Jameel Sewell played a nearly flawless first half for the Virginia Cavaliers. Aided by a revamped offense that featured more rushing attempts by the running backs, throwing the ball, and even the quarterback lined up directly behind the center, Sewell was able to lead Virginia to a 27-10 halftime lead.
The first touchdown for the Cavaliers was a masterpiece. Early in the first quarter, Virginia began its second drive on its own 12 yard line. After runs by Dominique Wallace and Rashawn Jackson, Virginia was faced with a third and four. Jared Green, who had all but disappeared from the Virginia playbook, came up big for the Cavaliers as he picked up the first down on a short out route. Jackson charged ahead for a nine yard run on the next play, and it appeared that the Virginia game plan was to run the football right at the Eagles’ front seven. So on second and one, the Eagles bit on a perfectly executed play action. Sewell faked the hand off to Wallace, and then threw a 69 yard bomb to true freshman receiver Tim Smith in stride for the touchdown.
Virginia had finally learned how to run an offense, and it was a beautiful sight.
Two Southern Mississippi fumbles deep in its own territory led to two Virginia field goals, and the Cavaliers stretched the lead to 13-0.
The Eagles would respond early in the second quarter, as they efficiently moved the ball down the field on a 14 play, 85 yard touchdown drive that resulted in a six yard touchdown run from running back Damion Fletcher. Southern Mississippi converted two big third and longs on this drive, and frequently picked on Virginia defensive back Devin Wallace, who was playing for the injured Chris Cook.
Sewell responded with a touchdown drive of his own that was capped with a 29 yard touchdown pass to receiver Kris Burd on a post route. This drive succeeded because the Cavaliers passed the ball on third and short. In previous games, we would have most likely seen a quarterback run to the left (or right if Brandon and Groh really wanted to mix things up), or a running back draw. But Sewell found Jared Green to convert a third and two, and later connected with tight end Joe Torchia for a 15 yard pass on third and four.
Sewell’s lone blemish in the first half came on a throw to Tim Smith on a slant route. The throw hit Smith in the hands, and in a failing effort to corral the ball, Smith popped the ball up into the air. Linebacker Martez Smith came up with the interception for the Eagles on the Virginia nine yard line. The Virginia defense limited the Eagles to a field goal, and the Cavaliers found themselves in control with a 20-10 advantage and 4:33 remaining in the first half.
Virginia ended the first half with a 15 play, 77 yard touchdown drive to give the Cavaliers a 17 point cushion heading into the locker room. The touchdown drive was assisted by two huge Southern Mississippi penalties:
On third and seven, Sewell’s pass to Torchia fell incomplete. But Virginia was bailed out on a questionable defensive pass interference call, and the Cavaliers were given a first down on their own 45 yard line.
Later in the drive, Virginia attempted the ever popular quarterback run on third down, but Sewell was tackled short of the first down. The Cavaliers were forced to settle for a 40 yard field goal, but Robert Randolph’s kick fell short of the crossbar. However, Randolph timed it just right, and fell down right after defensive back Michael McGee laid out to block the kick. McGee was flagged for running into the kicker, and Virginia was awarded yet another gift first down. Sewell, and the rest of the Virginia offense, was able to capitalize off of these mistakes as Sewell would eventually run for a four yard touchdown.
Sewell had arguably played the best 30 minutes of football of his collegiate career in the first half. He completed 15 of 22 attempts for 197 yards and two touchdowns. Combine that with 41 rushing yards and one touchdown on nine carries, and you are looking at some solid numbers.
But it was not just the stats that were impressive for Sewell. Sewell looked confident. He stood strong in the pocket and accurately delivered the ball to his receivers. He effectively led the offense down the field on three touchdown scoring drives of 76 yards or more. But that was the first half.
Southern Mississippi would fumble the ball on the opening kickoff of the second half, but this time Virginia would not capitalize on the turnover. Instead, Jamie Collins scooped the ball up for the Eagles and continued the return all the way to the Virginia 32 yard line.
The Eagles almost wasted their excellent field position, as the Virginia defense held strong for three plays. But Austin Davis converted the fourth and one on a quarterback sneak to move the chains. The Eagles, behind the running of Damion Fletcher, moved the ball down to the two yard line where they were faced with a third and one. The Eagles ran a bootleg, and Austin Davis connected with his wide open tight end in the back of the end zone for six.
Virginia would immediately respond with another long touchdown drive. Javaris Brown came up huge on this drive, as he had catches of 25 and 27 yards, the latter of which brought the ball down to the Southern Mississippi one yard line. Sewell ran the ball in for his second rushing touchdown of the day, and Virginia extended the lead back to 17 with 7:19 to play in the third quarter.
And then the Cavaliers collapsed.
Freddie Parham returned the ensuing kickoff all the way to the end zone, and just like that, Virginia’s lead was down to 34-24.
The Virginia offense returned to its old ways of being completely ineffective. Sewell lacked the pocket presence that he showed in the first half. He was quick to roll out of the pocket, and failed to find the open receivers. The play-calling became more conservative, as Groh attempted to hold onto the lead, rather than try to extend it. The quarterback option read became predictable, and the Virginia rushing attack came to a halt.
While the Virginia running game was completely unproductive in the second half, the Southern Mississippi running backs were having a field day. The Eagles ran for 157 yards against a pathetic Virginia defense in the second half, including a 57 yard touchdown run by Tory Harrison to put the Eagles up 37-34 with 8:01 left in the game (This touchdown run coincidentally happened at about the same time as Tyrod Taylor’s 80 yard completion to Danny Coale. Needless to say, those 30 seconds were painful and laced with profanity.)
Just over four minutes remained in the game, and Virginia had the ball on its own four yard line. This was where Sewell would get to show everyone why he was named the starting quarterback. Because he knew how to win games. He did it in 2007, and he would do it again against Southern Mississippi.
Sewell immediately gave the ‘Hoos some breathing room as he ran the ball on first down out to the 20 yard line. Two plays later, the Cavaliers were looking at a third and eight. Sewell threw the ball to Kris Burd, who hauled in a monster 14 yard catch for the first down.
But then Sewell fumbled the ball on first down, and only managed to recover it after losing four yards. The Eagles blitzed on second down, and Sewell’s pass to running back Mikell Simpson fell incomplete. On third and 14, Sewell unloaded a deep ball to Kris Burd. The throw was terrible, but Southern Mississippi found itself victim of another defensive pass interference penalty. The penalty advanced the ball to Virginia’s 47 yard line, and there was still hope for that elusive first win.
After an incompletion on first down, Sewell found Jared Green for a first down at the Southern Mississippi 41 yard line. But on second and ten, Sewell was sacked for a ten yard loss. After two more incompletions, the game was over. Southern Mississippi took over on downs, and ran the clock out.
Virginia had blown two different 17 point leads and lost its third straight game. Sewell played admirably in the first half, but couldn’t lead his team on that game winning drive that we grew accustomed to seeing in 2007. And Groh, well, he tried. He made some necessary changes on offense, but like we have seen time after time in his tenure, got out coached in the second half.
Game Ball goes to Kris Burd. He struggled against TCU last week, but was an absolute boss in the defeat at Southern Mississippi. Burd finished with six catches for 79 yards, and caught his first collegiate touchdown pass. He hauled in everything that was thrown his way, and came up huge for Virginia on many plays.