Conference play is when the season intensifies, and the Cavaliers had a big opening test last Friday as they took on the undefeated Syracuse Orange in “The Dome.”
After Virginia played below expectations in the first three games, Syracuse was favored heavily at home. But the Hoos refused to go down without a fight, nearly handing the Orange their first loss of the season, though a valiant second-half comeback wasn’t enough to overcome a late Syracuse field goal, as they escaped with a two-point victory.
If you were watching yet quit after halftime, boy, I wouldn’t blame you. The first half looked like the same Virginia we’ve seen all season: a sloppy offense being constantly bailed out by a relentless defense. It was evident from the beginning we were in for a long night. Trebor Pena returned Brendan Farrel’s opening kickoff 57 yards to the Virginia 41-yard line; roars echoed from rowdy Syracuse fans, and a methodic drive took the Orange into the endzone, capped off with a 17-yard scramble from quarterback Garrett Schrader. Virginia’s offense seemed to offer a rebuttal before stalling at the Syracuse 33-yard line. Farrell’s 51-yard field goal attempt wasn’t even close, leaving no points for the Hoos’ opening drive. They would get the ball back instantly, as defensive end Kam Butler forced Syracuse running back Sean Tucker to fumble on the first play of Syracuse’s next drive, placing the Hoos in Orange territory with a great shot to put some points on the board. Three-and-out prompted Farrell to trot back on for another field goal attempt, this time from 49 yards. Another miss left the Cavs missing six crucial points, a fact that would inevitably cost them later in the game. Farrell wouldn’t make another attempt, benched in favor of freshman Will Bettridge.
Syracuse would respond with a field goal attempt of their own, continuing to take advantage of the Cavs’ lack of production throughout the half. Our stellar defense kept the game from getting out of hand with another turnover, this time an interception from defensive back Jonas Sanker (prior to this game, Syracuse had zero turnovers on the season). No matter how many lifelines the defense gave, Brennan Armstrong and the offense couldn’t string together a complete drive. Many times Armstrong looked out of sync with his wide receivers, as there were multiple miscommunications and dropped passes. This left Virginia trailing 16-0 as they headed into the locker room at halftime. A lot to discuss. A lot to fix.
I’m not sure what Coach Elliot said to our team, but it worked, as the Hoos put together a balanced drive to open up the second half with a touchdown, courtesy of Keytaon Thompson breaking the plane with a 1-yard rush. Trebor Pena would fumble the ensuing kickoff, giving Virginia the ball. This time, they capitalized with another touchdown, a 4-yard rush from running back Perris Jones. Just like that, the score was now 13-16, and all the momentum was on the Cavaliers’ side.
Unfortunately, the offense would slip back into stagnation through the remainder of the third quarter, with Syracuse able to put up three more points from an Andre Szmyt field goal. The Wahoo defense came alive again in the fourth, forcing another fumble (their fourth takeaway of the day) and giving the offense the chance to take the lead (despite Armstrong throwing an interception into triple coverage). Virginia went on to put together the best drive I’ve seen out of them all year. Solid passes and rushing enabled the Hoos to score on fourth-and-goal, with a pass to wide receiver Lavell Davis Jr., taking a 20-19 advantage.
With how well the defense had played all game, and all season, to be frank, I was confident we could hold on and sneak out the victory. Things were looking great until a controversial facemask penalty robbed Virginia of a sack on third down, which would’ve forced Syracuse to punt. The defense continued to bend but not break, yet they eventually conceded three points from Szmyt’s ultimate game-winning field goal, making the final score a heartbreaking 22-20 loss.
I’m sure many of you feel equally optimistic and frustrated over this game. UVA showed up to enemy territory and put in a valiant effort to almost take down an undefeated foe. However, this should’ve been a victory, barring the gaffes from Armstrong and Farrel’s field goal antics. Twelve penalties for 105 yards also created situations that negated excellent plays. If these issues can be sorted out, it’s clear the Wahoos can be a deadly weapon in the ACC. Having a problem with discipline is much easier and quicker to fix than an issue of talent. While the result didn’t go our way, it’s the most promising our Cavs have been all season. Next week they’ll scoot south to Durham, taking on the Duke Blue Devils on October first at 7:30 pm.