CHARLOTTESVILLE — So much dancing. So much joy. So much pent-up frustration falling away as Virginia students streamed off the hill to join their football team in the middle of the field, where the celebration of a 16-13 upset of No. 16 Miami began.
Their most electrifying player had a rough game, and they still won.
They gave up a 93-yard touchdown drive in the final quarter, where three defenders were left lying on their bellies when the ball entered the end zone, and they still won.
They committed too many turnovers and made some mistakes, and they still won.
This upset happened because of a democratic effort that included a lot of stellar defense and a little bit of good fortune. What the Cavaliers didn’t have was somebody go off for 400 passing yards or 200 rushing yards or any other huge outlier, unless you count Juan Thornhill’s two interceptions or Brian Delaney’s heretofore untapped placekicking prowess.
Virginia fans should be thrilled by all of this, and no doubt are. It’s the sign of an evolving team, one that can punch with both fists and not just rely on the excellence of one or two individuals.
Bryce Perkins has been the No. 1 difference for the Cavaliers this season, the biggest cause for excitement and hope. He’s one of only 10 quarterbacks since 2000 to have at least 1,100 passing yards, 340 rushing yards, 11 passing touchdowns and three rushing touchdowns through the first five games of a season. That list includes such dual-threat deities as Lamar Jackson, Dak Prescott and Tim Tebow.
If you’d stipulated that Perkins would throw three first half interceptions, that would spell doom for this upset bid, wouldn’t it? Certainly nobody would have predicted the Cavaliers would lug a 13-6 lead into the locker room.
But a rugged performance by this defense made it so.
Short-yardage plays speak loudly in games like this. When even your opponent’s mascot has swagger — did you see that ibis taunting the Scott Stadium crowd in pregame? — early statements matter. And Virginia made one on Miami’s first possession of the game.
Facing a fourth-and-2 near midfield, Hurricanes quarterback N’Kosi Perry tried to scramble up the middle. Cornerback Tim Harris and defensive end Eli Hanback came up to whack him short of the sticks, standing him up and pushing him back in a “not so fast, visitors” moment.
Over and over in the first half, the UVa defense covered for a Cavaliers offense that looked unsure of itself. The UVa offense put 12 men on the field — twice. They committed a delay of game. Perkins put too much air and not enough oomph on three of his passes, leading to easy picks.
But the defense hit hard and covered well — so well that Miami coach Mark Richt pulled Perry early in the second quarter. Sophomore middle linebacker Zane Zandier lived up to his fabulous “ZZ Stop” nickname with team-high five tackles in the first half. Hanback, Mandy Alonso and Jordan Redmond regularly got penetration against the Miami offensive line, scrambling the backfield operations.
Delaney — a sophomore listed as Virginia’s starting kickoff man but not on the place-kicking two-deep — was a pleasant surprise of the highest order.
He booted a 26-yarder for his first career field goal to open the night’s scoring, then kicked the program’s longest field goal in three years (46 yards) as the first half expired.
He made it 3-for-3 with his 32-yarder in the fourth quarter. Where’s this guy been all their lives?
Perkins spent much of the night looking uncomfortable, and that’s understandable. Miami’s defense came into this game leading the nation in tackles for loss. Long-developing plays are almost impossible against this bunch, and that meant that Perkins’ best aerial weapon — deep throws to speedster Olamide Zaccheaus — were taken out of the playbook for the most part.
In their place came screens and dunks and run-pass options and handoffs to Jordan Ellis up the gut. With the Cavaliers defense playing as well as it was, that was enough.
When it ended, when the Cavaliers beat a ranked opponent for the first time in 10 tries, the players held their helmets aloft and sprinted toward midfield. Then they disappeared inside the ocean of blue and orange.
Fitting, that was. For UVa, this wasn’t a night for individual glory, but joy in the collective.