By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Five games into the season, the UVa football team already has surpassed its 2013 victory total.
As achievements go, that’s a modest one. The Cavaliers, after all, finished 2-10 last season. Still, there have been unmistakable signs of progress from head coach Mike London’s fifth team at Virginia, and more were evident Saturday at Scott Stadium.
After a lethargic first half, the Wahoos dominated the final two quarters and blew out winless Kent State 45-13 to improve their record to 3-2.
“Last year we were sitting at 2-3 right now,” said senior tailback Kevin Parks, who scored two touchdowns Saturday. “We’re better than last year. Our main thing is just getting better each and every week and going out there and producing and finding ways to win.”
For the second straight Saturday, UVa’s offense totaled more than 500 yards. The Cavaliers gained 519 last weekend in a 41-33 loss to unbeaten BYU. They totaled 520 on Saturday against the Golden Flashes (0-4).
Virginia, wearing throwback uniforms, also forced five turnovers Saturday, including a first-quarter interception that junior cornerback Maurice Canady returned 69 yards for a touchdown.
“Every win, every plus play, every turnover, every touchdown, every third-down conversion for us is something we just want more and more of,” London said.
His team’s focus since the start of the season, London said, has been “on the next rung in the ladder. Kent State was this one, and now the next is Pittsburgh.”
At 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Virginia, 1-0 in the ACC, hosts Coastal Division foe Pitt (3-2, 1-0) at Scott Stadium. The crowd for the Kent State game numbered only 33,526, and the `Hoos hope to do much better next weekend.
Defensive end Eli Harold, who had two sacks against Kent State, noticed the empty seats and appealed to fans after the game.
“I really hope they come out and support and really cheer us on so we can get the victory,” Harold said.
London said his “players feed off the energy that people that come to the game provide. It’s very noticeable, and next Saturday’s a big game for us, and we hope everybody has a chance to come out.”
In its final non-conference game, UVa played without its No. 1 quarterback, sophomore Greyson Lambert, who sprained an ankle against BYU. The `Hoos hope to have Lambert back for the Pitt game, but he wasn’t needed against Kent State.
Classmate Matt Johns, in his first start, completed 17 of 28 passes for a career-high 227 yards and two touchdowns, and he kept the Golden Flashes off-balance with his running ability. Johns also threw two ugly interceptions, so he wasn’t flawless.
“I don’t get very nervous, but today I definitely was a little nervous,” Johns said. “It’s football. It was more anxiousness. I was excited. It was my first college start. We started off slow, but I’m glad we came out in the second half strong.”
Junior Mike Moore, an anchor on the Cavaliers’ defensive line, left the game early to protect an injured ankle, and classmate Kwontie Moore (no relation) played well in his stead, forcing a fumble in the third quarter that linebacker Daquan Romero recovered and returned to the Kent State 19.
Four plays later, Parks bulled his way into the end zone on second-and-goal from the 4, and Ian Frye’s extra point made it 24-10. The rout was on.
“It was good to see Kwontie in there,” London said. “He made some things happen.”
The sight of Demetrious Nicholson back on the field was even more pleasing for the `Hoos. Nicholson, a senior cornerback, had not played since Oct. 5, 2013, when he hurt his left toe against Ball State. After holding up well in practice last week, Nicholson was cleared to play against Kent State, and he made his team-leading 31st career start.
“We’ve been happy all week for him,” sophomore Taquan Mizzell said. “When I first saw him at practice, I got goose bumps just watching him back out there, I was so happy for him.”
“I was jittery before the game,” Nicholson said, smiling. “I didn’t know what to expect from myself or my foot, but my adrenaline kicked in, and after the first series I kind of went back to what I knew and went off my experience out there.”
The Golden Flashes challenged Nicholson on the first play from scrimmage, and quarterback Colin Reardon hit wide receiver Chris Humphrey for a 16-yard gain. But Nicholson grew more confident as the game went on, and he made a pivotal play in the final minute of the first half, wrestling the ball away from Humphrey in the end zone for a pick that could have been ruled a touchdown.
“I thought it was an interception — no ifs, ands or buts,” London said.
The officials weren’t so sure, though, and they reviewed videotape of the play before issuing a final ruling. Their decision sent Virginia into intermission leading 14-10 instead of trailing 17-14.
“It was definitely momentum,” Johns said.
Still, the Cavaliers weren’t a happy group at the break. On defense, they had allowed 260 yards. On offense, they’d gained only 210 and had turned the ball over twice.
In the locker room at halftime, UVa’s upperclassmen stepped forward and spoke up, among them Coley and senior wideout Darius Jennings.
“Guys were just lifting each other up,” senior tailback Khalek Shepherd said after the game. “There was no negativity. Everybody was positive, giving pats on the back, giving words of encouragement. And that’s all you need. When things aren’t going your way, the worst thing you can do is start turning [on each other] and being negative.”
At his locker, Parks remembered the advice of academic advisor Natalie Fitzgerald: Let things come to you. Just go out there and have fun.
“Stay positive and have fun,” Parks said. “I was telling guys to stay positive and have fun. That’s what the game’s about: having fun.”
The `Hoos had great fun in the second half, piling up 31 points and 310 yards and limiting the Golden Flashes to a field goal.
“We flipped the switch,” said Blanding, a true freshman who made a career-best 13 tackles. “We came out in the first half sluggish, and we knew we had to pick it up.”
Johns said: “We needed to erase the first half from our minds, and we came out in the second half and we did. We erased the first half. It was a good testament to the character of our team.”
Frye, a junior, opened the second-half scoring with a 22-yard field goal, and his extra point after Mizzell’s 2-yard touchdown run stretched the Cavaliers’ lead to 45-10 in the fourth quarter.
“We’ve talked about the standards of how we want to execute and how we want to perform and how we want to produce,” London said. “It’s one thing to talk about it, but you have to be about it.
“You can get riled up and run out of the smoke and do all those things, but you gotta play. And [the opponent] is going to play hard too. You gotta play harder. It was the type of effort that they talked about giving that showed itself in the second half there.”
Shepherd said: “Every week our goal is to get better. We started out kind of slow, but just this team, with this unity that we built, we just keep going and support each other.”
DUAL THREAT: A week after Lambert ran for a 37-yard gain against BYU, Johns topped that with his 42-yard scramble against Kent State.
He finished with a game-high 65 yards on five carries, one of which produced a 1-yard touchdown run late in the third quarter.
“He’s deceptively fast, with his [long] strides,” Parks said of the 6-5, 210-pound Johns. “In the summer, you should see when we run 100-yard striders, he’s down there before everybody. His stride is crazy.”
Parks said Johns has a little Johnny Manziel in him.
“He goes out there and makes magic,” Parks said, smiling.
MOMENTUM-CHANGER: Leading 7-0 in the first quarter, Kent State was well across midfield when Reardon threw toward the right sideline. The ball never reached its target. Canady stepped in front of receiver Josh Boyle, intercepted the pass and then showed off his speed.
Canady had to slow up to avoid the attempted tackle of Reardon, but moments later he was in the end zone. The interception return for a touchdown was the first by a Cavalier since Chase Minnifield’s 54-yarder against Duke in 2011.
“That was a big play. He looked like Prime Time out there, going down the sideline,” Parks said, comparing Canady to the legendary Deion Sanders.
“He’s one of the fastest guys on the team. That was a big energy booster. We needed that, and things got going after that.”
EXTRA POINTS: Frye has never played in a football game without his father, Mark, watching from the stands, and that streak was extended Saturday.
The elder Frye, who suffered a heart attack at BYU’s LaVell Edwards Stadium during the game last Saturday, was released from the hospital in Provo, Utah, on Wednesday. At Scott Stadium, Mark Frye sat in a shaded area Saturday and watched his son score nine points.
For the season, Ian Frye is 11 for 12 on field goals and 19 for 19 on PATs.
UP NEXT: In a Coastal Division clash, UVa (3-2, 1-0) hosts Pittsburgh (3-2, 1-0) at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Scott Stadium.
Pitt, which won its first three games this season, fell at home Saturday to Akron, 21-10. The Panthers opened ACC play Sept. 5 by winning 30-20 at Boston College.
In 2013, their first season in the ACC, the Panthers defeated Virginia 14-3 in Pittsburgh.
In that game, UVa held Pitt tailback James Conner to 27 yards on 15 carries. Now a sophomore, Conner leads the ACC in rushing (158.2 yards per game).