Sept. 22, 2013

By Jeff White (jwhite@virginia.edu)

CHARLOTTESVILLE — By game’s end, the combination of hard rain and a lopsided score had driven away most of the crowd at Scott Stadium, leaving UVa’s marching band and VMI’s Corps of Cadets with little company in the stands.

The bulk of the 40,165 fans who turned out Saturday, however, stayed long enough to see Virginia tailback Daniel Hamm cap a remarkable college debut with a 12-yard touchdown run 68 seconds into the fourth quarter.

Hamm’s TD — his second of the game — made it 48-0, and sophomore Ian Frye’s extra point pushed UVa’s lead to 49-0 on Military Appreciation Day at Scott Stadium. That’s how things ended as the Cavaliers (2-1) prepped for the start of ACC play by overpowering the overmatched Keydets (1-3).

“Now we gotta go on the road,” head coach Mike London told his players in the locker room, and they roared their approval. Virginia opens ACC play at Pittsburgh on Saturday afternoon.

Against VMI, which competes in the NCAA’s Football Championship Subdivision, UVa junior Kevin Parks rushed 17 times for 135 yards and two touchdowns, and he also caught three passes for a 69 yards. His rushing yardage was a career high, as was his receiving yardage.

“He did a great job today being a tough runner,” London said.

Parks is the Wahoos’ No. 1 tailback, though, and he’s had other big games. Hamm is a true freshman walk-on from a small high school in Southwest Virginia — Fort Chiswell — who’s also on the track and field team at UVa.

Hamm didn’t play in Virginia’s first two games — a win over BYU and a loss to No. 2 Oregon — but he has impressed the coaching staff since joining the team, and ankle injuries to classmate Taquan Mizzell and redshirt junior Khalek Shepherd moved him up to No. 2 on the depth chart this week.

“Maybe Khalek could have gone today,” London said. “But we want to make sure we have guys going into our conference games healthy.”

Hamm, who’s listed at 5-10, 190 pounds, seized the opportunity. He ran 21 times for 136 yards — the most ever by a Cavalier in his first game — and also had an 11-yard reception. So much for first-game jitters.

“He’s kind of labeled himself as a downhill guy who sees [the hole] and hits it fast,” offensive guard Luke Bowanko said. “You hear it all the time, but offensive linemen love it. I’m not glad that obviously some injury opportunities gave him the chance today, but I’m glad that he took that chance, and he had a hell of a game.”

To a man, Hamm’s teammates said they weren’t surprised by his play Saturday.

“I knew he was going to have a hell of a performance, because he practices just like that,” sophomore quarterback David Watford said. “I have the utmost respect for that kid, and he’s going to be a great player for us.”

During the week, Watford said, he told assistant coordinator Steve Fairchild that Hamm would rush for 150 yards against VMI. Hamm heard that prediction, and he wasn’t as confident as Watford.

“But he was almost right,” Hamm said, smiling.

The first time he touched the ball, midway through the second quarter, Hamm took a handoff from Watford and ran for 11 yards.

“The first carry, it was kind of the ice-breaker,” Hamm said. “It was a call up the middle, and as soon as I took that first hit, I was good to go.”

The `Hoos finished with 580 yards — 357 rushing and 223 passing. Nearly 500 came in the final three quarters. The Cavaliers’ defense dominated throughout the game — VMI finished with only 79 yards and four first downs — but the first 15 minutes could not have gone much more poorly for their offense.

UVa turned the ball over twice, each time on an ill-advised Watford pass that was intercepted, once in the red zone, and failed to convert on fourth-and-1 near midfield. The quarter ended scoreless.

“My teammates did a great job of just keeping me up, keeping my spirits high,” Watford said. “Because I was kind of down. I tried not to let it show on the sideline, but my guys — Tim [Smith], Jake [McGee], K.P., my linemen — they were just telling me, `Let it go, let it go.’ ”

Parks did more than encourage his quarterback. On Virginia’s first possession of the second quarter, he took a pitch from Watford on a toss sweep, spotted a hole in the line and burst through. Parks didn’t stop running until he crossed the goal line for a 61-yard touchdown, the longest run of his career.

“His touchdown really took a little bit of weight off our shoulders on offense,” Watford said. “We put points on the board, and they just started rolling in.”

Parks said: “We needed a big play to spark the offense, and I feel like that did it. Dave settled in. I felt like he got comfortable after that, the offense settled in and started rolling a little bit.”

By halftime, it was 21-0, with Virginia’s third touchdown coming on a gorgeous 38-yard pass from Watford to senior wide receiver Tim Smith, who made a diving catch near the back of the end zone. The completion was the Cavaliers’ longest of the season, by 18 yards.

“Obviously we wanted to take shots [in the passing game],” London said, “and we want to continue to do that.”

On his interceptions, Watford forced throws to well-covered targets: wideout Miles Gooch on the first and tight end Zachary Swanson on the second. But Watford settled down as the game progressed and finished 18-of-25 passing for a career-high 206 yards and two TDs. His 4-yard strike to junior tight end Jake McGee produced Virginia’s fifth touchdown, and then Watford ran for another score late in the third quarter.

Watford was sacked twice but still finished with 30 yards on eight carries.

“He’s another added dimension,” London said. “He’s a guy [opponents] have to account for and defend. We’ll continue to keep working on things to do to allow him, if the read presents itself, to pull the ball and go with it.”

Injuries kept three members of UVa’s offensive rotation on the sideline Saturday — starting guard Conner Davis, Mizzell and Shepherd, who had a 45-yard touchdown run Sept. 7 against Oregon. The offense took another blow late in the third quarter when Swanson suffered a lower-leg injury during an 11-yard reception.

Swanson, a junior, was helped to the locker room after the game, and his status for next weekend is unclear. Otherwise, though, it was a positive day for an offense that had struggled against BYU and Oregon.

“It was real big,” Parks said. “We need to get our confidence going. Like I told the team earlier, we need to start back having fun, and once we start having fun, points will be put up.”

ONE-MAN WRECKING CREW: Trent Corney, one of 12 true freshmen to play for Virginia in 2012, is a second-team defensive end this season. Corney, an extraordinary athlete, played primarily on special teams in the first two games. Against VMI, he wreaked havoc on defense.

In less than a half, the 6-3, 250-pound Corney made a career-high five tackles, including two sacks and another stop for a 1-yard loss, forced a fumble and broke up a pass.

Corney’s second sack knocked the ball loose, and defensive tackle Donte Wilkins recovered for Virginia. When Corney came back to the sideline, Bowanko wrapped him in a bear hug.

“It’s fun watching [the reserves] finally get their chance to go in,” Bowanko said. “It’s like pure joy for them, too, because they kind of stick their foot in the water, and once they get comfortable, they kind of let loose, and obviously Trent let loose there.”

One of Corney’s classmates and fellow defensive ends, Eli Harold, was thrilled for No. 43, too.

“That’s my boy,” Harold said. “I was hyped for him. He’s been down on himself, because he really didn’t get any playing time [against BYU or Oregon], but I told him, `God has a plan for you, and when it’s your chance, just take it and make the best of it.’ ”

YOUNG GUNS: Through two games, Virginia had played three true freshmen: Mizzell, fullback Connor Wingo-Reeves and cornerback Tim Harris. The total more than tripled by the end of the VMI game.

Among the Cavaliers who made their college debuts Saturday were seven true freshmen: Hamm, Wilkins, tailback LaChaston Smith, offensive tackles Sadiq Olanrewaju and Eric Smith, offensive guard Eric Tetlow and outside linebacker Max Valles.

Valles, who’s from Sicklerville, N.J., spent a postgraduate year at Fork Union Military Academy after originally signing with UVa in February 2012.

The 6-5, 210-pound Valles asserted himself immediately Saturday, forcing VMI quarterback Eric Kordenbrock into an incompletion on third-and-5 late in the first quarter.

“He’s fast,” Harold said. “I thought I was fast. I thought Trent was fast. Max Valles is fast.

“He’s really going to benefit our team a lot. He’s learning. He went from tight end to defensive end to linebacker. He’s really going to help this team win some games.”

London said: “Max has shown himself to be a pretty good pass-rusher for us, a stand-up guy coming off the edge. He’s got that skill set that we think can help us as we go into the season.”

UP NEXT: In its first road game of the season, UVa (2-1) meets ACC newcomer Pitt (2-1, 1-1) at 12:30 p.m. Saturday. In the Mid-Atlantic region, Comcast SportsNet will televise the game.

“It should be fun,” Bowanko said. “It’s just the team when you go on the road. It’s always fun to get away and hear the fans boo you a little bit. It’s good for you.”

Pitt won a shootout Saturday afternoon in Durham, N.C., holding on for a 58-55 win over Duke.

In a series that started in 1953, the Panthers lead 3-2. The Cavaliers, however, have won two of the past three meetings, including a 44-14 rout at Scott Stadium in 2007. In its only visit to Heinz Field, also home of the NFL’s Steelers, Virginia lost 38-13 in the 2006 season-opener.

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