CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Virginia had lost by more than 20 points three times during this dismal football season. But given the caliber of opponent, those setbacks could be partially rationalized.
Saturday's can not.
North Carolina, an average team at best, smacked the Cavaliers 45-14, without their starting quarterback and with scant support from a tame homecoming crowd.
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Kenan Stadium, Chapel Hill
Understand this wasn't a competitive game that turned goofy late. This was a mismatch from the start as the Tar Heels scored touchdowns on their first two possessions.
The time to judge whether Virginia should retain coach Mike London for a fifth year is at season's end, but 10 games into a 12-game slog, the trend line is not encouraging. The Cavaliers' best performance came in the opener, a victory over Brigham Young, while Saturday, their seventh consecutive defeat, ranks among their worst.
The three previous opponents to wax Virginia by 20-plus points — Oregon, Ball State and Clemson — are a combined 25-3. North Carolina is 4-5 and, three-game winning streak notwithstanding, several notches below that trio.
In fact, the Tar Heels are the Cavaliers' only 2013 Bowl Subdivision foe that began Saturday with a losing record. Yet the outcome wasn't in doubt after a gadget play that badly exposed Virginia's secondary and gave North Carolina a 14-0 as the first quarter closed.
"Obviously disappointing not being able to early on make something happen offensively," London said. "They got up on us quick."
And rarely let up.
The Tar Heels did it with quarterback Bryn Renner sidelined after season-ending shoulder surgery Wednesday and with backup Marquise Williams producing touchdowns throwing, running and, yes, receiving.
North Carolina did it by nearly doubling its per-game rushing average of 108.4 yards. Ranked 13th among 14 ACC teams in rushing, the Tar Heels ran for a season-best 201 yards, averaging a stout 4.9, well above their previous 3.0 norm.
Granted Virginia's defense has myriad injury issues, with linemen David Dean and Trent Corney, and linebacker Max Valles joining the list Saturday. But that doesn't explain all of Saturday's breakdowns, or London's odd game management — he accepted a fourth-quarter holding penalty rather than force Carolina into a fourth-and-goal from the 5, and on the mulligan the Tar Heels scored on a 15-yard screen pass.
"Could have been fourth-and-5," London said, "of course (force them to) kick the field goal. Or, you take them back, blitz them, (try to) knock them back again. … When they run the screen play, you have a guy responsible for the back that catches the ball. … Breakdown in that."
The most glaring breakdown occurred during the first quarter.
Twice this season North Carolina receivers had thrown touchdown passes, and on a first down from Virginia's 29, Williams handed off to tailback T.J. Logan, who flipped the ball to wideout Quinshad Davis on a reverse. As Virginia's secondary rushed forward to stop Davis, Williams streaked up the right sideline unnoticed until he caught Davis' pass for a touchdown.
"I don't quite remember what happened on that play," cornerback DreQuan Hoskey said. "They knew our weakness and they found it."
Considering North Carolina's penchant, surely Virginia practiced against gadget plays during the week, right?
"You practice (against) them … and then you have to go out and execute (against) them," London said, "and we did not execute."
Virginia's offense was little better. Kevin Parks bulled for 100 yards and a touchdown on 24 carries, but otherwise, there was no meaningful production.
Trailing 28-7, the Cavaliers had a chance to show a pulse when safety Anthony Harris' seventh interception this season gave them possession at the Tar Heels' 41. Two plays later, David Watford threw across his body under pressure, an almost foolproof recipe for trouble, and sure enough, Dominique Green intercepted and went 62 yards for the dagger touchdown.
"Either pull it down (and) keep running with it," London said, "or throw the ball out of bounds and live to see another day."
To complete the trifecta, Virginia also had a special teams malfunction, allowing an 85-yard punt return for touchdown by Ryan Switzer after he recovered his own muff.
Watford threw a second interception early in the fourth quarter, after which he watched as reserve Greyson Lambert mopped up and threw a 23-yard touchdown pass to fellow freshman Keeon Johnson.
The Cavaliers (2-8, 0-6 ACC) don't play again until Nov. 23 at Miami and might use the bye week to prepare Lambert for a starting audition. But saddled with the program's first seven-game losing streak since 1981, the problems extend well beyond one position.
"We have to push harder," Watford said, "because what we're doing right now, we're not doing enough."