Cavaliers See Signs of Progress
Sept. 11, 2016
EUGENE, Ore. — As midnight neared, he waited outside the visitors’ locker room at the University of Oregon’s Autzen Stadium, shaking hands with his players and offering encouragement as they entered.
Bronco Mendenhall‘s breakthrough as Virginia’s head football coach did not come Saturday night. No. 24 Oregon, with its dazzling array of skill-position players, made sure of that. But Mendenhall came away from his second game with the Cavaliers, a 44-26 defeat, happier than after his first, a 37-20 loss to Richmond at Scott Stadium.
Mendenhall’s third game is next weekend against Connecticut in East Hartford, Conn.
Oregon deserved “credit for the win,” Mendenhall said late Saturday. “But it was a pleasure to coach my team today. I had a lot of fun watching how hard they tried, how hard they competed, and how much they wanted to take a step forward, which I think they did.
“Our execution still has a ways to go, and mistakes can be eliminated, but it has to start with the mindset of coming to play and coming to play an entire game, and we did. I can live with the things that have to be improved when kids try that hard and they’re having that much fun and they’re supporting each other the way they were. That was the makings of a football team today, and that was a completely different feeling than I had a week ago as a starting point.”
In the opener, the Cavaliers’ resolve waned in the face of adversity. Not so Saturday night, even after the Ducks (2-0) scored 24 unanswered points to take a 30-6 lead into halftime.
“We fought all the way to the very end this week, no matter what the score was,” quarterback Kurt Benkert said. “We didn’t get down on the sideline, no matter what happened in the game, and we were rooting on our teammates all the way to the end.”
The Wahoos were far from flawless Saturday night. To wit:
* Kicker Dylan Sims was tackled well shy of a first down on a fake field goal in the first quarter and later missed an extra-point attempt after the Cavaliers’ first touchdown.
* Oregon sacked Benkert six times, and he threw two interceptions.
* Missed tackles and poor angles continue to be an issue for the inexperienced UVA defense, which allowed 632 yards Saturday and was prone to breakdowns in third-and-long situations. One of the Ducks’ touchdowns covered 77 yards, another 85 yards.
* Virginia was called for 10 penalties, several of them 15-yarders for ill-advised aggression after the whistle.
“There’s missed opportunities everywhere,” Mendenhall said. “They’re easy to see, and there’s so many that we can fix. But it’s going to be sequential. I would love to tell you all it’s going to happen next week. I would love to say that. But it’s going to continue to be better next week than it was this week, and it was better this week than it was last week … That’s my job, to help us continue to get better, and eventually it will look like really good football, and it’ll stay that way for a long time.”
A week after netting only 38 yards rushing against Richmond, UVA asserted itself on the ground in Eugene. Led by senior Albert Reid, who ran for a career-best 126 yards and one TD, the `Hoos totaled 193 yards rushing.
“To have our running back group come through the way they did, I was really excited to see them be more of who we’ve seen in spring and fall camp,” offensive coordinator Robert Anae said.
Reid, who transferred to UVA after graduating from Maryland in 2015, is the “epitome of what I want this team to look like,” Mendenhall said. “He ran hard, he ran physical, he made the right cuts, he wanted the ball more, he was knocking guys over, and he became someone we could rely on throughout the course of the game.”
Reid said: “I was embarrassed last week, so I knew something had to change, and [the running backs] practiced like that all week. We practiced like it had to change. We had to run the ball better … I just wanted to lay it all on the line for my teammates, no matter what. I wanted to fight the whole game.”
Another running back, sophomore Jordan Ellis, missed the UR game with an injury. He made his debut Saturday night and finished with 46 yards on six carries. Ellis also distinguished himself in pass protection.
“He’s really good downhill with the ball on handoffs,” Anae said. “He’s really decisive. He hits the hole, and he’s a tough, physical kid. Also, when we’re throwing it and we need that back to step up to a defensive end, he gives us an opportunity. I’m not saying tonight he was great, but more times than not he was. That’s our starting point, with being physical and decisive.”
Benkert’s efficiency dipped from the opener, but he was facing a much faster defense Saturday night. Against Oregon, Benkert completed 20 of 39 passes for 193 yards and two touchdowns, both in the second half. The first was a 6-yarder to redshirt freshman wide receiver Warren Craft, the second a 6-yard to senior wideout Keeon Johnson.
“As the game went on, I feel like as an entire team we gained confidence,” Benkert said. “We played a really good opponent tonight — hats off to them — and we’re really looking forward to next week already.”
UVA receivers dropped at least a half-dozen passes Saturday night, but Benkert blamed himself for those misses.
“I gotta put the ball in a better spot,” he said. “A lot of them tonight I was just a little bit off. It wasn’t my best night passing by any means. I’ve got to give [receivers] the best chance to succeed. There were throws out there that I make routinely pretty often, and I didn’t make those tonight.”
Even so, Anae said he was encouraged to see “who we’re becoming” on offense. He wasn’t happy to see Benkert sacked six times, but those breakdowns came on plays when Virginia was looking to connect on deep balls.
“It was when we were pushing the envelope,” Anae said. “We’ve got to be better, but we did not come here just to play this game. We came here to win this game. We were behind all night, and we looked for chances along the way to strike for the end zone, and it backfired. But as far as who we’re becoming, we’re going to take shots down the field, because I believe that’s something our quarterback does well.”
Reid said: “We’re still trying to run the offense faster, still trying to execute while we’re running the offense faster. We had a lot of plays that we missed, dropped balls and things like that. We had plays that we could have made today, and we’ve just got to make those plays next week.”
The `Hoos have much more work to do on defense. Against Oregon, their starting cornerbacks were sophomores Myles Robinson and Juan Thornhill, neither of whom played more than a few snaps from scrimmage in 2015, and the rotation at defensive end included redshirt freshmen Eli Hanback and Steven Wright. True freshman Jordan Mack (two tackles for loss) played extensively at outside linebacker, and classmate Bryce Hall saw time at cornerback.
In a game televised by ESPN, the Cavaliers struggled to contain such game-breaking talents as tailback Royce Freeman (21 carries for 207 yards and two TDs) and wideout Devon Allen (four catches for 141 yards and one TD), an Olympic hurdler. Allen scored on a 77-yard pass play midway through the third quarter, and Freeman ran 85 yards for another TD about three minutes later.
“We’re probably not going to see any faster people than [the Ducks],” said inside linebacker Micah Kiser, a redshirt junior who, along with junior safety Quin Blanding, led Virginia with nine tackles.
“Bryce Hall came up and made the nice play at the end of the game. Juan made a great play at the end of the game. They didn’t quit, they kept fighting, and we stayed together. I liked what I saw out of them.”
Against a team as a fast as Oregon, a defense has little room for error. Virginia learned that lesson repeatedly Saturday night.
“Our execution isn’t quite there yet,” Robinson said.
Mendenhall said: “Any time the ball was run [by Oregon] through the line of scrimmage, there’s a gap that wasn’t being handled. So that’s an assignment mistake on our part. But there were plenty of times where [the defense] looked pretty good, and the guy broke tackles.
“So, they had good players, and they outran us a few times in terms of coverage, where we need to learn to play with better leverage and better discipline, keeping the ball in front of us and matching the situation. So it’s a combination: It’s execution, and the type of players Oregon has. But it’s all correctable. That’s the good news.”
Through two games, the Cavaliers have yet to force a turnover, mainly because, Mendenhall said, they’re “currently not tackling physically enough or well enough, nor are we executing our coverage well enough to take the ball away. It’s just simple execution. We’re playing harder, but not necessarily more physical right now, and that’s usually how you create turnovers.”
In 2013, the Ducks came to Scott Stadium and humbled the `Hoos 59-10. The rematch was played on a gorgeous evening in Eugene, where the temperature at kickoff was 84 degrees. This game, too, resulted in an emphatic Oregon victory, but the Cavaliers were resolute afterward. They see better times coming.
“Obviously we want to get better on defense,” Kiser said. “We need to execute a lot better, but as far as the culture, I think we made a step forward today.”
NEXT UP: Virginia (0-2) plays on the road for the second week in a row, this time against Connecticut (1-1). The Cavaliers meet the Huskies at 1:30 p.m. Saturday in East Hartford, Conn.
UConn’s head coach is former UVA assistant Bob Diaco. His staff includes three other former Virginia assistants: Anthony Poindexter, Vincent Brown and Wayne Lineburg. Poindexter and Lineburg also are former UVA players.
The Huskies lost 28-24 to Navy yesterday in Annapolis, Md.