CHARLOTTESVILLE—Every football team runs sprints almost every day in practice, and every team’s players always complain about them. Coaches insist they’re worth it, and once in a while, they’re proven right.
Rarely was it more evident than late in the second quarter of Virginia’s 16–13 homecoming victory over 16th-ranked Miami Saturday night.
Trailing 10–3, the Hurricanes took over on their 15-yard line. To that point, they had all of 62 offensive yards and already had changed quarterbacks, benching redshirt freshman N’Kosi Perry in favor of senior Malik Rosier.
Rosier handed the ball to Travis Homer, who burst through a huge hole off left tackle and had nothing but green grass between himself and Scott Stadium’s west end zone, aiming to tie the game.
Bryce Hall had other ideas.
Virginia’s junior cornerback had an angle on Homer, but he had about 15 yards to make up on the Hurricanes’ leading rusher. He managed to do so, though, pushing Homer out of bounds on the Cavaliers’ 15.
Hall’s hustle (and impressive closing speed) paid off when Virginia’s defense stiffened and held the Hurricanes to 5 yards on their next three snaps. Miami kicked a 28-yard field goal, but the Cavaliers ran off the field with momentum.
“Once I saw him break free, I literally went into another zone,” Hall said. “I put my head down and started pumping my arms, pumping my legs. I was on a mission to try to get him… The first expectation of our defense is effort.”
Hall saved not only four points in a three-point game, but you could argue that he saved the game—and potentially the season. If the Cavaliers (4–2, 2–1) stay in the race for the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Coastal Division title—and their remaining schedule isn’t all that daunting—Hall’s hustle may be the pivotal point.
“Without him making that play, the game could have gone differently,” said senior safety Juan Thornhill, who had two interceptions. “It could have been tremendously different. The game could have been in their hands, not ours.”
The Cavaliers won three of their first five games thanks largely to transfer quarterback Bryce Perkins and an offense that entered play Saturday averaging 30.2 points per game. But Miami’s defense was ranked second nationally, and the Hurricanes intercepted Perkins three times in the first half alone and held Virginia to 231 total yards.
So Virginia needed its defense to play above expectations. That bar has been set pretty low recently.
The Cavaliers allowed 452 rushing yards to Navy in a 49–7 Military Bowl loss last December—and that defensive unit featured a pair of All-Americas in linebacker Micah Kiser and safety Quin Blanding.
This year’s team ceded 35 points and 433 yards in a loss to N.C. State in its last outing, and also gave up 31 points in a win over Ohio. Miami had scored at least 40 points in three of its last six meetings with Virginia.
So Saturday night’s effort was built on desire and hustle—with some help from an inept Miami offensive performance that was inexplicable, given coach Mark Richt’s pedigree. He was Florida State’s offensive coordinator for many of the Seminoles’ glory years, then oversaw Georgia’s explosive offense as head coach for 15 seasons.
The Cavaliers picked off Miami quarterbacks three times and kept the Hurricanes out of the end zone until 3:04 remained. The offense helped out with a 16-play field goal drive that consumed 8:34 before Miami’s TD, and another that ate up all the time afterwards, thanks to a late roughing-the-kicker penalty.
But it was Hall’s hustle that re-energized the Cavaliers and set up Bronco Mendenhall’s biggest victory in three years as head coach. It wasn’t quite Darrell Green running down Tony Dorsett as a rookie, but it will be remembered for a long time in Charlottesville.
“He was close enough that I could see his eyes and hear him grunting,” Mendenhall said. “It was, ‘He’s gonna catch that guy.’ It might have been my favorite play.”