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Virginia Secondary Dominates Belk Bowl

By BJ Bennett
SouthernPigskin.com
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One game after Jake Bentley completed 32 passes for 510 yards and five touchdowns for the Gamecocks at College Football Playoff participant Clemson, Virginia held the South Carolina star to merely 17-of-40 through the air for 218 yards and two interceptions.

Virginia's defense entered the Belk Bowl ranked 14th nationally, slotted directly in between last season's national championship game participants Alabama and Georgia in giving up just 180.1 passing yards per game, ranked 10th in the country in having allowed only 12 passing touchdowns. The talking point entering the postseason was that the Cavaliers had one of college football's top secondaries; in a 28-0 shutout victory over South Carolina in Charlotte, those sentiments were officially confirmed.

One game after Jake Bentley completed 32 passes for 510 yards and five touchdowns for the Gamecocks at College Football Playoff participant Clemson, Virginia held the South Carolina star to merely 17-of-40 through the air for 218 yards and two interceptions. The Cavaliers forced Bentley into his worst completion percentage in a single game in over two years and held him without a touchdown for the first time this season. Virginia was the first team to shutout the Gamecocks since 2006.

The Cavaliers had as many interceptions, with Juan Thornhill picking off his sixth pass of the fall and Tim Harris getting his second, as South Carolina had third down conversions.

It's been a banner year for Virginia in the defensive backfield, with coaches Nick Howell and Kelly Poppinga leading a talented group. Simply put, the Cavaliers finished the season as arguably the best unit in the game. Virginia, for the month of November, paced the Power Five and led all of college football of teams who played four games with an 81.6 opponent passer rating. Add in the Belk Bowl and the Cavaliers' last five foes, Pittsburgh, Liberty, Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech and South Carolina, combined to go 51-of-123 (41%) through the air for 664 yards, with one touchdown and seven interceptions. 

On Saturday, Virginia earned its first bowl shutout ever and turned heads in the process. Momentum now firmly in place under Bronco Mendenhall, the Cavaliers, fresh off eight wins, move forward as a team that has moved ahead in the parity-filled ACC Coastal Division. Already, star cornerback Bryce Hall has announced that he is returning for his senior year, poised to anchor a secondary that should again be one of the nation's best. That standard was on display in Charlotte. 

With the pass defense leading the way, it was a statement year for the Cavaliers. The season ends with an exclamation point.

BJ Bennett - B.J. Bennett is SouthernPigskin.com's founder and publisher. He is the co-host of "Three & Out" with Kevin Thomas and Ben Troupe on the "Southern Pigskin Radio Network". Email: bj@espncoastal.com / Twitter: @BJBennettSports