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Close calls no longer enough for Virginia

AP Photo/Ryan M. Kelly

Virginia has continually won the field position battle this season, but the Cavaliers aren’t winning games. They’ve taken big gambles that have worked, but didn’t result in points.

The Cavs, now 2-7, have been literally fractions of an inch away from making key plays that might have salvaged their season, yet the past two weeks have ended with heartbreaking losses. Virginia has somehow straddled a line between encouraged and devastated with its recent performances, including Saturday’s 27-20 loss at Wake Forest.

It was a game in which the Demon Deacons, now bowl eligible with the victory, rallied in the fourth quarter to escape a plucky UVA squad. If that sounds familiar, it’s because the same scenario describes Louisville’s narrow win at Virginia a week earlier.

Against the Cardinals, Virginia defenders twice came oh-so close to knocking down passes in the final minute that could have secured a UVA victory. Saturday in Winston-Salem, the Cavs forced a punt with a minute to go and got a fingertip on the ball as the Deacs kicked it away.

The partial block actually turned out to be about the worst thing that could have happened for Bronco Mendenhall’s team. The punt bounced down the field with time ticking off the clock and no chance for a Virginia return.

It was part of yet another painfully frustrating finish for the Cavaliers, who continue to show signs of progress everywhere but in the standings.

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There was some difference between the two recent losses, however. As frustrating as the Louisville loss was, in the end Virginia fell to an undeniably better team, one of the best in the nation. Heisman Trophy frontrunner Lamar Jackson simply made the necessary plays.

Saturday felt much more like the Cavs blew an opportunity against a team they could reasonably expect to beat. The Virginia defense played well all day, and the Cavaliers held a 20-17 fourth-quarter lead and momentum.

A pair of interceptions thrown by Kurt Benkert led directly to Wake Forest’s final 10 points. Poor decision making by a quarterback who has had an up-and-down season ultimately felled Virginia.

Not all of this outcome falls on Benkert’s shoulders. He’s clearly the best quarterback the Cavaliers have had in years. He was simply guilty of trying to do too much under pressure against Wake.

Boy, was he under pressure.  Virginia’s offensive line is still not up to ACC quality. O-line and placekicker are surely high on Mendenhall’s list of priorities to address this offseason.

Still, it must have been maddening to stand on the Virginia sideline and look across the field at a team bound for the postseason, knowing you’ve been officially eliminated from bowl contention.

The Cavaliers have now lost three games, including a three-point loss at UConn, in the final seconds. Three games decided, in many ways, by fewer than three inches.

Yet there is seemingly miles of difference between a 5-4 record and the 2-7 next to Virginia’s name.

Now the season takes on a new dynamic in Mendenhall’s first year in Charlottesville. Turning some of these close calls into victories in the final weeks could at least provide some momentum heading into 2017.

Virginia can look at Wake Forest — headed for a bowl after a pair of 3-9 seasons — as a perfect example of how “almosts” and “not quites” can be transformed in due time.

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