Coming off a win over then-#21 Louisville last week, the Virginia Cavaliers had a chance to knock off the 21st-ranked team in the country again Saturday at BYU, but poor special teams undid a mostly solid effort otherwise as the Cougars outlasted the Cavaliers, 41-33, in Provo, Utah. Virginia’s punt return unit was nullified by the work of BYU punter Scott Arellano, who averaged 55 yards per kick and had four downed inside the UVA 20.
That swung field position in BYU’s favor for most of the game, but Virginia’s offense, first led by starting quarterback Greyson Lambert and then, after he left with an ankle injury, Matt Johns, was mostly able to overcome the yardage handicap. BYU’s kill shot came on special teams, however, in the fourth quarter after Khalek Shepherd scored on a 9-yard touchdown run to pull the Cavaliers (2-2, 1-0 ACC) to within 34-26.
On the ensuing kickoff, BYU junior Adam Hine ran right up the middle and thanks to either a breakdown in Virginia’s coverage or a very poorly designed kickoff coverage, Hine had only kicker Ian Frye to beat near midfield. Hine lost Frye easily and scored on 99-yard kickoff return to rebuild BYU’s lead to 15 points. Virginia eventually scored again on an impressive 98-yard drive led by Johns and culminated by an 11-yard TD pass to Kyle Dockins, but the return was too much to overcome.
The game in some sense is a snapshot of where Virginia is right now. The Cavaliers are far removed from the horrible team that went 2-10 and winless in the ACC last season. And any stigma of that winless conference slate had already been erased thanks to the win over Louisville last Saturday. But a win at BYU would have lifted Virginia to 3-1 and forced people to take the Cavaliers seriously in the ACC. But much the loss to then-#7 UCLA, Virginia couldn’t get all three phases of the game playing solidly at the same time in such a fashion as to pull the upset.
On that day, it was the offense that faltered, as UCLA scored three defensive touchdowns in a 28-20 win in Charlottesville. Today, the defense wasn’t great, giving up 34 of the BYU points — but it could have been much worse. Often after significant BYU gains, the UVA defense buckled down and forced field goals or otherwise got stops. Given the Cougars’ offensive success to this point in 2014 (488 yards total offense per game), the fact that UVA held the Cougars to 332 today is rather impressive (though the field position played a role in that, too).
The offense wasn’t bad, though it still lacked imagination at times and there were some questionable passes down field at times when a shorter, simpler route could have kept a drive alive. But even with Lambert’s injury, UVA threw for 327 yards and completed 35 passes. The Cavaliers also ran for 192 yards on 44 attempts, led by Shepherd’s 73-yard effort.
But the special teams weren’t there today and it cost Virginia the opportunity to get a signature win. This could be the difference between either Virginia getting to a bowl at all, or getting to a decent one should they play decently well the rest of the way. BYU is a good team that may well go undefeated this season, but the Cavaliers could have beaten the Cougars today had the special teams not been so lopsided in BYU’s favor.