Oct. 25, 2015
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- His credentials as a weapon in the passing game have long since been established. But even as the University of Virginia football team reached the midpoint of the regular season, questions lingered about tailback Taquan Mizzell’s effectiveness running the ball from scrimmage.
He answered them Saturday at Kenan Stadium in UVA’s 26-13 loss to ACC rival North Carolina. A 5-10, 195-pound junior from Bayside High in Virginia Beach, Mizzell rushed 24 times for 117 yards – both career highs.
His previous highs in those categories: 18 carries for 66 yards against Notre Dame on Sept. 12.
Mizzell, as usual, distinguished himself as a receiver, too. He caught six passes for a game-high 57 yards in the Cavaliers’ sixth straight loss to the Tar Heels (6-1 overall, 3-0 ACC). His longest run Saturday went for 25 yards; his longest reception, for 16.
“As a complete back, it’s great to see,” Virginia tight end Charlie Hopkins said. “We’ve seen throughout the first half of the season, just his ability to catch the ball is very impressive.
“When he adds that dimension of truly being a running back, he’s very tough to stop, so that was good to see from him today.”
For Mizzell, whose nickname is Smoke, the 30 touches were by far his most as a Cavalier.
“Yeah, I’m tired,” he told reporters after the game.
Mizzell went over the 100-yard mark in rushing early in the fourth quarter. He was unaware of his feat, though, until after the game, when a UVA official informed him.
“I asked him three times if he was sure,” Mizzell said.
For the season, he leads the Wahoos (2-5, 1-2) in rushing, with 371 yards and two touchdowns on 90 carries. Mizzell’s receiving numbers are more impressive: 41 catches for 466 yards – both team highs – and three touchdowns.
“He’s a dynamic player for us,” head coach Mike London said.
Among the Cavaliers, only wideout Canaan Severin (33 catches for 458 yards and three TDs) has as many touchdown receptions as Mizzell.
“Obviously he’s one of our best players, if not the best player that we have in terms of production, in terms of being able to catch the ball, run the ball,” London said.
Mizzell’s fellow running backs never doubted his ability in the running game.
“Smoke’s a great player,” redshirt sophomore tailback Daniel Hamm said. “I know he can run the ball and run through people, just like any of the rest of us can.”
Junior tailback Albert Reid, still recovering from a concussion he suffered last weekend against Syracuse, did not play Saturday. But Hamm had a 53-yard run in the first quarter and finished with 70 yards on seven carries on an afternoon when the Virginia’s offensive line, which was unable to assert itself early in the season, took another step forward.
A week after rushing for 159 yards – then a season high – in a triple-overtime win over Syracuse at Scott Stadium, Virginia totaled 205 yards on the ground against UNC.
“That’s something that we haven’t had in a while,” London said.
Not since Oct. 4, 2014, had the ‘Hoos rushed more than 200 yards in a game. For the second straight Saturday, Virginia started junior Jackson Matteo at center, junior Eric Smith and redshirt sophomore Jack English at tackle, and seniors Ross Burbank and Jay Whitmire at guard, and the group continues to gel.
“The offensive line’s been doing a great job,” Hamm said. “They’ve really been opening up the holes and getting some push on the line. They’ve just been fighting hard up front.”
Hopkins said: “Guys are staying on blocks, guys are driving defenses, and the running backs are playing very well. The running backs are playing at a high level.”
That wasn't enough Saturday. The Cavaliers turned the ball over five times – all in the second half – and so squandered an opportunity to end a road losing streak that began when many of the team’s current players were still in high school.
UVA has dropped 13 consecutive road games since winning at NC State on Nov. 3, 2012.
Junior quarterback Matt Johns, who completed 17 of 30 passes for 148 yards and one touchdown Saturday, was intercepted four times and lost a fumble in the second half.
For the season, Johns has thrown as many interceptions (12) as touchdown passes (12).
The Heels’ lead was only three points heading into the fourth quarter, but the Cavaliers’ propensity for self-destructing proved pivotal.
“Turnovers just can’t happen,” Mizzell said.
As has so often been the case in recent years, however, mistakes doomed Virginia. And so another fall afternoon ended unhappily for the ‘Hoos, who wasted strong performances by their offensive linemen and Mizzell.
“There’s no small victories,” London said. “It’s all about the wins.”
Mizzell said: "It hurts, honestly. It really hurts. We fight so hard ... But at the end of the day, only the win or loss matters."
NEXT MAN UP: Of the players who started on defense for UVA, two left the game with injuries in the first half – true freshman linebacker Eric Gallon and junior cornerback Tim Harris – and did not return.
Even so, Virginia forced two turnovers and held the Tar Heels to 14 points below their scoring average.
Gallon started in place of junior Zach Bradshaw, who had to sit out the first half after being penalized in the Syracuse game for targeting. When Gallon limped off early in the game Saturday, junior Mark Hall replaced him.
Hall finished with three tackles. Bradshaw, who played in the second half Saturday, made four stops. Sophomore safety Quin Blanding led the ‘Hoos with 12 tackles, forced a fumble and had an interception – the team’s first this season.
“Defensively, at times we did a good job, but we have to make the crucial stops,” London said.
STEPPING UP: Charlie Hopkins, who caught only two passes during his Stanford career, has seven receptions for 65 yards and two touchdowns as a Cavalier.
Hopkins had three catches for 36 yards – both career highs – and a touchdown Saturday against UNC.
“Any time I can contribute to the team, it’s definitely gratifying,” said Hopkins, who transferred to UVA after graduating from Stanford in June. “But every loss hurts, and just because I contributed more than I have on the stat sheet doesn’t mean that this one’s easier.
“I’m looking forward to next week and helping the team. If it’s blocking, if it’s receiving, however the team needs me, I’m going to be there.”
Another UVA tight end, redshirt sophomore Brendan Marshall, made his first appearance of the season Saturday. Marshall, a converted quarterback, had his first career reception.
UP NEXT: Virginia (2-5 overall, 1-2 ACC) returns home to face Coastal Division foe Georgia Tech (3-5, 1-4) at Scott Stadium.
The Cavaliers will meet the Yellow Jackets at 3 p.m. Saturday. The Jackets played in Atlanta this weekend, stunning No. 9 Florida State 22-16 by returning for blocked field goal for a touchdown on the game’s final play.
Georgia Tech has won three straight over UVA and leads the series 19-17-1. Last season in Atlanta, the Jackets defeated the ‘Hoos 35-10.
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A 1985 graduate of UVA, White worked at the Richmond Times-Dispatch until July 2009. He was honored six times as the state's Sportswriter of the Year.
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