Virginia can't keep pace in 43-24 loss to Auburn
ATLANTA—Virginia couldn't put a postseason cap on its season of improvement.
Hurt by special teams breakdowns, Virginia didn't keep pace with high-scoring Auburn, losing 43-24 in the Chick-fil-A Bowl on Saturday night.
The Cavaliers, who were 4-8 last season, doubled their wins this year, earning coach Mike London a two-year extension on Friday.
Virginia (8-5), wearing orange helmets for the first time since 1978, led 14-7 in the first half before Auburn charged back behind a balanced running game and big plays on special teams.
The Tigers blocked two punts, including one for a safety, and recovered an onside kick.
"That's one part of the game and it's my responsibility to make sure we play all facets of the game well," London said.
"We didn't execute like we needed to."
Auburn was without running back Mike Dyer, who was suspended for an undisclosed rules violation. Quarterback Clint Moseley left with an ankle injury early in the first quarter.
Virginia held out two top defensive players, cornerback Chase Minnifield and linebacker Steve Greer, with knee injuries. Greer was in uniform but didn't play.
London said he didn't want to risk more serious injuries Minnifield and Greer.
"On that surface when you have to cut and you have a knee injury, I'm not looking for heroes," London said.
"I don't want to risk further injury that would really cause a young man some harm."
Don Joseph started for Minnifield.
"It definitely hurt not having them, but at the same time we have a next man up situation," Joseph said.
Virginia receiver Kris Burd caught two touchdown passes before leaving with an injury in the fourth quarter. Burd had six catches for 103 yards. He said he hurt his collarbone.
London said the Cavaliers' outlook remains bright.
"I'm not frustrated," London said. "I'm not disappointed about who we have. We'll keep recruiting players and developing our players and keep expecting that we'll have opportunities to play in the postseason and play for championships."
Michael Rocco, a sophomore, completed 26 of 41 passes for 312 yards with two touchdowns and an interception.
"It's very encouraging, not only just Michael but all the players that are coming back," London said.
Perry Jones had 11 carries for 53 yards and a touchdown and seven catches for 90 yards.
"We won't let this loss define how we work in the offseason," said Jones, a junior. "This will push us to do better next year."
Onterio McCalebb scored on a 3-yard run and 25-yard catch while starting for Dyer. McCalebb had 109 yards rushing. Tre Mason added 64 yards rushing, including a 22-yard scoring run.
Auburn (8-5) ran for 273 yards.
"I knew that we needed to run the ball well today as a team, and we knew we had to do that to get the win," McCalebb said.
The offensive outburst came in Auburn's last game with offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn, who has been hired as the Arkansas State coach.
Barrett Trotter started the first seven games before losing his job to Moseley. He made a triumphant return to prominence against Virginia, completing 11 of 18 passes for 175 yards and a touchdown.
Kiehl Frazier, a freshman, had 16 carries for 55 yards and two touchdowns while rotating with Trotter.
One year after winning the national championship -- and losing Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton -- Auburn absorbed lopsided losses to LSU, Georgia and Alabama in the second half of the regular season. After the loss to Alabama, defensive coordinator Ted Roof left for the same post at Central Florida.
While Malzahn stayed with Auburn for the bowl game, coach Gene Chizik took control of the defense.
While others speculated that the loss of Dyer, an All-SEC selection, could be devastating to Auburn, McCalebb was eager to show he could be more than a change-of-pace back.
McCalebb set up his touchdown run with a 60-yard run.
Burd's 27-yard catch from Michael Rocco midway through the first quarter gave Virginia, wearing orange helmets for the first time since 1978, a 7-0 lead.
Then Auburn's special teams made the first of two momentum-changing plays in the half.
Freshman receiver Garrett Harper blocked a punt by Virginia's Jimmy Howell to give the Tigers possession at the Cavaliers' 15. Following a 12-yard run by McCalebb, Frazier scored from the 3.
Back-to-back unnecessary roughness penalties against Auburn's defense helped set up Burd's second touchdown catch from 35 yards for a 14-7 lead.
On the first play of Auburn's next possession, McCalebb broke free for a 60-yard run to the Virginia 25. He capped the drive with a 3-yard scoring run.
Chizik then called for an onside try and Cody Parkey recovered his own kick. After Trotter's 50-yard pass to Emory Blake, Frazier scored from the 1.
Auburn's Angelo Blackson blocked Howell's punt through the end zone for a safety in the third quarter. Virginia's only second-half points came on a 1-yard touchdown by Kevin Parks in the third quarter.
Parkey kicked field goals of 45 and 37 yards.
Robert Randolph kicked a 24-yard field goal for Virginia.