Virginia hopes last week’s second-half surge ignites winning stretch

The Virginia football team had failed to accomplish much offensively during the first half of its game last week, compelling first-year coach Tony Elliott to issue a stern challenge to his players in the subdued locker room.

The message focused on not simply reducing but eliminating self-inflicted errors such as false starts and holding penalties that plagued the Cavaliers to that point in their ACC opener against Syracuse and had them trailing, 16-0, Friday night at JMA Wireless Dome.

With a rejuvenated attitude and far cleaner execution, Virginia stormed back to claim a one-point lead late in the fourth quarter before the Orange kicked a field goal for a 22-20 triumph that became certain when Syracuse batted down quarterback Brennan Armstrong’s fourth-down pass with 27 seconds to play.

Still, without drawing any satisfaction in a moral victory, the Cavaliers (2-2, 0-1 ACC), who face Duke (3-1, 0-0) Saturday night in Durham, N.C., acknowledged they are moving closer to resembling the prolific attack for which Armstrong, a fifth-year senior, set program records in total offense and passing last year.

Virginia falls, 22-20, at Syracuse even after erasing 16-point deficit

“It’s an excellent show as to what we can be as a group, the kind of pressure that we can apply to defenses and to carry that forward and not just make it a second-half display but a four-quarter display,” Virginia running back Perris Jones said. “I think if we can do that and help our defense out, then it would be beneficial for us.”

For the stagnant offense that meant getting the running game in gear after amassing only 43 yards during the first half, allowing Syracuse’s defense to concentrate almost exclusively on limiting Armstrong’s bids to jump-start the passing game.

The Cavaliers amassed 106 rushing yards in the second half, primarily between the tackles. Syracuse, according to Elliott, had placed a premium on not allowing runners to turn the corner on the perimeter, so he and offensive coordinator Des Kitchings modified their tactics.

Jones thrived the most thereafter, providing the vast majority of the pop up the middle for 77 yards and one touchdown on 10 carries in the second half. The senior from Alexandria who was a standout at Episcopal High School scored on a four-yard run with 9:26 to go in the third quarter to draw Virginia within 16-13.

Jones had just three carries for 11 yards before halftime in the Cavaliers’ first game without a point in the first half since a 28-3 home loss to Notre Dame on Nov. 13, 2021. Armstrong, then nursing sore ribs, did not play against the Fighting Irish.

“Offensively another situation early in the game [when] guys started to panic and go away from the things that we’ve been teaching them to do and just trying to play ball,” Elliott said. “That’s just not who I am. That’s not who we are as a program, and because of that we’re not playing complementary football.

“Defense gave us some short fields. We couldn’t capitalize. As soon as we hit a big play, then we have a mental mistake. You know, we have a holding call, a false start, something that gets us behind the chains, and we knew going in there’s going to be a lot of junk going on in the interior with their multiple fronts, but I give the guys credit. They fought back.”

A defensive gaffe on the part of the Cavaliers, however, led to the decisive field goal for Syracuse with 1:14 to play.

Middle Tennessee. James Madison. How lesser-known teams do enchant us.

On third and seven from the Orange 41, linebacker Hunter Stewart sacked quarterback Garrett Shrader for a six-yard loss but was called for a face mask penalty. An offside infraction on Virginia moments later moved the ball to its 13-yard line, setting up Andre Szmyt’s 31-yard winner.

The promising second half nonetheless buoyed spirits this week during practice ahead of a showdown against an opponent the Cavaliers have beaten seven consecutive times but ranks third in the ACC in total offense (461 yards per game), including fourth in rushing (188.5 yards per game), this season.

The memory of last year’s 48-0 thumping of the Blue Devils also engenders confidence an upswing might be at hand. In that game at Scott Stadium, Armstrong threw for 364 yards and two touchdowns, and the defense yielded 325 total yards and collected two interceptions.

“Nobody likes to lose, but we’ve seen the potential we have if we start fast and start out the right way rather than having to worry about trying to pick it up on the back side,” Cavaliers senior linebacker Chico Bennett said. “No one wants to do that, but it’s life. It’s the game of football. I think we’re going to be all right.”

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