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Barber: UVa lets opportunity to elevate program slip away in 59-39 loss at North Carolina
COMMENTARY

Barber: UVa lets opportunity to elevate program slip away in 59-39 loss at North Carolina

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Virginia North Carolina Football

North Carolina wide receiver Khafre Brown (center) runs for a touchdown as Virginia outside linebacker Noah Taylor (left) chases during the first half of Saturday’s game in Chapel Hill, N.C.

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Two dominating performances over the first two weeks of the college football season set the stage, Saturday night, for Virginia’s potential ascension to national respect.

Beat nationally ranked North Carolina, the preseason favorite in the ACC Coastal, in its house, in prime time, and, as senior defensive end Mandy Alonso put it during the week, UVa would be the one talked about on ESPN and the ACC Network.

People sure were talking after the Tar Heels’ 59-39 win, but the Cavaliers probably didn’t love what was being said.

“We missed an opportunity,” said Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall after his team’s worst defensive outing since his first season leading the program in 2016. “UNC outplayed us, out-prepared us and really, especially on the offensive side, took over the game.”

Virginia proved, quite literally, not ready for prime time. A matchup that presented UVa the chance to grab for the next rung, instead, saw them slip and fall off the ladder.

On a picture perfect fall night in central North Carolina, where the only cloud in the sky cleared out just before kickoff and the Tar Heels’ crowd roared so loudly you might have thought there was a basketball game breaking out, UVa had its chance to grab a spot near the front of the pack in the race for the Coastal Division title.

Instead, it faltered in impressively disappointing fashion, giving up the most points it has allowed in a regular-season game since allowing 59 to both Clemson and Oregon in 2016. North Carolina racked up 699 total yards of offense, with Sam Howell throwing for 307 yards and five touchdowns and running for another 112.

Running back Ty Chandler, a transfer from Tennessee, rushed for 198 yards and two scores on a night when UVa’s defense oscillated between being out of position and unable to tackle when it was in the right spot.

During the week, UNC offensive coordinator Phil Longo praised Virginia’s defense for shoring up areas of weakness from last season. But Saturday night, that unit regressed, turning in an historically bad performance, one so poor it virtually undid quarterback Brennan Armstrong’s historic night on the other side of the ball.

Armstrong set a school record throwing for 554 yards, becoming the first UVa quarterback to eclipse 400 passing yards in back-to-back games and the first to surpass 300 in three straight.

“I really don’t think about the record. I think about the loss,” said Armstrong. “Now, we take a sad bus ride home.”

Alonso — 4-0 against North Carolina in his UVa career, before Saturday — boasted during the week that the Cavaliers would play hard for four quarters and that the Tar Heels couldn’t “sustain” that kind of effort for a full game, words the home crowd reminded him of throughout the evening, especially late as UNC had rebuilt its commanding lead.

“They got tired of hearing they weren’t tough,” said Carolina coach Mack Brown.

Now, it’s Virginia’s chance to show its mettle. The Cavaliers host undefeated Wake Forest on Friday night, a quick turnaround and an important moment to show resilience.

A win will be important, though it won’t vault UVa into any national spotlight.

That opportunity slipped through its hands Saturday night. Like so many North Carolina ball carriers, the Cavaliers simply couldn’t get their hands on it.

mbarber@timesdispatch.com

Twitter: @RTD_MikeBarber

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