Growing Pains Evident in Opener
Sept. 4, 2016
CHARLOTTESVILLE — For a University of Virginia football program that has had two winning seasons over the past decade, a quick fix is unlikely. That became painfully apparent Saturday at Scott Stadium, where FCS power Richmond, in emphatic fashion, spoiled Bronco Mendenhall‘s debut as UVA’s head coach.
UR, whose head coach is former UVA assistant Danny Rocco, amassed 524 yards in its 37-20 victory. Before Saturday, Virginia had never given up more than 19 points to the Spiders, who ended a 10-game losing streak in the series.
“They came out and they were more physical than us,” said linebacker Micah Kiser, who led UVA with 9.5 tackles, “and quite frankly they were better than us, and they deserved to win.”
Mendenhall said as much in his postgame press conference.
“They clearly played the better game today,” he said. “I was impressed with their execution, I was impressed with their coaching, and I was impressed with their level of preparation.”
The Spiders, who returned 16 starters from a team that reached the FCS semifinals last season, showed “they know how to win,” Mendenhall said.
“In regards to our team, I have a clear reference point now of where we’re starting from, and I think teams play as they’re prepared to play. And so my responsibility is to have a team that performs more cleanly and at a higher level than we did today, and that’s what I need to do. This is a really clear indicator of the amount of work that lies ahead.”
Of the Cavaliers’ 302 yards, only 38 came on the ground. Running back Albert Reid carried six times for a team-high 28 yards. Taquan Mizzell, Virginia’s leading rusher last season, netted seven yards on seven carries. (Another UVA running back, Jordan Ellis, missed the game with an injury suffered in practice last week.)
“Nobody came here with that in mind,” offensive coordinator Robert Anae said of the running-game woes, “but that is where we are, and that is the brutal fact that we are facing.”
Mizzell, a senior, lost two fumbles Saturday, the first at the UR 5-yard line late in the first quarter. The Spiders responded with a 95-yard touchdown drive that pushed their lead to 13-0.
“It’s a momentum-killer for us,” Virginia linebacker Zach Bradshaw said, “especially when we’re in the game and we have an opportunity to get on the board for the first time to take the lead. The fumble’s unfortunate. There’s nothing we can do about that, and as a defense we need to just go out there and play like we would any other drive: make the stop and get the ball back to the offense, which we didn’t do.”
After the game’s opening series ended with a Richmond field goal, Virginia senior Connor Wingo-Reeves fielded a short kickoff and then, carrying the ball in one arm, fumbled on his return. The Spiders recovered and then drove for another field goal.
Virginia’s offense didn’t take the field until the 6:40 mark of the first quarter, and Mizzell’s turnover marred that series. He lost another fumble on the final play of the third quarter, with the Wahoos trailing 23-7. UVA’s other turnover came on a third-down interception thrown by quarterback Kurt Benkert.
“The biggest area that we’ve got to focus on from here going forward is to be able to secure the ball,” Anae said. “In a tough game like this where every possession counts, the ball-security issues, and there were four of them, really did jeopardize and hurt the team.
“We failed today as players and as coaches to secure the football, and that influenced the outcome of this game.”
The primary positive for Virginia, which plays Saturday night at No. 24 Oregon (1-0), was the play of Benkert, a 6-4, 230-pound transfer from East Carolina. In his first college start, Benkert completed 26 of 34 passes for 264 yards and three touchdowns.
“I thought that Kurt Benkert looked sharp for many stretches during the game, in terms of his delivery and decision-making,” Mendenhall said.
Even so, Benkert said, “You can’t win a game having four turnovers, and I was a part of that problem.”
Mendenhall said: “My job is to make sure there are as few surprises as possible, so that caught me off guard a little bit that we would have ball-security issues, and our run game wasn’t as effective as what I had hoped. Defensively, we didn’t execute well the entire day, did not play physical and didn’t play well — not only on first down, but on third down.”
Richmond didn’t punt until early in the third quarter. The Spiders were 10 for 17 on third-down conversions against a UVA defense that lost outside linebacker Cory Jones and cornerback Juan Thornhill to injuries during the game. Another player who earned a spot in the rotation during training camp, outside linebacker Malcolm Cook, is sidelined for medical reasons.
With Jones and Cook out, outside linebacker Jordan Mack was used extensively Saturday. One of five true freshmen to play for the `Hoos, Mack had two tackles.
“It happens fast out there,” Kiser said. “He’s going to get better. He’s a true freshman. He played hard, he played tough, so we’ll see.”
Mendenhall, who also serves as the Cavaliers’ defensive coordinator, said he probably installed more schemes than his players could grasp. He needs “to look hard at what they’re capable of and to give them their best chance to help our team win,” Mendenhall said. “And again, that’s my responsibility.”
Against a talented UR offense led by quarterback Kyle Lauletta, the Cavaliers often looked tentative and struggled to anticipate plays.
“When that happens and the players aren’t playing as fast as expected,” Mendenhall said, “it usually is on the teacher for giving too much material.”
Lauletta completed 24 of 35 passes for 337 yards and two touchdowns. Virginia sacked him only twice.
In general, Mendenhall said, the Cavaliers’ execution on defense “wasn’t close to what I’m accustomed to, used to, or what I expect. And again, that’s reflective of the teacher. And so my job is to give them things they can do, will do, and find players on our team that have the best chance to do it. I don’t think we did any of those things today, and that’s on the head coach.”
Richmond asserted itself immediately Saturday, gaining 17, 18, 9 and 15 yards on the game’s first four plays. The Spiders had possession for 10:49 of the opening quarter.
“They’re a really good football team, but still,” said Bradshaw, a senior. “We just did not perform to the level we had been preparing for the past few months. It’s really unfortunate, but we’re going to learn from our mistakes and keep pushing forward.”
The first touchdown pass of Benkert’s college career was a 20-yard strike to junior wide receiver Doni Dowling early in the second quarter. Dowling later suffered an injury, though, and he watched the second half from the sideline, with his arm in a sling.
Sophomore wideout Olamide Zaccheaus, held out in the first half for an undisclosed violation of team rules, had a significant impact when he finally took the field. He caught a 25-yard TD pass from Benkert with 4:16 remaining and finished with five receptions for a team-high 75 yards.
His suspension was “a humbling experience,” Zaccheaus said, “and I’ve just got to learn from it.”
Benkert’s final TD pass, a 15-yarder, went to senior wideout Keeon Johnson, who leaped to make the catch in the back of the end zone with 1:38 to play. By then, only a smattering of UVA fans remained from a crowd of 49,270.
On the Virginia sideline, All-ACC safety Quin Blanding exhorted his teammates in the waning moments, imploring them to keep battling. The Cavaliers finished 4-8 last season, though, and too often Mendenhall noticed a here-we-go-again mentality setting in among his players.
“I think they want to be resilient and I think they want to believe and have new habits,” Mendenhall said. “But there is some history, and so there was some reversion to that today … But again, my job is to help them build great habits, and when things don’t go as well as what you’d hoped and don’t go according to plan, that’s usually when some of that reversion comes back, and I pointed that out to them a number of times. But that’s where we currently are and this is where we are launching from and I have clearer feedback now.”
So do Virginia’s players, who admitted they were stunned by Richmond’s dominance Saturday.
“As hard as it is,” Bradshaw said, “it’s Week 1, and we’ve got to stay positive. We’ve still got 11 games to go, and we’re just going to work as hard as we can for each other and for these coaches.”