ATLANTA — Virginia got to the Chick-fil-A Bowl with gutsy playcalling and flawless execution.
That’s exactly how Auburn won it.
The Tigers and Cavaliers traded offensive strikes, but special teams and turnovers were the difference for Virginia in a 43-24 New Year’s eve loss at a sold-out Georgia Dome.
Auburn blocked two punts, the second for a safety, and recovered a surprise onside kick. On offense the dominance was more traditional, as the Tigers run game took advantage of key injuries to the U.Va. defense as two quarterbacks danced around in the pocket.
Virginia finishes its season with an 8-5 record — the Cavaliers haven’t ended with a win since 2005.
Matoaca grad Kris Burd, sporting one of the team’s newly designed orange helmets, helped send the message the Wahoos wanted to convey, that they are now a team with national cachet. He caught two touchdown passes.
The rest of the night, U.Va. went woefully off script.
After taking an early 7-0 lead, Virginia had a punt blocked, then running back Perry Jones was stripped for a fumble. Later in the half, a fake field goal went wrong as Jacob Hodges rolled out, but Terence Fells-Danzer tripped on his way out.
Hodges was stopped well short of the first-down marker, ending a red-zone possession early. Another possession got to the Auburn 7 before the end of the half forced a field goal, even though Virginia held a time out.
“Our offense did a great job moving the ball and putting points on the board,” quarterback Michael Rocco said. “It didn’t turn out the way we would have liked in the second half.”
Defensively, the loss of cornerback Chase Minnifield wasn’t nearly as relevant as missing middle linebacker Steve Greer. Minnifield declined comment, and Greer was made off-limits for interviews by a media relations official.
Replacement linebacker Henry Coley looked outmatched by the Auburn run game after being thrown into an unenviable situation. The freshman had missed most of the season with an injury.
The Cavs also tried Tucker Windle at the position, with little success. Auburn quarterback Clint Moseley injured his ankle early in the game, and replacements Barrett Trotter and Kiehl Frazier kept things humming.
“We had five or six really great opportunities for sacks,” defensive coordinator Jim Reid said. “We came away not just empty, but with them getting first downs and big plays.”
Auburn opened the second half with a 28-17 lead and over the next four minutes methodically pushed Virginia around for another touchdown.
The Cavaliers finished the season by learning the hard truth about playing quality teams, that the game plan must be executed to near perfection.
In the last seven years, the team that wins the turnover battle has won 80 percent of SEC games. While the blocked punts weren’t officially turnovers, the Cavs lost that stat decisively anyway.
Down by 16 in the fourth quarter, and facing fourth and 12 on the Auburn 33, a pass skipped short of Burd, who remained on the ground with a collarbone injury. Doctors have yet to confirm the nature of the injury.
It wasn’t the outcome the Cavs’ seniors, who had waited four years to play in a bowl game, had envisioned.
The coaches would probably also like back some of the game’s situations, like the onside kick that Virginia wasn’t ready for, or choosing to rugby punt with the ball on its own goal line.
“That’s probably a bad call,” special teams coach Anthony Poindexter said. “I got nervous, because the straight punt was the one they had blocked earlier.”
Credit must also be given to Auburn, though, for sniffing out Virginia’s gimmicks — the Tigers were ready when Jones tried to throw a pass, and the fake field goal was shut down immediately.
Before the game, when it was clear Minnifield wouldn’t play, coach Mike London went up to true freshman Demetrious Nicholson.
“This is what you came here for, right?” the coach asked.
Nicholson nodded. He plans on being back in this situation. The team’s seniors, though, got only a fleeting glimpse of what it means to be a successful football program.
In the coming years, the freshmen have learned, there’s still another level to reach.