MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- On the road against the second-ranked and heavily favored Miami Hurricanes, Virginia led 14-0 in the first quarter, 21-14 at the half, and 28-14 early in the third quarter Saturday afternoon. "We can compete with anybody," said Quin Blanding, the Cavaliers' All-America safety.
In the end, however, an upset that would have shaken up the national championship race never materialized. The Hurricanes owned the fourth quarter at Hard Rock Stadium and pulled away for a 44-28 victory in the penultimate regular-season game for each of these ACC teams. "We came close," Blanding said, "but we came [up] short."
This was a three-point game (31-28) with seven minutes remaining, but Virginia (6-5 overall, 3-4 ACC) turned the ball over on downs near midfield, after which the `Canes (10-0, 7-0) seized control. In total offense, the `Hoos outgained Miami 439 yards to 358, but they also had three turnovers, including an interception that was returned for a third-quarter touchdown.
"There were three to five plays, mostly there toward the end of the game, we couldn't capitalize or didn't capitalize on," UVA head coach Bronco Mendenhall said, "so the finish didn't look as we all would have hoped. But we had plenty of chances, and we were [in position] to pull a great upset for most of the game and just couldn't quite finish."
Over the first 30 minutes, graduate student Kurt Benkert put together one of the finest halves ever by a UVA quarterback. At the break, he was 17-for-18 passing for 262 yards and three touchdowns: one each to wide receivers Olamide Zaccheaus, Joe Reed and Andre Levrone.
In the first two quarters, Benkert said, "I feel like we were able to do what we wanted, really the whole time. And then in the second half they adjusted to us a little bit more, and we just couldn't get things going as much as we'd like to go. "The first half was good, but it wasn't enough to win the game."
Miami's defense applied more pressure to Benkert in the second half, and his accuracy dropped. He threw only one interception, but it was a momentum-changing play. Seven seconds after the `Canes had cut UVA's lead to 28-21, safety Jaquan Johnson picked off a Benkert pass and returned it 30 yards for another TD, to the delight of the home fans in the crowd of 63,415.
Still, Benkert said, "I wasn't devastated. I knew at that point it was just 28-28. Still anybody's ball game. We were still going to have to move the ball regardless if I threw that pick or not, if we wanted to win the game. So that doesn't affect me."
For the game, Benkert completed 28 of 37 passes for 384 yards and four TDs, the final one coming on a 26-yard pass to running back Daniel Hamm early in the third quarter on a short drive set up by true freshman Charles Snowden's blocked punt.
"He extended some plays," Mendenhall said of Benkert. "We had scramble drill going where there were touchdowns happening. We scored from quite a long ways out multiple times, and really he played as effectively as the protection would allow him to play. When Miami had success, it was when they could get to us. When we protected well, we had a lot of good things happen in the pass game. "I thought Kurt was poised and composed and, outside of the interception, did a nice job." The `Canes recorded five sacks Saturday, with four coming in the second half. "They just brought more pressure," Zaccheaus said. "That's really the biggest difference ... Kurt didn't have as much time as he had in the first half."
Offensive line coach Garett Tujague has used several combinations up front this season, with mixed results. Against Miami, true freshman Chris Glaser started at right tackle. The O-line, Mendenhall said, is "still a work in progress and a moving target." When the Cavaliers are running the ball effectively, they can keep defenses off balance. But once "it becomes pass-only" -- as it did in the second half against a stout Miami front seven -- "that's not in our favor."
The line is better than it was in 2016, Mendenhall's first season at UVA, offensive coordinator Robert Anae said after the game Saturday, but it's still prone to inconsistency. "At some point when our program has jumped [to the next level]," Anae said, "it will have happened up front with the offensive line."