By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — In the center of the crowded home locker room at Scott Stadium, surrounded by smiling players, UVa head coach Mike London turned to Eli Harold.
“What was it?” London asked the junior defensive end.
“Three fifty,” Harold answered.
“Three hundred and fifty days,” London told the rest of the team, which probably didn’t need a reminder.
With a 45-13 rout of Richmond, Virginia ended nearly a year of frustration. The victory snapped a 10-game losing streak for the Cavaliers, who hadn’t won since shutting out VMI at Scott Stadium last September.
“It just feels good to get that taste out of your mouth,” Harold told reporters.
This wasn’t a win over a Football Bowl Subdivision opponent. For UVa, which has dropped 11 in a row to FBS foes, that quest resumes next Saturday afternoon, when No. 25 Louisville visits Scott Stadium for the first ACC game between these teams.
Still, UR is expected to contend for the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs, and Virginia (1-1) had reason to celebrate Saturday after an emphatic victory in which numerous players distinguished themselves.
“It’s short-lived, because you know we got Louisville coming in next Saturday,” London said, “but it’s a good feeling to have. Hadn’t had this feeling in a long time. We’ll learn from some of the mistakes we made and improve this football team, but I’m very pleased with the effort and look forward to competing and moving on again.”
Sophomore Greyson Lambert made his second straight start at quarterback for UVa, but classmate Matt Johns also played extensively. That was the coaching staff’s plan heading into the game, and it may well continue.
“I can live with anybody that helps us win, anybody, anything that helps us win,” London said, smiling. “We’ll practice and get ready for Louisville and put the best players in and the best people in position to help us win.”
Lambert, who had two interceptions returned for touchdowns last weekend in a 28-20 loss to then-No. 7 UCLA, was much sharper against Richmond. He completed 13 of 15 passes for 102 yards and one TD — a 29-yard strike to wide receiver Canaan Severin — and wasn’t intercepted.
“You just want to help the team, and last week I didn’t feel like I helped the team,” Lambert said.
He knew, however, that he couldn’t afford to dwell on his opening-game mistakes. “It is easier said than done, but it has to be done,” Lambert said. “You have to put that stuff behind you and just keep playing the next play.”
Johns, who threw two TD passes in the opener, was 4 for 7 for 65 yards against Richmond. He threw one interception but also teamed with Severin on a 4-yard touchdown pass.
Midway through the second quarter, Johns took over for Lambert, who remained on the sideline until the final minute of the third quarter. With the score 38-13, Lambert gave way to UVa’s No. 3 quarterback, junior David Watford, about four minutes into the final quarter.
Johns said neither he nor Lambert entered the game knowing exactly how the rotation would work.
“We kind of let the coaches handle that,” Johns said. “When they called on us both, we were both ready, and we’ll take it from there … I think the coaches did a good job of putting us in when they felt was a good time. We both got touchdown passes, and today we won. That’s all that matters.”
The Wahoos weren’t perfect Saturday. UR (1-1), led by senior quarterback Michael Strauss, totaled 432 yards, to 330 for UVa. But Virginia’s defense sacked Strauss four times and forced seven turnovers, including a fumble that Harold returned 22 yards for a third-quarter touchdown.
“A lot of big plays made on defense today,” London said.
True freshman safety Quin Blanding, senior linebacker Daquan Romero and sophomore cornerback Tim Harris each intercepted a pass for the `Hoos. Romero finished with a team-high 12 tackles, and senior middle linebacker Henry Coley added eight, the most memorable of which caused a fumble near the goal line that senior cornerback Brandon Phelps recovered to keep Richmond from cutting into Virginia’s 14-3 lead.
“Seven turnovers: That’s a great day,” said sophomore linebacker Max Valles, whose sack caused the fumble that Harold ran back for a TD and who in the second quarter pounced on a fumble caused by a Harold sack.
UR head coach Danny Rocco came away impressed with a UVa defense that’s in its second season under coordinator Jon Tenuta.
“I think they’ve got some real confidence and swagger there,” said Rocco, a former Virginia assistant. “Their defense dominated the tempo of the day, even though we had statistics offensively. That’s a pretty impressive front they’ve got there.”
Each team went into the game planning to use two quarterbacks, with the twist that every one of the four is a current or former Cavalier. Richmond’s top two QBs — Strauss and Michael Rocco (Danny Rocco’s nephew) — began their college careers at Virginia.
“After the game, I hugged both of them, told them I loved them and wished them luck, along with Coach Rocco,” London said. “We’re very good friends.”
Strauss completed 24 of 36 passes for 266 yards, with two interceptions. Rocco was 5-for-11 passing for 97 yards, with one interception, and he ran 6 yards for the Spiders’ only touchdown after eluding the rush of Harold.
“Those are two good guys on the other side of the ball, Michael Strauss and Michael Rocco,” Johns said. “It’s always fun beating up on people you know, but that’s football, and we’re just happy that we got the win. We’re not really worried about who’s on the other sideline.”
Severin, a 6-2, 210-pound junior, came into the year with six career receptions for 46 yards and no touchdowns. Through two games, he already has seven catches for 88 yards and two scores.
“It’s good to see him have success, because we’re going to need him,” London said. “We’re going to need those size receivers to go up and make things happen.”
Another wideout, Darius Jennings, isn’t as big as Severin, but the 5-11, 175-pound senior has helped elevate a receiving corps plagued by breakdowns in recent years. Jennings has seven receptions for a team-high 118 yards and one TD this season, and he contributed four catches for 79 yards Saturday.
“He’s been very consistent since spring, and he’s just making plays consistently, and that’s something that this whole team’s trying to do,” Lambert said. “And you can see Darius doing that week in, week out, and he’s really a reliable target.”
The difference for Jennings this season?
“I really can’t tell you the answer to that,” he said. “I think I’m a little more healthy than I was last year, and just our work ethic [is better]. Not just myself, but as our receiving corps in general, we push ourselves. I push the group and the group pushes me right back, just to get better each day. We compete.”
In the running game, UVa had no gains longer than 13 yards Saturday but averaged 3.9 yards per carry. Three tailbacks — senior Kevin Parks, sophomore Taquan Mizzell and redshirt freshman Daniel Hamm — each rushed for a touchdown against a UR defense that faded as the game progressed.
“I liked the effort,” London said. “Richmond played well. They were flying around first quarter, second quarter, but our guys just hung in there. We just wanted to run the ball, wanted to try to control the line of scrimmage, take our shots when we had a chance, and then play good defense. I was pleased with that today.”
He wasn’t as pleased with the Spiders’ success at moving the football. UR piled up 21 first downs and gained 74 more yards on UVa’s defense than UCLA and its heralded quarterback, Brett Hundley, had a week earlier at Scott Stadium.
“Both Mikes did a good job finding their open receivers, and they performed well,” London said. “So again, there’s room for improvement, but overall, seven turnovers and a lot of aggressive play was a positive for us.
“We’ll go back and look at the negatives, and that’s one of them. Louisville is a team that has a lot of great skill players, and we’ll have definitely have to shore up what we’re doing from that aspect.”
Coley said: “The pass rush wasn’t always getting there, because of how fast they were getting the ball out. We had seven turnovers, but that’s still not good enough. We have to do better.”
After the game, Coley said, he had mixed emotions.
“I’m pleased that we got it off our back, that monkey that’s been on our back for 10 games, and I hope this gets the ball rolling on a number of wins,” he said. “But it was bittersweet, because we still gave up 300 and some passing yards. We bent a lot more than I thought we should. We can’t bend like this against a better team.”
INTO THE FRAY: Four players made their UVa debuts Saturday: true freshmen Andrew Brown (defensive tackle) and Jamil Kamara (wideout) and redshirt freshmen Jack English (offensive tackle) and Kirk Garner (cornerback).
Kamara caught one pass (for 6 yards), and Brown made a tackle against UR.
Four true freshmen have played for the Cavaliers this season: Brown, Kamara, Blanding and wideout Doni Dowling.
Blanding had seven tackles and two pass breakups Saturday, along with his first college interception. Dowling caught two passes for 20 yards.
MANY HAPPY RETURNS: In 2013, UVa averaged only 18.6 yards per kickoff return, which ranked 110th nationally. Against UR, Virginia averaged 50 yards on its four kickoff returns.
“Again, we’re a work in progress,” London said, “but it’s good to see these guys have success and know that if you make your blocks, if you do your assignments, if you execute, you have a chance to be successful, and that happened a couple times today.”
Mizzell had a career-long 39-yard kickoff return and another for 31 yards, and Jennings picked up 130 yards on his two returns. The first went for 44 yards, then the longest return of Jennings’ college career. On the second he gained 86 yards before being tackled at the Spiders’ 13.
“I can’t really tell you what I saw during the play,” Jennings said. “I don’t really remember. But I think I made one too many cuts. I was trying to let my blockers set up for me, but sometimes I just need to trust my speed and go take it to the house.”
UP NEXT: UVa (1-1) closes a three-game homestand by hosting ACC newcomer Louisville (2-0) at 12:30 p.m. next Saturday. The game will be televised on the ACC Network.
The Cardinals, ranked No. 25 in the latest Associated Press poll, opened the season by thumping Miami 31-13 on Sept. 1. Louisville crushed Murray State 66-21 on Saturday night.
Louisville replaced Maryland as the opponent from the ACC’s Atlantic Division that UVa, which competes in the Coastal Division, will play every year.
The `Hoos and the Cardinals have met only twice in football. Virginia lost 30-28 at Louisville in 1988 and won 16-15 at Scott Stadium the next year.