CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (AP) — With his team’s lead dwindling and his defense getting weary, Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall knew an extended drive might be just what the Cavaliers needed to hang on against No. 15 North Carolina’s high-octane offense.
A 15-play drive that took more than nine minutes off the clock and ended with a field goal gave the Cavaliers a 44-34 lead, which proved to be just enough. Virginia held on to snap a four-game skid, beating the Tar Heels 44-41 on Saturday night.
“They’re so explosive and you’re never really safe the way they throw the ball,” Mendenhall said. “We wanted to score, but we wanted to take as long as possible.”
The drive reached the Tar Heels’ 10 before a third-down sack forced Virginia to settle for Brian Delaney’s 35-yard field goal.
Brennan Armstrong threw for three touchdowns and ran for another, and Virginia scored 28 consecutive points before the exciting finish to its fourth straight win over the Tar Heels.
Armstrong hit Shane Simpson for 71 yards, Ra’Shaun Henry for 18 and Tony Poljan for 17, the latter giving the Cavaliers (2-4, 2-4 Atlantic Coast Conference) a 41-20 lead with 5:34 left in the third quarter. Two quick North Carolina touchdowns then made it interesting.
The Tar Heels (4-2, 4-2) rallied behind a fantastic performance from quarterback Sam Howell and receiver Dyami Brown. The pair hooked up for three of Howell’s four touchdown passes, covering 54, 10 and 13 yards, the last two with 51 seconds left in the third quarter and then with 13:09 left in the game.
After pulling within 41-27, UNC intercepted Armstrong and Howell’s pass to Brown got them within 41-34, setting the stage for Virginia’s clock-eating drive.
North Carolina followed with a 3-yard scoring run by Javonte Williams.
Armstrong hobbled off after a 3-yard run when the Cavaliers got the ball back, but Keytaon Thompson came on and, on fourth-and-4 from the Virginia 41, took the snap out of punt formation and ran 6 yards to allow Virginia to run out the clock.
“If you don’t get that, they’re in a great position and it’s probably a game-winner, or a game-loser,” Mendenhall said of the fake, which was his call.
“That was just a guy making a play,” added linebacker Charles Snowden, who said he missed a block on the play.
Howell finished 23 for 28 for 443 yards and Dyami Brown caught 11 passes for 240. Last year, as a sophomore, he had six receptions for 202 yards and three more TDs against the Cavaliers.
Armstrong was 12 for 22 for 208 yards and ran for 66 yards as the Cavaliers piled up 210 yards on the ground while limiting the Tar Heels, who arrived averaging 249 rushing yards, to 93. Virginia sacked Howell five times, four by Snowden.
“When you can’t stop the run and you can’t consistently run the ball, you’re not going to win many games,” said Tar Heels coach Mack Brown, who fell to 3-9 against Virginia. “The offense hung in there, obviously scored enough points to win but we didn’t stop the run, we had two turnovers, we had a quarterback fumble that led to points so we didn’t step up with sudden-change defense very well.”
The Cavaliers used two gifts to grab a 27-20 lead 1:14 before halftime. Armstrong was sacked for a 7-yard loss, but a personal foul against Trey Morrison kept the drive alive. The Cavaliers eventually punted, but Rontavius Groves muffed the punt and long snapper Tucker Finkelston recovered at the 20. Three plays later, Thompson ran it in.
The Cavaliers, who allowed a touchdown on the second play at Miami last week, waited twice as long this time. After Howell hit Garrett Walston for 15 yards on third-and-4, he connected with Dyami Brown behind De’Vante Cross for 54 yards and a 7-0 lead after just 1:25.
North Carolina had another drive that took even less time when Howell, on the first play after a fair catch at the 24, hit Khafre Brown on a slant and Brown went 76 yards for a TD.
The Tar Heels almost pulled even before halftime. After passes of 36 yards to Dyami Brown and 29 yards to Dazz Newsome, a pass interference call against Antonio Clary moved the ball to the 2. North Carolina tried a lateral to Newsome, who bobbled the ball. In the ensuing scramble to recover the loose ball, time ran out on the half.
“It was a play we really like based on what they do down there,” Howell said. “I should have taken some off it. I threw a hard ball at him and a little bit behind him. I’ve just got to give him a catchable ball.”
North Carolina: The Tar Heels got a bizarre opportunity in the second quarter and used it to pull even at 13. On third-and-12 from Virginia’s 14, Howell was sacked by Zane Zandier and fumbled. He recovered but the officials inadvertently blew the play dead with the ball still live. That gave UNC the option to redo the play, which it elected to do, but Carter gained nothing on a short pass and Grayson Atkins kicked a 30-yard field goal with 12:33 left.
Virginia: Snowden got off to a slow start this season when he was expected to be dominant, or at least garner much attention, but he’s come alive in the last two weeks. He had 3 1/2 tackles for losses, including a sack, last week in a 19-14 loss at Miami and four sacks against the Tar Heels, including two on one drive to force a field-goal try and another on the opening play of the next drive.
The Tar Heels stay close to home, playing at Duke next Saturday.
Virginia plays the second game of a three-game homestand, hosting Louisville next Saturday night.