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Richmond Times-Dispatch, P. Kevin Morley, Associated Press
Virginia's Chris Brathwaite, top right, and other teammates celebrate their 21-20 overtime win over the Idaho in an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 1, 2011, in Charlottesville, Va.

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — It wasn't supposed to be this tough for Virginia. And for a while, it wasn't.

The Cavaliers jumped out to a 14-0 first-quarter lead, showing flashes of dominance along the way. The running game was clicking with Perry Jones, and quarterback Michael Rocco was efficient in the throwing game.

Then the mistakes started — an interception, two fumbles and a head-scratching decision to skip a 37-yard field goal with six seconds left in the first half and try to run another play. That ended with Rocco being tackled inside the 10 and the Cavaliers heading to the locker room to a cascade of boos with a 14-6 lead.

The biggest mistake, however, came with 3:11 left in the game, when Jimmy Howell's punt was blocked by Idaho's Justin Hernandez. Daniel Micheletti scooped and scored from 4 yards out, and Brian Reader's two-point conversion pass to Marsel Posey tied it to force overtime.

In the extra period, Virginia completed a touchdown pass, which Idaho matched.

But the underdog Vandals decided against kicking the point-after and went for two. Reader's pass was knocked down in the end zone, and the Cavaliers stormed onto the field 21-20 winners.

"That was probably an ugly football game right there, but in the end, what matters is that we found a way to win it," Virginia coach Mike London said.

Idaho coach Robb Akey had no second thoughts about the gamble.

"We went for the win," he said. "That is what we came here to do."

Virginia (3-2) was heavily favored and needed a good win before heading into the meat of its Atlantic Coast Conference schedule after a bye next Saturday. What it got was a scare from an Idaho team that refused to give up despite being dominated in most of the statistical categories.

"We're a team that is trying to learn how to win games and trying to eliminate those momentum changers," London said. "Whether you're at home or on the road, things happen in the game. Other teams are allowed to play hard."

And that's exactly what the Vandals did.

"I'm very disappointed we did not get the job finished here tonight, but I'm proud as hell of this football team and the way that they fought," Akey said.

The Cavaliers started on a good note, with Jones scoring on a 10-yard run and a 6-yard reception from Rocco for the early lead.

But Jones and Clifton Richardson lost fumbles, and freshman quarterback David Watford's first series ended with a pass interception.

Idaho managed a couple of Trey Farquhar field goals to keep it close, and Virginia's decision not to kick the field goal late in the half nearly proved costly. London said Rocco made a bad decision on the play by scrambling rather than throwing the ball away when nobody was open.

"It was a mistake that cost us three points at the end of the half," he said. "It's a learning issue with him. We just have to make sure in those situations, when you're trying to get points in the time you have on the clock, that you are fully alert and aware of those."

Neither team could get anything going in the third quarter, and the fourth period started with the first of two missed field goal attempts by Virginia's Robert Randolph. Idaho responded with a quick march deep into Virginia territory, highlighted by a nifty reverse-field 20-yard run by Princeton McCarty and a 44-yard pass from Reader to Mike Scott to the Cavaliers 7.

Two plays later, Dom Joseph intercepted a Reader pass in the end zone.

Virginia's Chase Minnifield also intercepted a pass in the fourth quarter to set the Cavaliers up at the Idaho 46, but that opportunity ended with another Randolph miss from 36.

Then came the late-game drama, starting with the blocked punt for the tying touchdown.

"We've got to do a better job because that was a big-time play right there, a big momentum change," London said. "We've got to look at a lot of special teams issues to make sure we shore up what we're doing."

The Cavaliers appeared to shoot themselves in the foot again in overtime, when a facemask penalty on offense moved them back to the 27. But Watford, who split time with Rocco, hit fellow freshman Dominique Terrell in the right flat, and Terrell broke a tackle and outran the secondary to the end zone.

"I told the offensive line that I was going to lead them down there and that we were going to score," Watford said. "They had confidence and faith in me that I was going to get the ball in the end zone."

Armauni Johnson's diving catch of Reader's 23-yard pass put Idaho in position to tie it again, but Akey opted for the two-point try.

"That's the way Vandals do it," Reader said. "It's worked in the past for us, and we thought we could do it again."

Reader was flushed from the pocket, and his pass was swatted down in the end zone..