CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — It happened so fast it was as if Virginia’s players didn’t know what had hit them.
One minute, they’ve scored two long touchdowns on consecutive plays to break open a close game against William & Mary of the Championship Subdivision, and the next, they can’t do anything right and are hanging on to keep from suffering a devastating loss.
Afterward, there was relief.
Matt Johns threw three touchdown passes, the Cavaliers got their first punt return touchdown in 11 years and survived a huge fourth-quarter scare to beat William & Mary 35-29 on Saturday.
“We won, and that’s what we’re going to take away from this,” Johns said.
The Cavaliers (1-2) led 21-20 at halftime and used big plays on consecutive touches to pull away in the third quarter. Johns and Taquan Mizzell started it by teaming up for a short pass that Mizzell turned into an 80-yard touchdown, and Maurice Canady returned a punt 74 yards for another score about 2 1/2 minutes later. The stadium, quiet during the Cavaliers’ slow start, was suddenly in a partying mood.
But then the tide changed, even as the crowd was celebrating a 19-play drive ending in a goal-line stand for the Cavaliers.
The Cavaliers took over at their 2 yard-line. Three runs netted minus 1 yard, and DeAndre Houston-Carson blocked Nicholas Conte’s punt out of the end zone for a safety, pulling the Tribe to within 35-22.
Less than four minutes later, Tribe quarterback Steve Cluley found DeVonte Dedmon for a touchdown on fourth-and-goal from the four, and the extra point made it 35-29 with more than 5 minutes to play and all the momentum favoring the underdog.
“We weren’t holding anything back,” William & Mary coach Jimmye Laycock said. “We didn’t come up here to play it close.”
Virginia hadn’t managed a first down in the quarter, and would finish it with minus three yards.
Three plays netted three yards, the Cavaliers punted and William & Mary took over with 3:01 remaining.
“We were fired up,” Cluley said. “Obviously, we had no timeouts. We were excited to go to work.”
The Cavaliers helped, too, Canady getting whistled for holding on a fourth-and-10 pass that had fallen incomplete, giving the Tribe new life. But they lost eight yards on a fumble on the next play and faced a fourth-and-7 from Virginia’s 30 when Cluley’s 36th pass sailed high.
One week after losing to No. 8 Notre Dame on a touchdown with 12 seconds left, Virginia was on the right side this time.
“If Notre Dame can walk off our field happy last week, we can be happy too,” Mizzell said.
Johns completed 17 of 23 passes for 263 yards. He also found Connor Wingo-Reeves for a 3-yard touchdown and Canaan Severin for a 26-yarder, but couldn’t get the offense untracked again after the third quarter burst.
Cluley finished 23 of 36 for 226 yards, and Dedmon also caught a 41-yard touchdown pass. Mikal Abdul-Saboor rushed for 100 yards on 22 carries.
Andrew Caskin caught the third scoring pass from 37 yards away and would likely have had a second TD, but slipped after catching a fourth-down pass at Virginia’s 3 yard-line. The Tribe was 2 for 4 on fourth down.
For Virginia, Wingo-Reeves touchdown was the first of his career, and Jordan Ellis also made his debut with a 39-yard run for a touchdown on his first collegiate carry. Ellis broke several tackles on the play and finished with five carries for 50 yards.
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