CHARLOTTESVILLE — They keep nodding their heads to every question thrown their way, these Cavaliers.
Yes, yes, yes.
Can they beat Pitt for the first time under Bronco Mendenhall? Yes.
Can they put away a lesser team emphatically in a potential letdown spot? Yep.
And most importantly, could they rally from three separate deficits against a blue-blooded program that has historically dominated them, overcome a potentially crippling missed extra point and some questionable flags, make one final stop on a crazy drive and send an enormous message to the rest of the ACC’s Coastal Division?
Yep. They could — and did.
The big-game atmosphere returned to Scott Stadium after a lengthy hiatus on Saturday night, and Virginia responded with a 31-24 victory over Florida State that few here will forget.
It was just the fourth win for the Cavaliers in 19 tries against FSU, which has had unfamiliar struggles under coach Willie Taggart but still fields plenty of A-list talent.
The Cavaliers won it with great defense early and clutch offense late. They won it with brilliance from quarterback Bryce Perkins and huge plays from their receiving corps. And they won it with some help from FSU’s trademark lack of discipline, as the ACC’s second-most penalized team coming into the night was flagged 10 more times for 83 yards.
For all of FSU’s issues this season, scoring early had not been one of them. The Seminoles put up 21 points in the first quarter of each of their initial two games — and none on Saturday night.
FSU averaged just 4.1 yards per play in the opening quarter, as the Cavaliers bottled up star running back Cam Akers and pressured quarterback James Blackman into six incompletions in nine passing attempts. It was a near-perfect start for this defense, which allowed an average of just 228 total yards in UVa’s first two victories.
By halftime, UVa had outgained FSU but trailed on the scoreboard, thanks largely to a red zone interception by Perkins and a shanked punt that set up the Seminoles in plus territory. The fans still had plenty of reason to believe.
Which brings us to traffic. That was the first thing you noticed if you came to this one. What’s normally a breezy entrance to the lots near Scott Stadium morphed into metropolis-style stop-and-go, as crossing guards here had to work harder than they had in years.
UVa announced 57,826 for the game, the most at this venue since the 2015 home opener against Notre Dame. There were still some empty seats dotting the upper deck, but the grassy area overlooking the end zone was jammed, as was the entire lower bowl. When the Cavaliers talk about process, that’s a big part of it — trying to turn this building into a fortress. Fans did their part.
Those supporters can be forgiven if they gasp every time Perkins carries the ball, as they react with a mixture of exhilaration and fear. Every run he makes is a potential game-tilter, every hit he takes a potential season-crusher.
Two snaps after turning a broken play into a first down with his legs, Perkins was blasted near the sideline as he tried to scramble in the first quarter. Later, he was smacked in the chest by an FSU defender despite going into a slide, drawing the ire of the crowd but no flag. He came up limping.
Perkins didn’t miss a down, but it was another reminder of the fragile ecosystem in which this offense operates. Mendenhall insists that he loves his backup quarterback. He’d still rather not see him play any snaps that truly matter.
We were reminded of that during UVa’s game-tying touchdown drive that began in the third quarter and ended early in the fourth. On a fourth-and-2 play, Perkins was hit at the line of scrimmage and carried three FSU tacklers for a first down. And after playing pitch-and-catch with Terrell Jana for most of the drive, he hit wideout Joe Reed in the end zone on a pretty pass lofted over the FSU secondary.
And then he did it again on the two-point conversion that created the final margin, slaloming through the FSU defense on the kind of play very few men can make.
But there was still more work to do. Penalties helped keep FSU’s final drive going, and it reached the UVa 4-yard line with enough time for one final play.
With the crowd at full throat, Akers took a direct snap and tried the right side. Bryce Hall and De’Vante Cross got themselves in position to make a stop.
Could they bring him down shy of the goal line?
Yes, yes, yes.