Virginia falls, 22-20, at Syracuse even after erasing 16-point deficit

SYRACUSE, N.Y. — Virginia launched a furious second-half rally Friday night, coming all the way back from a 16-point halftime deficit to take a fourth-quarter lead at Syracuse’s JMA Wireless Dome. When the Orange responded in the closing minutes of the fourth quarter, Brennan Armstrong and the Cavaliers finally ran out of answers.

Armstrong’s fourth-down pass from the Virginia 46-yard line was batted away inside the final minute, sealing a 22-20 loss that was attributable in part to the Cavaliers committing a dozen penalties for 109 yards.

The decisive points for the Orange came on kicker Andre Szmyt’s 31-yard field goal, his fifth of the game, with 1:14 remaining. Virginia (2-2, 0-1 ACC) took over at its 29 and moved near midfield before safety Eric Coley knocked away Armstrong’s final attempt.

“It’s a tough locker room in there,” Virginia first-year coach Tony Elliott said. “The truth is we can’t continue to lose to ourselves. We got 12 penalties. We had some critical mistakes by some of our older guys.”

The Cavaliers took the lead for the only time at 20-19 with 5:51 to play in the fourth quarter courtesy of a one-yard pass from Armstrong to wide receiver Lavel Davis Jr., who got open in the front of the end zone on a slant, beating cornerback Duce Chestnut.

The Orange (4-0, 2-0) dominated the first half, taking a 16-0 lead into intermission. But consecutive touchdowns for Virginia to open the third quarter turned the proceedings competitive at 16-13 after a disjointed first half.

Their first points came on a one-yard pitch to Keytaon Thompson around the right side, capping a 75-yard drive on 10 plays using 5:14. Virginia benefited from a targeting penalty against starting rover Justin Barron as well as a pair of offside calls.

The offense remained on the field for a two-point conversion attempt, but officials whistled the Cavaliers for illegal substitution. Reserve Will Bettridge, a freshman, then entered to boot the point after in place of benched starting kicker Brendan Farrell.

Virginia regained possession immediately when Jonathan Horton delivered a crushing tackle on kick returner Tobas Pena, jarring the ball loose. Donovan Johnson dove on the loose ball at the Syracuse 13. It was one of four turnovers by the Orange, which committed none in its first three games.

Two plays later, tailback Perris Jones (Episcopal), who had 87 yards on 13 carries, scored on a five-yard run around the left side with 9:26 left in the third quarter. The deficit remained three when Bettridge had his point-after try blocked.

The Orange closed the third quarter with Szmyt’s 40-yard field goal to expand the lead to 19-13. Virginia lost starting linebacker Nick Jackson during the drive to an ejection after a targeting penalty.

The loss of Jackson further compromised a depleted unit that was without injured starting safety Antonio Clary, who accompanied his teammates on the trip to central New York but was not in uniform. Primary backup safety Coen King, also hurt, did not travel.

The Cavaliers’ first visit to the Dome since 2005 featured the intrigue of Syracuse first-year assistants Robert Anae and Jason Beck facing the program they helped steer to its most prosperous era offensively under former Cavaliers coach Bronco Mendenhall, who unexpectedly resigned last season.

With Anae as offensive coordinator and Beck his position coach, Armstrong set virtually every meaningful quarterback record at Virginia, notably career and single-season marks for total offense and passing yards and the single-game high for passing yards.

The transition for Armstrong and the rest of the offense under Elliott and his staff has been uneven at best, including a 24-3 loss at Illinois on Sept. 10.

Last week the Cavaliers needed Farrell’s 26-yard field goal as time expired to survive Old Dominion, 16-14, in Charlottesville.

Virginia turned to Farrell twice in the first quarter against Syracuse on field goal attempts of 51 and 48 yards. The senior, whose career long is 43 yards, missed both, drawing stern words from Elliott following the second with 5:17 remaining in the quarter.

That the Cavaliers trailed at halftime was hardly on the shoulders of Farrell or the defense, which forced two turnovers, both of which gave Virginia possession in plus territory. The second of those turnovers came on Jonas Sanker’s interception with 11:32 to go in the second quarter.

But from the Syracuse 32, Armstrong threw incomplete passes on first and second down. A false start followed, and on third and 15 Armstrong completed a 12-yard throw to Dontayvion Wicks to the 25 before the Cavaliers turned it over on downs on an incompletion on fourth and three.

Armstrong also fumbled late in the first quarter when, during a run around the right side, he collided with Davis, who was blocking on the first-down play. Cornerback Garrett Williams recovered at the Virginia 28, but the Cavaliers bowed up again on defense, limiting Syracuse to Szmyt’s 32-yard field goal for a 13-0 lead 45 seconds into the second quarter.

“I’s a tough thing,” Virginia hybrid linebacker Chico Bennett said. “I’ve never seen someone who’s a happy loser. A lot of guys are feeling my pain, the pain of regret rather than the pain of discipline. We got some things to work on and correct.”

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