CHARLOTTESVILLE — As Clemson’s offensive coordinator six years ago, Tony Elliott directed the Tigers’ winning touchdown drive against Alabama in the College Football Playoff championship game. Nine plays, 68 yards, one second to spare.
Can life get more stressful for an OC? National title at stake. Clock winding down. The sport’s most-accomplished coach and defensive mind, Nick Saban, on the opposite sideline.
Saturday afternoon at Scott Stadium, Elliott experienced similar tension for the first time as the big whistle, and he aced the test.
In his third game leading Virginia’s program, Elliott managed time and risk seamlessly until Brendan Farrell’s 26-yard, walk-off field goal gave the Cavaliers a 16-14 victory over Old Dominion.
A season-opening conquest of Virginia Tech fueling their confidence, the Monarchs marched 80 yards in 11 plays Saturday to seize their first lead, 14-13, with 1:01 remaining. They converted two fourth downs on the drive and scored their first points of the second half on Hayden Wolff’s 18-yard pass to tight end Zack Kuntz.
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ODU faithful undoubtedly flashed back to Sept. 2, when Wolff steered the Monarchs 74 yards for the decisive touchdown against Virginia Tech with 33 seconds left.
But leaving Brennan Armstrong time is never a good idea, and after Demick Starling’s 37-yard kickoff return, the Cavaliers “didn’t bat an eye,” Elliott said.
Nor did their rookie head coach. When a pass interference flag on ODU’s Tobias Harris gave Virginia first-and-goal at the 5, Elliott gave offensive coordinator Des Kitchings precise instructions.
“It was a little more nerve-wracking [with Clemson] in 2016 on that drive because I was making the calls to get us in position,” Elliott said. “As the head coach, I had to make the decision at the end, ‘OK, Des, you’ve got 16 seconds on the clock. Take one shot at the end zone. Protect the ball. Let’s not really put in jeopardy. …
“If we don’t get it, we’re going to center the ball and put it on the kicker.”
A coaching hiccup had forced the Cavaliers to burn a timeout prior to a 36-yard attempt Farrell missed earlier in the quarter from the left hash. This time, the operation was precise.
After a fade route to Dontayvion Wicks fell incomplete, Armstrong took a knee in the center of the field to give Farrell as routine a kick as possible given the win-or-lose consequences.
UVa outgained ODU by nearly 200 yards (513-324) and should have won sans drama. But the Cavaliers (2-1) lost three fumbles, two in the red zone, and the Monarchs (1-2) refused to wilt.
ODU’s Ali Jennings (Highland Springs), who began the day averaging an FBS-best 161 receiving yards per game, caught seven passes for 97 yards and a score. Kuntz added six receptions for 83 yards, and Wolff did not throw an interception. Linebacker Jason Henderson recorded a game-high 12 tackles, his third consecutive outing in double figures.
“I was confident the whole game,” ODU coach Ricky Rahne said.
But on their first five possessions of the second half, the Monarchs netted only 58 yards combined, unable to contain the likes of Aaron Faumui, Kam Butler, Lex Long and Nick Jackson. Easing the burden on the Cavaliers’ defense: Wolff’s immobility.
Not once did Wolff keep the ball on ODU’s frequent inside zone reads, and not having to respect that potential allowed Virginia to defend more aggressively. Conversely, Armstrong is always a running threat, and factoring out sacks, he rushed for 74 yards, 13 when a pass play broke down on the final drive.
“Their veteran quarterback made some plays,” Rahne said.
The Monarchs (Sun Belt) and Cavaliers (ACC) now play their conference openers, ODU against Arkansas State next Saturday, Virginia at undefeated Syracuse. Robert Anae and Jason Beck, Virginia’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, respectively, for six seasons under Bronco Mendenhall, serve in those roles with the Orange.
Elliott acknowledged the “outside noise” those connections will create.
All he need do is manage that noise as well as he did Virginia’s final drive Saturday.