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ACC Football: A not-so-special effort by Virginia against Wake Forest
BY TAFT COGHILL JR.
CHARLOTTESVILLE—It was perhaps fitting the University of Virginia football team’s sixth-straight defeat came down to a special teams miscue.
The Cavaliers have been haunted by mistakes from the unit all season.
So when Wake Forest freshman Alexander Kinal’s punt bounced off Virginia return man Khalek Shepherd’s facemask and into the arms of the Demon Deacons’ Joe LaBarbera with 1:59 left in the game, the crowd of 41,167 at Scott Stadium hardly seemed surprised.
Fans sighed, then exited immediately as the Demon Deacons handed Virginia a 16–10 Atlantic Coast Conference defeat.
“You can say that’s the last play of the game, but it’s 80 more plays in between that if you do a couple things differently, it doesn’t come down to that,” Virginia special teams coach Anthony Poindexter said.
“The kid, it ain’t on him. He made a human error. We’ve all made them. I want him to hold his head high.
He’ll be back there when we play N.C. State [on Nov. 3] because he’s done a great job all year.”
Shepherd wasn’t alone when it came to hurting the Cavaliers (2–6, 0–4 ACC) on special teams Saturday. Thirteen of the Demon Deacons’ 16 points came after big special teams plays.
London said it was “very demoralizing” to see the special teams perform that way after a week spent emphasizing the unit.
But a 60-yard punt return by Wake Forest’s Lovell Jackson set up the Demon Deacons’ only touchdown of the game—a 16-yard run by Josh Harris in the first quarter.
After Virginia tied the game at 7 on Tim Smith’s 13-yard reception from quarterback Phillip Sims 20 seconds before halftime, Kyle McCartin was called for a personal foul on the ensuing kickoff.
Wake Forest (4–3, 2–3) took over at the Virginia 45-yard line. Demon Deacons’ kicker Chad Hedlund connected on a 22-yard field goal two plays later to give his team a 10–7 lead.
“We needed that energy going into the half,” Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe said.
The Cavaliers’ special teams weren’t done. A block in the back penalty during a Wake Forest punt kept a Demon Deacons third-quarter drive alive and led to another Hedlund field goal.
Poindexter said he’s miserable because his unit is “costing us games.”
“I’m responsible for it, so I’ve got to identify the problems and whoever keeps creating the same problems, the same issues, you just can’t play them,” Poindexter said. “It’s sad, man, because for us to play like we did on defense and give up  yards of passing,  rushing, 213 total yards, you’ve got to beat teams when you do that, bottom line. It’s just a mess.”
The Cavaliers outgained their opponent in a loss for the fourth-straight game. The defense also held Wake Forest to one third-down conversion on 15 attempts.
Sims delivered perhaps his best performance in a starting role this season, but the running game gained just 48 yards against the nation’s 105th ranked run defense.
Despite the lack of a ground attack, Sims completed 22 of 39 passes for 253 yards, a touchdown and an interception in his third start of the season.
However, his lone turnover was costly. The Cavaliers were driving when he lofted a deep pass toward sophomore wide receiver Darius Jennings. Wake Forest cornerback Kevin Johnson hauled in the pass, although London said Jennings could’ve fought harder to break it up.
“The DB did a great job of playing it,” Sims said. “I kind of got hit when I was throwing it a little bit, so I didn’t get the oomph behind it I wanted. But no matter what I’ve got to throw the ball out of bounds.”
The play came with 9:51 left in the game and the Cavaliers trailing by the final margin. They reached Wake Forest’s 36-yard line on their next possession, but they lost 17 yards on second and third down and had to punt.
After the Demon Deacons were held without a first down, Sims thought the stage was set for a game-winning touchdown drive. Instead, the Cavaliers were left to lament yet another special teams gaffe.
The Cavaliers have a bye this week before they visit N.C. State.
“It’s not going to be about the schemes of who we’re getting ready to play, but taking care of ourselves and eliminating some of the things we do that continue to keep costing us,” London said. “That’s what the open week will be dedicated to—fixing ourselves.”
Taft Coghill Jr.: 540/374-5526