By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The desired result — a season-opening victory over No. 7 UCLA — eluded a UVa football team that was far from flawless Saturday afternoon at Scott Stadium, especially on offense.
Still, in a 28-20 loss to the heavily favored Bruins, the Cavaliers showed there’s life left in a program many outside the McCue Center dismissed before the season. Virginia’s defense dominated for long stretches, sacking Heisman Trophy candidate Brett Hundley five times, and after switching quarterbacks the offense rebounded from a disastrous second quarter to finish with 386 yards — 28 more than UCLA.
“Tremendous effort,” fifth-year coach Mike London said. “As I told [the players] in the locker room, when you go toe to toe and play a good football team like that, there’s nothing to hold your head down about.”
His players echoed their coach’s comments.
“Today we learned just to keep fighting as a family,” said sophomore outside linebacker Max Valles, who had two sacks. “That’s the biggest thing we went over all offseason: to have great team unity no matter if it’s a good situation or a bad situation.”
After a scoreless first quarter, the Wahoos found themselves in a horrible situation in the second. The Bruins scored three defensive touchdowns — two on interception returns and the other on a fumble recovery — and built a 21-3 lead in a stunned stadium.
Midway through the third quarter, however, it was 21-17, and suddenly the crowd of 44,749 made up in volume what it lacked in numbers. In a turn of events no one would have predicted, backup quarterback Matt Johns replaced starter Greyson Lambert with 1:20 to play in the first half and went the rest of the way.
Johns launched the Cavaliers’ comeback in the second quarter, completing a 32-yard pass to junior wide receiver Canaan Severin and then a 29-yard TD pass to another wideout, Andre Levrone, a 6-2 redshirt freshman who used his height to good effect in the end zone.
“We tried to keep our eyes off the scoreboard and just tried to chip away at it one play at a time,” Levrone said of the offense’s mindset after its second-quarter blunders.
In the third quarter, Johns lofted a 23-yard pass to senior wideout Darius Jennings for another touchdown. Johns, a redshirt sophomore who had not attempted a pass for Virginia before Saturday, finished 13 of 22 for 154 yards and two TDs, with no interceptions.
“He did a great job,” Levrone said. “I commended him on his performance. He made plays, he played smart football. I was proud of him for his performance today.”
The decision to pull Lambert, who completed his first eight passes Saturday, came after the redshirt sophomore failed to spot UCLA linebacker Eric Kendricks in coverage. Kendricks stepped in front of a pass intended for senior tailback Khalek Shepherd and returned the interception 37 yards for the Bruins’ third defensive TD in little more than 12 minutes.
Lambert’s first interception came after he was hit from behind while passing. The ball fluttered over the head of Lambert’s target, sophomore tailback Taquan Mizzell, and into the hands of cornerback Ishmael Adams, who raced 20 yards for the game’s first points.
In his first college start, Lambert completed 16 of 23 passes for a modest 112 yards, with a long completion of 27 yards. Time and again Saturday he settled for short passes on checkdowns.
“We talked at the very beginning about execution, performance and production,” London said, “and we weren’t getting the production out of that position, and we made the switch, and obviously Matt did a very good job … He could get better as well. There’s some things that occurred he could correct, but more than that it’s about players that can perform, and he rose to the occasion when given his opportunity.”
Valles, who’s from Sicklerville, N.J., wasn’t surprised by the play of Johns, who’s from Chalfont, Pa.
“I’ve known Matt since we were in high school,” Valles said, “because we live right across the bridge [from each other] back home, from Philly to Jersey. Matt’s always been a great kid, throughout high school. He’s a great leader. Even though he’s been a backup quarterback his whole [college] career, Matt’s one of the biggest leaders in the locker room. Very positive kid. When you have to step up in a situation like that, that’s how it’s supposed to be done.”
Junior Ian Frye made both of his field-goal attempts for UVa, connecting from 35 yards with 8:35 to play the second quarter and from 27 with 6:47 left in the fourth. Frye’s second field goal made it 28-20, and the Cavaliers got the ball back less than a minute later after their defense forced a three-and-out.
A 19-yard completion from Johns to Levrone moved Virginia to the UCLA 19. Two plays later, though, the `Hoos were still at the 19, and offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild called for a pass on the third down.
Instead, Johns handed the ball off to Mizzell, who was stopped after a 2-yard gain. On fourth down, Johns’ pass for true freshman wideout Doni Dowling was broken up.
“They signaled in the [third-down] play,” Johns said. “I read the wrong line on my wristband. That is completely my fault. That’s really the bottom line: I called the wrong play, and that’s it.”
The Bruins took over on their 17 and were able to run out the clock on that possession, thanks in large part to a 35-yard completion by Hundley to receiver Jordan Payton on third-and-8 from the 19.
“It’s unfortunate,” London said of the communication breakdown on UVa’s third-down call. “You have a guy that’s been playing pretty good the whole game, and then at that time the signal goes in and he makes a mistake. It’s one that I know he wishes [he had back].
“But that game wasn’t won or lost in that situation. There were so many opportunities during the game that we had.”
Indeed, another turning point came in the second quarter, with UCLA leading 7-3. On third-and-4 from the Bruins’ 36, Lambert connected with sophomore wideout Kyle Dockins on a completion that should have given UVa a first down inside the 30. But Dockins lost the ball as he hit the turf, and safety Randall Goforth scooped it up and returned the fumble 75 yards for a TD.
Just like that, instead of driving with a chance to close to 7-6 or take a 10-7 lead, Virginia found itself trailing 14-3.
“Defensively,” London said, the Bruins “were where they needed to be, and they capitalized on our errors … you take away those errors and you have a very competitive game. We have to look at ourselves to make sure we don’t harm ourselves when it comes to making plays.”
It’s too early to say, London told reporters, who’ll start at quarterback for UVa in its next game, Sept. 6 against Richmond.
“Right now we haven’t seen the film, we haven’t talked to coaches, we haven’t gotten the grades,” London said. “We just don’t know, but we will. We’ll get it corrected and we’ll make the decisions that are best for the team.”
As a redshirt freshman last season, Johns was the Cavaliers’ holder on field goals and extra points, but he appeared in only one game at quarterback.
He came into the UCLA game “excited for Greyson,” Johns told reporters. “It was his first college start. That’s what we all dream about. I was a little surprised [to replace Lambert in the second quarter], but I couldn’t let my teammates see that, and I wasn’t going to let them see that.
“So when I was put in the game, I said, `Guys, we’re going to score here and we’re going to win.’ I thought I gave us a good opportunity, but it wasn’t good enough, and we’re going to bounce back.”
The Cavaliers have no choice but to bounce back, said senior linebacker Henry Coley, who had a team-high 14 tackles, including a career-best two sacks, and forced a fumble. If they don’t, Coley said, the performance against UCLA “was a waste. We have to build on it.”
The loss was the 10th straight for UVa, which hasn’t won since Sept. 21, 2013. But the UCLA game, Valles said, was a clear “step forward from last season, because I feel like last season if we would have seen something like that happen” — three defensive TDs by an opponent — “we would have given up early second quarter when all that was going on.”
The `Hoos, Valles said, want “to make a statement like this every game: that we don’t give up no matter what the circumstance and just keep going and keep fighting out there.”
London said: “There’s a lot of positive things to pull from this. Obviously we have to correct some things to get better, but that team in [the home locker room] is a team that wants to win, and we’ll work hard at getting it done and getting ready for our next opponent.”
NEXT WEEKEND: In the second of three consecutive home games, Virginia hosts Richmond at 3:30 p.m. Saturday at Scott Stadium.
Multiple ties connect these programs. London is a UR alumnus who, in his first season as a head coach, guided his alma mater to the NCAA’s Football Championship Subdivision national title in 2008.
The Spiders’ head coach, Danny Rocco, is a former assistant at UVa, where his colleagues on Al Groh’s staff included London. Moreover, Rocco’s top two quarterbacks, his nephew Michael Rocco and Michael Strauss, began their college careers at Virginia.
UR opened the season Saturday night with a romp over Morehead State.
UVa leads the series with Richmond 27-2-2.
INTO THE MIX: Six players made their UVa debuts Saturday, including true freshmen Doni Dowling and Quin Blanding. The others were redshirt freshmen Micah Kiser, Tyler Shirley and Andre Levrone and sophomore Wilfred Wahee.
PROMISING START: The Cavaliers’ biggest question mark coming out of training camp was their revamped offensive line, which has only two returning starters from last season. Against the Bruins, whose defensive front is considered one of the nation’s best, UVa’s O-line struggled to open holes for the running backs, but it did not allow a sack.
“I thought the offensive line did a great job,” London said. The Bruins have “[future] NFL players playing, and we were able to protect the quarterback and get the ball out. I’m particularly pleased with Mike Mooney, first time starting, and Ryan Doull on the inside.”
Johns said: “The energy and passion that our team brought was just unbelievable, and I’m so proud of our guys on our offensive line. Every time I looked at them in the eyes in the huddle, there was never a blank stare. They were like, `Let’s go. Let’s go. Let’s get this win.’
“I was really proud of all our teammates on the energy and passion that we can build off for the rest of the season.”