For one quarter, Virginia seemed to have everything figured out.
The Cavaliers went into the second quarter trailing North Carolina 21-7 and badly needed to get themselves together before the Tar Heels ran away with the game. After a UNC field goal made it 24-7, the Hoos responded with touchdowns on three consecutive drives to take a 28-24 lead going into the second half.
Unfortunately for UVA, that momentum was not sustained into the second half. Sam Howell and the Tar Heels responded with a 28-3 run and this time, they did not take their foot off the gas and the Cavaliers could not get back into the game, even despite a record-breaking performance from Brennan Armstrong.
Armstrong threw for a school-record 554 yards but the UVA offense could not keep up with a relentless UNC attack which torched Virginia for 699 yards and Virginia suffered its first loss of the season to No. 21 North Carolina, 59-39, in Chapel Hill on Saturday night.
North Carolina came into this game with something to prove. UVA had won each of the last four meetings between the two old rivals and there had been some chatter between the two teams ahead of this matchup that the Cavaliers had been more physical than the Tar Heels in the previous games.
UNC made sure that the same could not be said in this one.
Virginia’s first drive stalled in Carolina territory and UVA was forced to punt. It took just four plays and 1:14 of game time for UNC to drive 82 yards and score the first points of the game. Sam Howell threw a short pass to Josh Downs, who ran 59 yards for a touchdown.
That Howell to Downs connection gave the UVA defense nightmares all game long, as Downs recorded eight receptions for 203 yards and two touchdowns.
On the ensuing UVA drive, Armstrong found Dontayvion Wicks for a 49-yard completion into the UNC red zone. But a botched handoff from Armstrong to Keytaon Thompson resulted in a fumble recovered by the Tar Heels.
It took just 1:16 for North Carolina to score again, as Howell threw a 37-yard pass to Downs, who made a leaping grab in the back left corner of the end zone to make it 14-0.
Virginia responded with a 10-play, 72-yard drive, capped off by a Wayne Taulapapa touchdown run to get the Hoos on the board.
Khafre Brown, who had one reception for 76 yards and a touchdown against Virginia last season, caught a 75-yard touchdown pass from Howell on the next drive to put UNC back up by two scores in the blink of an eye. The Tar Heels scored three touchdowns on their first eight offensive plays of the game.
UVA’s defense was already depleted coming into the game, with Nick Grant held out for undisclosed medical reasons. Even if Grant had played, it may not have changed much as the UVA secondary was helpless against North Carolina’s passing attack in the first half.
“They were dominant,” said UVA head coach Bronco Mendenhall of UNC’s offense. “Their execution from beginning to end was superior.”
Virginia played much better on both sides of the ball in the second quarter. The UVA defense held UNC to a field goal in the red zone to make it 24-7. Then, Armstrong found Dontayvion Wicks down the left sideline for a diving touchdown reception.
Wicks finished with seven receptions for 183 yards and the touchdown.
Howell drove the Tar Heels down the field, but the Virginia defense made a huge stop as Fentrell Cypress II intercepted Howell’s pass in the end zone and returned it out to midfield. That play set up another UVA score on an Armstrong bootleg pass to Jelani Woods to make it 24-21.
UVA then made its third-straight stop on the defensive end, as UNC missed a field goal wide right on its next possession and Virginia got the ball back with just over a minute to play in the first half. Armstrong led the Hoos down the field in 55 seconds and threw a beautiful 21-yard fade to Kemp in the front left corner of the end zone to give UVA a 28-24 lead going into halftime.
Just like the first quarter, North Carolina came out very strongly to start the third quarter. Ty Chandler ran for 60 yards, which set up a five-yard touchdown from Howell to Garrett Walston to retake the lead.
UVA went three-and-out on its next possession and Josh Downs returned the punt 35 yards into Virginia territory. Caleb Hood then scored a five-yard rushing touchdown to make it 38-28.
Just as North Carolina decimated Virginia with Howell’s arm in the first quarter, the Tar Heels dominated UVA with their ground game in the second half, which had the added advantage of keeping the Cavalier offense off the field for longer periods of time.
UVA kicked a field goal to draw within seven points, but that would be Virginia’s last points until the fourth quarter.
Ty Chandler scored a rushing touchdown on the next possession and after a Brennan Armstrong interception, Howell found Kamari Morales for a touchdown to make it 52-31 to essentially knock UVA out of the game late in the third quarter.
Billy Kemp scored a touchdown in the fourth quarter on a pitch from Armstrong, but it was not enough as UNC continued to deliver long scoring possessions. Kemp finished with eight receptions for 106 yards and two touchdowns.
We expected that this matchup might feature quite the quarterbacking duel, but Sam Howell and Brennan Armstrong surpassed expectations by a mile. Howell threw for 307 yards and five touchdowns and added 15 carries for 112 yards on the ground. Armstrong completed 39 of 54 passes for four touchdowns and 554, shattering the previous UVA single-game passing record set by Kurt Benkert, who had 455 passing yards against UConn in 2017. Armstrong also set UVA school records with 364 passing yards in the first half and 538 yards of total offense, breaking Bryce Perkins' record of 490 total yards, also against North Carolina in 2019.
Armstrong was barely a factor in the UVA rushing game, though, as he appeared hampered by an injured knee which kept him in a knee brace. The UVA rushing game was practically nonexistent as the Hoos were forced to pass the ball as they spent most of the game trailing by a wide margin.
North Carolina’s rushing game, on the other hand, was surprisingly lethal. UNC rushed for 392 yards, led by Ty Chandler, who recorded 20 carries for 298 yards and two touchdowns. Caleb Hood added 66 yards and a touchdown.
North Carolina amassed 699 yards of total offense and scored eight touchdowns against UVA’s defense.
Virginia had several players exit the game with injuries, including Wayne Taulapapa, who suffered a concussion, and Joey Blount, who suffered an injured collarbone, which Bronco Mendenhall says does not appear to be broken.
Virginia’s performances in weeks one and two, especially on the defensive end, were inflated by the quality of UVA’s opponents in those games. Weaknesses and flaws which were not apparent in the blowout victories over William & Mary and Illinois were severely exposed by the explosive UNC offense. North Carolina showed early that the UVA secondary, especially without Nick Grant, lacked the speed to keep up with the UNC wide receivers. The Virginia defense adjusted to protect against the deep ball, which appeared to be an effective strategy in the second quarter. However, in making that adjustment, the UVA defense had less players in the box, leaving major holes for UNC’s running backs to gain lots of yardage before contact, leading to a slew of long rushing plays in the second half.
There were certainly some bright spots in Virginia’s 20-point loss at North Carolina. UVA’s second-quarter performance showed a tremendous level of toughness and resilience. Brennan Armstrong led a potent UVA offensive effort for 39 points and 574 yards of total offense against a decent North Carolina defense.
This loss by no means spells the end of the season for UVA and everything the Cavaliers want to achieve this year is still in play.
The Hoos will look to get back on track as they return home to face Wake Forest on Friday night.