Only after the play ended – with the ball in his hands and Wright-Baker on the ground – did the importance of Johnson’s action sink in. With the score tied at 31, the Cavaliers had the ball in the red zone with just more than a minute remaining, and four plays later they had a 34-31 victory, Virginia’s first on the road in its past eight tries.
The tale of how such a win came to be is harrowing for anyone with a Virginia affiliation. Sure, there were turnovers and missed tackles and penalties — the same maladies that troubled the Cavaliers last season — to dissect.
At this point in the team’s maturation, though, Virginia will celebrate any and all victories. Mistakes can be corrected tomorrow, Coach Mike London believes, so long as his players are able to soak in the experience of success today.
And so late Saturday night, London sat with a white towel draped around his neck and spoke proudly of what he heard on his sideline as a 20-point Virginia lead morphed into an eight-point deficit with less than seven minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. The Cavaliers had turned over the ball four times. Their many freshmen contributors were revealing their youth. Their defense was showing signs of fatigue.
“As the game went on and as things were happening to us, instead of going south, guys decided that we’ve got to make a stand somewhere,” London said. “And I think that last defensive stand, the score, the drive to get the last field goal, I think that was just guys deciding that, you know, for this program and the growth and development stage that we’re at, enough is enough. We need to start making plays to win games like this.”
Trailing 31-23, Virginia embarked on a 15-play, 77-yard drive. Sophomore quarterback Michael Rocco — who had thrown two interceptions — completed 4 of 8 passes for 35 yards. Junior tailback Perry Jones — whose fumble early in the fourth quarter allowed the Hoosiers to take their first lead on a 55-yard return for a score — carried the ball six times for 22 yards, including a three-yard touchdown run that capped the march.
The Cavaliers went for two and drew even with Indiana when Rocco connected with tight end Paul Freedman.
Would Virginia have been able to summon such mettle last season — London’s first at the helm — when the Cavaliers dropped three of their final four games after holding second-half leads?
“It’s hard to tell,” Jones said. “But I definitely think we’re an improved team this year in the later half of the game. I think back to the Duke game last year or Boston College where we couldn’t finish at the end, I’m just real glad that we did tonight.”
Indiana’s final drive began at its 18-yard line with 96 seconds left. At that point, place kicker Robert Randolph figured the game was sure to go into overtime. He said he began running different scenarios through his head.
What if Indiana gets the ball first and makes a field goal? What if the Hoosiers get the ball first and miss a field goal?
Then came the pass rush of Johnson’s career. He’d recorded 81 / 2 sacks at Virginia, but none was as significant as the one he tallied Saturday. The Hoosiers used a five-man protection scheme and, Indiana Coach Kevin Wilson said, “we stopped the two most dangerous guys.”
Wilson did not specify whom he was talking about, but Johnson wasn’t one of them. He entered the Indiana backfield untouched.
“Once I hit [Wright-Baker], the ball was right there so I just tried to strip it,” Johnson said. “And I got it.”
Randolph immediately began taking practice kicks into the net on the Virginia sideline, no longer wondering about the possibility of overtime. He said he did his best to focus on his form and how he was striking the ball, “not necessarily on the situation or how big the kick is.”
He wasn’t as nervous as he thought he would be as he lined up for the 23-yard attempt. It was a short kick, one he’d made 1,000 times before.
Only after he’d converted the first game-winning field goal of his collegiate career did the importance of his action sink in.
“It was a big kick,” Randolph said. “I just try to make every kick the same.”