoing, and university policy is that I’m not to speak regarding any of that while the investigation is ongoing,” he said. “But I am very lucky to be the coach at the University of Virginia. There’s great things ahead for us, a lot of work ahead also, but this team, we have a principle that goes really deep, and that’s family first, last and always. And they’re acting like that, and as coaches we’re acting like that.”
Embroiled in controversy off the field, the Cavaliers (2-5, 1-2 ACC) looked anemic on it, yielding 488 yards to North Carolina and gaining just 253 themselves.
Faced with heavy pressure from the Tar Heels’ defense, Benkert had a season-low 126 passing yards and completed 19 of 32 passes as his offense converted just 3 of 19 third downs.
“I can’t speak for him, but it looks like he’s not quite as confident and poised,” Mendenhall said of Benkert, whom he pulled in the third quarter to “take a step back.” “That by no means means dejected, or rejected; it just simply means it’s time to regroup.”
On the opposing end, North Carolina quarterback Mitch Trubisky made mincemeat of the Cavaliers’ secondary, completing 24 of 31 attempts for 310 yards and three touchdowns.
Trubisky threw his last dagger in the fourth quarter, a 46-yard bomb to Austin Proehl for the game’s final score. The touchdown drained any hope for Virginia just 31 seconds after Mizzell ran for a one-yard touchdown to make it 28-14 with 9:01remaining.
The running back was a rare bright spot despite the third-quarter slip-up, finishing with 106 rushing yards on 19 carries as Virginia turned to the run game time and time again. It was the senior’s second career 100-yard rushing performance.
“I always want to have a good game,” Mizzell said, “but it’s better with a win.”
From the start, Virginia seemed lackluster against the Tar Heels (6-2, 4-1 ACC) . The teams traded punts for all but 33 seconds of the first quarter, when Elijah Hood finally ran in the first score of the day from four yards to give North Carolina a 7-0 edge.
After that, both teams livened things up with some creative play-calling.
Virginia got its first touchdown of the day on a fake field goal, on which the backup quarterback Johns took the snap.
Johns, demoted this year after starting for parts of two seasons under former coach Mike London, tossed an 11-yard touchdown pass to Evan Butts to tie the score at 7 with 5:27 left in the half.
“We’ve had it in for a couple weeks now,” Johns said. “. . . It was a really well-executed and thought-out play.”
The drive ate up nearly seven minutes but left enough time for North Carolina to respond with some trickery of its own.
With 2:52 left until halftime, Trubisky handed the ball to Ryan Switzer, who flicked it back to Trubisky on the move. The quarterback had plenty of time to unload a 40-yard touchdown pass to Bug Howard, donning No. 13 Saturday to honor senior wide receiver Mack Hollins, who suffered a season-ending injury the previous week.
Things calmed down a bit in the second half, though Virginia found reasons for excitement early in the third quarter. On North Carolina’s first drive of the half, senior linebacker Micah Kiser forced a fumble by Ryan Switzer and recovered the ball at Virginia’s 45.
But Benkert marched the Cavaliers just 12 yards in five plays before North Carolina forced a punt.
Trubisky responded with a 79-yard touchdown drive, in which he hit a wide-open Thomas Jackson in the back of the end zone to make it 21-7. Tailback T.J. Logan added another touchdown before the end of the third quarter.